Take a minute to think about some of the most renowned sportsmen and women of past and present. They may have competed in different sports, been different characters and sat at different points on the success barometer but many are linked by a particular similarity. They reached the summit by doing things a little differently; having certain natural yet unconventional methods and techniques to help get them to the top. Here are just some of the most unconventional athletes we have seen in sport.
To put it simply, Usain Bolt does not look like a sprinter. Probably the greatest athlete that has ever lived, who has 9 sprint Gold medals and the 100m and 200m world records to name but a few of his achievements, has always stood out from his opponents not just because of his speed but due to his physique and running style. At 6’5 Bolt is one of the tallest athletes in the history of sprinting. Although a top sprinter does take longer and more powerful strides, at such a height he shouldn’t be able to accelerate at the speed he does. He is often cited as being a better 200m runner because he isn’t able to execute the quick steps needed at the beginning of the 100m to accelerate – yet it doesn’t matter. With his light and relaxed movement he is unstoppable once he reaches full speed, with a longer stride which sees him finishing in about three or four fewer steps than his rivals. Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics Bolt has won every race he's entered at a World Championship or the Olympics, bar one where he was disqualified for a false start. It is this almost freakish sprinting style never before seen in track athletics that has allowed him to be so dominant for so long.
It is unlikely that anyone will take Jonny Wilkinson’s title as England’s, and arguably the Northern Hemisphere’s, greatest ever fly-half. The man who kicked that famous World Cup winning drop goal in 2003 was the ultimate number 10 during a stellar career for Newcastle Falcons, Toulon, England and the British and Irish Lions that saw him score over 5,000 points. His kicking was defined not just by how consistently brilliant it was from almost anywhere on the pitch but for the iconic ritual Wilkinson followed religiously before striking the ball off the tee. After a couple of carefully measured sideway steps he would lower his body into a semi-squat position with his hands cusped together for several long seconds, frozen in a state of pure focus and oblivious to the many eyes expectantly watching and the pressure that was so often heavy upon his shoulders. A kicking perfectionist described by Sir Clive Woodward as one of the hardest trainers the sport has ever seen, Wilkinson once said that he viewed his hands as being like a barrier to the madness around him, helping him to concentrate on visualising and executing his kick. The stance remains iconic and the Wilkinson legend firmly established in rugby folklore.
As Andy Roddick was first beginning to make waves in men’s tennis, many coaches and commentators claimed that his distinctive service action was dangerous and would end up ruining his shoulder and ending his career. Yet Roddick ignored such comments and is now remembered as having one of the best serves the sport has seen. The 2003 US Open Champion and decade-long American number 1 had a service action never seen before. It involved a narrow-stance with his feet together, a relatively low ball toss, shortened take back and exaggerated snap through on contact. He gained enormous power by using both legs when springing into the court. It was far from graceful but immensely effective, being the major weapon in his armoury. Indeed in 2004 Roddick held the record for the men's fastest serve at 155 mph. His idol was 14-time Grand Slam Champion Pete Sampras, who himself had a stunning serve. Yet Roddick’s was even better, with more power and just as much spin. It may no longer be the fastest serve in history but it surely still stands as the most effective.
In sport, you don’t necessarily have to be pretty to be effective. Graeme Smith, the legendary South African Captain and batsman, was a shining example of that. Never has there been a batsman with such an unorthodox technique achieve so much success at the crease. Smith, who started captaining his country at just 22 years of age, was one of the most un-Test like opening batsman imaginable with his limited front-foot movement, strong bottom hand and preference for playing on the onside rather than cover driving. He would cover all three stumps before the ball was even bowled and would always bring the blade of the bat down facing to the onside, when normally batsmen turn their wrists at the point of impact. Yet Smith found ways around his limitations, retiring at the age of 33 after scoring over 9,000 Test runs at an average of over 55.00 as Captain, with 27 Test hundreds. He was an expert at working balls to the legside, aided by his admirable mental strength and determination and his ability to decode the angles of bowlers. Smith was excellent at getting inside the line of the ball to fast bowlers and was lethal if anything fell short or drifted wide, being a ferocious cutter of the ball. The technique may have been questionable but his extraordinary achievements for South Africa are certainly not.
He is no longer the force he once was but Sri Lankan Lasith Malinga will certainly go down as one cricket’s most remarkable fast bowlers. His slinging bowling action is unlike anything seen before in the game, to the extent that its legality has been questioned. He is an example of an athlete being a product of the environment they grew up in, with Malinga learning to bowl with a tennis ball on the banks of a river. His deliveries skid along the wicket, often angling in straight at the stumps. He still has probably the finest Yorker in cricket, as well as a slower ball that can outfox the world’s best. The T20 World Cup winning captain in 2014, his bowling has been perfect for ‘death bowling’ at the end of the shorter forms of the game. Indeed over half of his wickets have come in ODIs, where he has an incredible ten five-wicket hauls. Whilst he has been hampered by injury in recent years, Malinga remains a formidable bowler with a natural flair and technique that is simply not possible to teach.