Every year, certain athletes emerge, and certain athletes fade. This is the nature of athlete career arcs: Albert Pujols was a revelation in 2001 and on the downward swing in 2012-16. It's sadder to think about the decline: Athletes' accelerated aging curves remind us how we're all decaying and atrophying and dying. The excitement of sports comes from those who take us by surprise, the ones who seem to come from nowhere.
They don't, of course: As any successful athlete will tell you, all overnight success stories are the result of years of hard work and devotion. But to us, it's all new and exciting and amazing. Thus, as we continue to countdown the final days of the year with as many lists as possible, here are the 10 athletes who emerged in 2016.
Simone Biles. Biles was hardly unknown heading into 2016. She'd won three consecutive all-around titles at the World Championships in women's gymnastics. (She'd also been selected Team USA's Olympic Athlete of the Year in 2015.) But you know how the Olympics are: Until you've done it there, America is only barely going to notice. Thus, Biles' total dominance at the Rio Olympics -- four individual gold medals, becoming the first women's gymnast to achieve such a feat since 1984. She ended up the flag bearer for the closing ceremonies and the AP female athlete of the year. Before 2016, only diehard gymnastics fans knew her. Now, we'll all know her name forever.
Joel Embiid. Embiid was impressive in college, but mostly as a physical freak with limitless, but as of yet unachieved, potential. Then he missed the first two seasons of his pro career and was known mostly as an example of former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie's tendency to look further into the future than his fans were willing to wait. Then, this year, he finally emerged, and holy cow look what this guy can do. Embiid instantly changed everything we thought about the 76ers, and for the first time in a decade, he's a reason to watch them every night. Plus, he calls himself "The Process" and is hilarious on Twitter.
Another victim.... I killed a shark with my hands the night we got to the Bahamas<<<< no one saw me though- Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) December 3, 2013
Lamar Jackson. In 2015, Jackson threw for 12 touchdowns and ran for 11. Not a bad little season! Then, in the first game of 2016 against Charlotte … he scored eight touchdowns in the first half. That's one way to make a splash. Jackson may have faded a little bit late, but for three months, he was the story of the college football season, and it ended with a Heisman Trophy that no one saw coming. And because this is college football, he'll be returning next season. It has been more than 40 years since Archie Griffin won his two Heismans. Jackson's as good a bet as we've seen since then to grab another one.
Patrik Laine. Called by some the next coming of Teemu Selanne, Laine has taken the NHL by storm this season, easily lapping all other rookies and setting himself up for a potential 40-goal season, which would be among the top 12 rookie seasons of all time. Also, he's only 18 and he's the second youngest player in the league. He scored a hat trick in his fourth game as a pro, including the game winner in overtime. Here's a fun stat: Jaromir Jagr had already made four first-team all-NHL teams by the day Laine was born.
Katie Ledecky. No offense to Biles, but this would by my pick if I had been voting for that AP female athlete of the year award. Ledecky, unlike Biles, actually won a gold medal in 2012 in London -- at the age of 15! -- but this was her year of total ascension, winning four gold medals and a silver and setting two world records. She is the most dominant athlete in any sport right now: It looks like all her competitors are playing an entirely different sport all together.
Dak Prescott. The goal this year for Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick, was to sit behind not just Tony Romo, but also Kellen Moore. From the Dallas Morning News Cowboys season preview: "The idea when training camp began in late July was to give him as much work as possible during the preseason then allow him to fade into the background until next offseason." That is not how it ended up going down. Pressed into starting duty, Prescott turned out to be a superstar, throwing for 23 touchdowns with only four interceptions and even running for 273 yards. The Cowboys now have the best record in the NFL and are the favorite to reach their first Super Bowl in 21 years. Prescott went from a name buried deep on a depth chart to an MVP candidate in 2016. That'll work.
Christian Pulisic. The next great American soccer hope has been an albatross hung around the neck of many a teenager: We as a culture might never be able to make up for what we did to poor Freddy Adu. But Pulisic, who by May was starting and scoring like crazy in the Bundesliga, seems quite comfortable, almost casual, with the role. He's now atop the USMNT depth chart, and you can expect Bruce Arena and whoever the next coach is after him to build the squad around him in the years to come. He just turned 18, by the way.
Gary Sanchez. Sanchez was always considered a solid Yankees catching prospect, but never one of the top names in the sport: He wasn't even one of the top 100 prospects on MLB.com's MLB Pipeline Midseason Ranking. But when he arrived in August after the Yankees made all their Trade Deadline moves, he took over the place, hitting 20 homers in just 201 at-bats, a downright Ruthian pace. He probably isn't that guy moving forward, but he has secured his spot with the Yankees, and we'll never forget those truly insane final two months.
Corey Seager. Seager was as heralded as a prospect as you could find: No. 2 on the MLB Pipeline board and expected to hold onto the Dodgers' shortstop spot for years. But even the biggest Seager optimist couldn't have seen this coming: one of the 10 best offensive seasons in all of baseball and superior defense at the premier position in the game. You could make the argument that Seager was every bit the MVP that Kris Bryant was. Seager had to settle for the National League Rookie of the Year Award -- and third place in NL MVP Award voting -- and you can forget that superstar-in-training business: He's already one of the game's biggest stars. Doing this in one of the game's biggest markets, Seager is going to be a part of your life for a long time.
Trea Turner. The Nationals had spent most of the season trying to figure out who would bat leadoff and who would play center field. Turner showed up in July and fixed both problems, instantly turning into a core Nationals player to build around. One wonders if he'll stay at shortstop forever now that he's back there, but you can be sure that the Padres are going to regret trading him.