In the world of sports, injuries are an everyday occurrence. In fact, the longer a person’s sports career lasts, the rarer it is for that athlete to not be sidelined by an injury. This is true in all sports – from the rough-and-tumble games like football and rugby to the seemingly “safe” sports like golf and bowling.
What’s atypical in sports? Death.
Given the protective gear worn by athletes in many types of sporting events, and the fact that almost every competition has medical personnel standing by in case of a serious injury, it’s hard to fathom someone actually dying while competing in their favorite pastime. And yet, every so often one of these athletes reminds us that he or she is not as immortal as we hold them up to be.
While every untimely death is tragic, the deaths of athletes often hit us harder because they strike individuals who are usually in their physical primes. This invariably leads to the follow-up question which we all have asked ourselves: if it can happen to them, will it happen to me as well?
Of course, many of these athletes lose their lives in off-the-field incidents. Some of them, like car crashes, drug overdoses, or even shootings, allow us to rationalize our fears a little bit. After all, we tell ourselves, since we never do (fill in deadly activity), we’re not likely to die, right?
But when the death occurs while playing the game, running the race, or battling in the match, our reasoning breaks down. Perhaps it’s because we like to dream that we are the ones scoring points, vanquishing opponents, or winning championships. But even if that were possible, would we be willing to face death to receive all that glory?
Here is a list of the top 20 athletes who have all died while competing in or preparing for a different sport.
More obvious sports like auto racing and motorcycling have been left off the list, as have all sports where participants regularly travel at speeds over 150 miles an hour. Also excluded are people whose on-the-field injuries caused their deaths days or even weeks later, like boxers perishing after spending days or weeks in a coma. In short, these 20 people died suddenly while engaging in the sport they love.
Top 20 Athletes Who Died in Action
20. Nicholas Bochatay – Speed Skiing
This sport barely makes the list because its competitors achieve speeds of over 120 miles per hour (and the world record is actually 157 mph). But like they say: it’s not the speed that kills you, it’s the sudden stop. Such was the case with Bochatay, a speed skier for Switzerland who was practicing the day before his event at the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics. The 27-year old Bochatay was reportedly coming down the mountain when he collided with a trail grooming machine. He died of severe internal injuries immediately after impact.
19. Todd Skinner – Free Climbing
Continuing with the “deadly sudden stop” theme: in October of 2006, the 47-year old Skinner was rappelling down the Leaning Tower in Yosemite National Park when he became detached from his rope and plunged 500 feet to his death. It’s the type of accident that experienced climbers consider to be fully preventable. Yet Skinner’s climbing partner said later that Skinner’s leg loops and belay loop (which attach to the climbing gear) looked about 15% to 20% frayed when they began their ascent.
18. Becky Zerlentes – Women’s Boxing
Not surprisingly, dozens of male fighters have perished as the result of one (or several) too many blows from an opponent. But Zerlentes is the first female boxer known to have died in the ring. The 34-year old college teacher was competing (with regulation headgear) in a Golden Gloves fight in Denver in 2005 when she was hit by a punch in the head from Heather Schmitz. Zerlentes, a former regional Golden Gloves champion, fell to the mat and never regained consciousness.
17. Owen Hart – Wrestling
Numerous professional wrestlers have died real deaths while competing in this so-called “fake” sport. Many of them, like Mike DiBiase, simply suffered heart attacks during a match. But the most shocking wrestling event death actually occurred during the pre-fight buildup. In May of 1999, Hart was on the card as the Blue Blazer for a pay-per-view wrestling event in Kansas City. As was common for him, the 34-year old Hart was poised to descend into the ring from above – but his shackle accidentally released from his wire and he plummeted 80 feet to the top rope. The cause of his death was blunt force trauma.
16. Derringer Cade – College Football
The most recent college football player to die on the field of play was in 1990 when Cade, a defensive player for Northwest Missouri State, collapsed during the fourth quarter of a game against Southwest Baptist and couldn’t be revived. A subsequent autopsy showed that the 20-year old Cade has idiopathic hypertropic cardiomyopathy, which thickens the walls of the heart.
