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Top Stories of 2023

"From the time this project was greenlit until the day we launched, adversity stared us down" The FIFTY's year-long journey to spotlight the world's most inspiring athletes

6 months ago

Latest Post Anthony Kim by Matt Keyser public

It started with an ambitious idea.

Fifty athletes.

Fifty-two weeks.

Could a small team of scrappy writers pull it off?

I was thrilled the moment I first learned of the project aptly named The FIFTY. The plan: Profile 50 of the most interesting athletes in the world through beautifully written long-form stories accompanied by stellar photography. To me, it feels like diving back into the pages of Sports Illustrated back in its heyday.

Unlike SI, however, the profiles in The FIFTY don’t feature those athletes who make front-page headlines every day. No, you won’t read about the Lebron Jameses, the Tom Bradys, or the Tiger Woodses here. Instead, you’ll find immersive stories about athletes from an array of sports whose stories inspire and uplift, or whose journeys can teach us more about the world around us.

Take Noelle Lambert, for example, who was a Division I star in lacrosse before a moped accident took her left leg. The injury could have ended her career; instead, she came back stronger than ever. 

There’s Chris Nikic, the first man with Down Syndrome to complete an Ironman Triathlon — a 2.1-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run — who’s now using his platform to help other neurodivergent athletes nationwide be the best version of themselves.

There’s Tori Sullivan, who bravely shared her story as a sexual assault survivor, and whose journey back from the abyss begins by conquering one day at a time.

While we watch these athletes on TV and cheer for them, what’s striking about reading these profiles is taking a glimpse into their lives off their respective fields or tracks as they share stories of their struggles and triumphs. 

I think back to the story of Adeline Gray, an Olympic wrestler who’s dominated women’s freestyle wrestling for decades. At 29, she wanted nothing more than to have children. But how could she start a family when she was at the peak of her sport?

Fifty athletes.

Fifty-two weeks.

The clock was quickly ticking after the calendar turned to 2023.

This wasn’t an easy endeavor by any means, just ask the man leading the charge, our executive editor, Matthew Fults. “From the time this project was greenlit until the day we launched, adversity stared us down,” Fults says. “Our first story was Steve Mesler – visited with him January 15 and we launched January 30. The day we launched, his story was the only one completed. Fast forward to November, when we closed the first year with Joe Blanton. It was a whirlwind, but these stories resonate.”

We had athletes who flat-out said no (rare), athletes who didn’t return our calls and emails (common), and agents or handlers who wanted a say about every step of the editorial process (annoying).

We had weeks sprinkled in where we didn’t publish a single story. And then a mad dash of two stories a week in the final months to cross the finish line.

We also had athletes who were eager to share their stories — the joy radiating off their faces during interviews, and follow-up emails thanking us for giving them a voice. As one athlete told us, “I’m honored to be nominated. This is really cool, what you’re doing.” 

And here we are. We made it! Fifty profiles on 50 of the most interesting athletes in the world told in 52 weeks.

It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride, and we’ve learned so much in this first edition. Now, as we embark on season two, we’re ready to expand and go deeper. We’re launching a bi-weekly newsletter starting in January that will give you a behind-the-scenes look at our process: how our selection committee chooses athletes, interesting nuggets about these athletes that don’t make it into our stories, and Q&As with our writers about their reporting process. We’ll also be launching a podcast, reformatting our TV show, and taking a more creative social media approach.

This all started with an ambitious idea. 

And we’re ready to do it all again.

The FIFTY — Season 2: launching January 16.

Top 10 Stories of 2023

If you’re new to The FIFTY, here’s a great place to start. These are the top 10 stories, voted by our staff and readers.

Joe Blanton: He wore seven Major League Baseball jerseys. He won a World Series in 2008. Now, his passion project is putting a small vineyard on the map in Napa Valley.

Larry Bowa: Cut from his high school team, he turned one chance into a 60-year career in pro baseball. And he has a lot to say about all of it.

Hilary Baude + Matt Cavanaugh: Separate journeys brought them together for a common goal. Today, Matt and Hilary aim to prove that living donors make a difference.

Camille Conrad: An uneven home life didn't prevent her from achieving. But it almost derailed her from a sense of self.

Cyrus Gray: Born into civil unrest and an uncertain future, this Olympian keeps punching through barriers.

Noelle Lambert: A burgeoning lacrosse star, a tragic accident and the comeback of a lifetime. One athlete's dance with fate.

Tara Llanes: How a life-altering accident led this mountain biking phenom to dominate two more sports. And she's still going.

Steve Mesler: How an All-SEC track star earned Olympic gold, endured heartache, and emerged on top.

Chris Nikic: He decided Down syndrome wouldn't define him. Instead, he chose to write his own story and became an inspiration, one hug at a time.

Sara Kohrogi: A family legacy tied to baseball royalty. A pursuit to honor someone she never met. How this Japanese-American surfer aims to bring her family’s history full circle.

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Matt Keyser

Published 6 months ago