15. Al Lucas – Arena Football
Lucas is the only professional football player in history to die on the field during a game. In April of 2005, Lucas was covering a kickoff for the Los Angeles Avengers during the first quarter of their game against the New York Dragons. He collided with two Dragons’ players, and the thigh and knee of one of them struck Lucas in the head. Though the blow didn’t appear to be unusual, the 26-year old, 300-pound Troy State product never got up off the Staples Center turf. Blunt force trauma to the spinal cord was later determined to have been the cause of Lucas’ death.
14. Lane Frost – Rodeo
It’s arguably the most infamous death in the history of rodeo -not only because it happened to one of the sport’s biggest stars, but also because it came from a “common” blow from a bull that wasn’t known to be “mean.” In late July of 1989, Frost was competing in the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo and had just ridden Bad to the Bone for the necessary eight seconds. He dismounted and landed on all fours in the mud, and the bull happened to turn its head and drive its horn into Frost’s ribs at the wrong angle. The 25-year old Frost actually got to his feet before collapsing face down and dying from a torn artery. His ride earned him 91 (out of a possible 100) points from the judges.
13. Wouter Weylandt – Cycling
Obviously, when you’re flying down hills at speeds of 50 miles per hour on a thin piece of metal and two skinny tires, you’re definitely at risk for a serious accident. Over 100 cyclists have died during races in the past 120 years. The most recent competitor to perish in a major race was the 36-year old Weylandt during the 2011 Giro d’Italia. During the road race’s third stage, the Belgian rider reportedly looked back over his shoulder at trailing riders as he approached a slight left bend. His foot and his bike’s pedal struck a concrete guardrail, and Weylandt careened across the road and hit another obstacle. The first doctor on the scene indicated that Weylandt had died on impact.
12. Jorge Herrera – Horse Racing
Given the huge difference between hefty racehorses and diminutive jockeys, it’s probably amazing that these types of deaths don’t happen more often. On average, about two jockeys per year lose their lives due to injuries suffered during a race. One of the most recent took place in July of 2012, when 33-year old Jorge Herrera was atop Morito in the final race of the day at a track in Pleasanton, California. Morito clicked heels with another steed, and Herrera was thrown to the ground and struck in the head by at least one horse. He was pronounced dead upon arriving at a Castro Valley hospital.
11. Alex Marquez – Soccer
Believe it or not, over a hundred professional soccer players have died on the pitch during a match over the last 125 years, although usually these deaths did not involve contact with players or goalposts. The most recent victim was Marquez, who started the match for his G.D. Tourizense side in a Portuguese third-division match against Carapinheirense in November of last year. But just seven minutes into the first half, Marquez suffered cardiac arrest and lost consciousness. The 20-year old died on the way to the hospital.
10. Hank Gathers – College Basketball
This is the entry on this list that many Americans are most likely familiar with. Gathers was an All-American player for Loyola-Marymount University, and his team was facing Portland State in the first round of the West Coast Conference postseason tournament in March of 1990. After seven minutes and 26 seconds of LMU’s high-octane attack, the Lions are already up by 12 points when Gathers suddenly collapses to the floor, never to get up. Later, it was discovered that the 23-year old Gathers had been skimping on his dosages of his Inderal because he didn’t like the side effects. Inderal is a medication that he was taking to help control an irregular heartbeat, which was discovered less than three months earlier after he collapsed at the free throw line during a game.
9. Nodar Kumaritashvili – Luge
Sliding downhill at speeds around 90 miles per hour with nothing but a thin metal sled between you and a hard sheet of ice? It seems dangerous, but only a few people have ever died on a luge at a competition. Which is why the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver caught the world off guard. The 21-year old Georgia Republic luger was on a practice run at the track in Whistler on the day of the Games’ opening ceremonies. But near the finish line, Kumaritashvili lost control, went over the wall, and slammed into a metal barrier which was unpadded. He died on the way to the hospital, and his Georgian teammates had to march into BC Place Stadium with heavy hearts.
8. Wilf Slack – Cricket
Even Westerners who don’t understand cricket can surmise that the odds of dying during a match are very low. On a very rare occasion, someone will get injured from being hit by a ball. But Slack’s death occurred during a match in Gambia, a nation in west Africa. Slack, who was borne in St. Vincent of the Windward Islands and played much of his cricket in England, had suffered some unexplained blackouts during the 1987 and 1988 seasons. The lefthanded batsman collapsed for the final time in January of 1989; a probe later found a damaged artery which had not been diagnosed by doctors.
7. Malik Joyeux – Surfing
We watch a lot of it at the beach and on TV, but professional surfing can be hazardous when competitors are trying to navigate massive waves that eventually crash down with enormous power. That’s what happened to Joyeux at a competition in Honolulu in December of 2005. At the Banzai Pipeline reef break, the popular Tahitian surfer lost speed going into a big wave and struck its lip while trying to recover. The force of the wave broke his board in two and sent the 24-year old underwater. His body was found 15 minutes later on a beach about 100 yards away.
6. Andrew “Bart” Simpson – Sailing
How can anyone be harmed in an activity that evokes images of serenity and beauty? You forget that sailing takes place in a colossal ocean with large yachts that are built for speed. As a result, even experienced sailors like Simpson are not immune from danger. In May of last year, Simpson took his 72-foot catamaran out into San Francisco Bay for a training run for the 34th Americas Cup event. The 36-year old Briton reportedly tried to turn downwind when his boat’s hull dove into the water and the craft capsized and broke into pieces. Simpson was stuck under the boat for ten minutes in the waters near Treasure Island, and he died from extensive head, neck, and chest injuries.
5. Fran Crippen – Open Water Swimming
Sure, you can’t just climb onto dry land if you get in trouble in an open water race. But how is it possible for elite athletes to drown during this type of competition? Crippen’s case illustrates precisely how that can happen. The 26-year old was swimming in a 10K event in the United Arab Emirates in October of 2010, but he never reached the finish line. Two hours after the race, his body was found underwater about 500 yards from shore. Here’s the thing: the per-race water temperature was about 87 degrees, which is dangerously warm. Swimming in it raises your body temperature, which boosts your perspiration rates, induces dehydration, and leads to fatigue. Crippen is believed to have either drowned from this fatigue or suffered cardiac arrhythmia because his heart was working too hard.
4. Gyorgy Kolonics – Canoeing
Canoeing deaths don’t just happen to kids at summer camps or amateurs on recreational lakes and streams. Kolonics was a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Hungary and was preparing to compete in his fifth Olympic games in Beijing. But in July of 2008, Kolonics was training in Budapest when he reportedly became unresponsive in his canoe and was unable to be resuscitated. Heart problems appear to be behind the death of Kolonics, who is considered to be the best canoeist ever produced by Hungary.
3. Ryan Shay – Marathon
Another man who was hoping to appear in the Beijing Olympics was the 28-year old Shay, the U.S. Olympic Marathon champion from 2003. So he went to the U.S. Olympic Trials in New York’s Central Park in November 2007 to try and earn a spot on the American team. But about 5 1/2 miles intro the race, Shay collapsed and was rushed to a hospital, where he died before the race even finished. An autopsy later found that Shay had died from complications associated with an irregular heartbeat; the Michigan native had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart at age 14.
2. Bert Yancey – Golf
Golf? Really? Barring a scene out of Caddyshack, it’s hard to envision how someone could kick the bucket on the links. But after reading this list, you can probably deduce what the cause was, and you’d be right: a heart attack. Yancey was 56 years old in late August of 1994 when he was Park City, Utah practicing in advance of the opening round of the Senior PGA Franklin Quest Championship. After complaining of chest and arm pain, he made it to a first-aid tent before collapsing. Yancey won seven PGA events in the 1960s and 70s, and had battled manic depression throughout his adult life.
1. Stephen Hevenor – Ballroom Dancing
No, we’re not making this up. Believe it or not, ballroom dancing is a real sport (referred to as “dancesport” by its competitors), and it actually came close to being included in the Olympic games. In August of 2012, Hevenor and his partner/girlfriend Dani Atkins were competing at the Killick Klassic event at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Manalapan, Florida when Hevenor suddenly appeared to grab his throat as he fell on the dance floor. Bystanders tried to revive him, but the 43-year old Hevenor was pronounced dead at an Atlantis hospital due to a suspected – you guessed it – heart attack.