Athletes peak at different ages, often depending on their style of play and the sport itself. Recent studies suggest that baseball players peak around 27-29, tennis players 23-26, basketball players around 27, soccer players 26-31, sprinters 22-25, and so on. In the vast majority of major sports, the peak age tends to be somewhere between 23 and 29, with exceptions such as golfers, quarterbacks in football and goalkeepers in soccer.
It is unsurprisingly rare for athletes to retire during their peak without good reason. Most athletes retire once they have begun to decline or already severely dropped in performance levels since their peak years. This list only features athletes who retired through choice, not through injury. The likes of Bobby Orr and Sandy Koufax, who retired far younger than many expected were still in their prime, but they retired through injuries, not their own decisions.
Furthermore, athletes who retired young but had dropped off in terms of form are also not included. For example, Bjorn Borg who retired at 26, or George Best who first retired at 27 were both far too young, but neither were in their peak at that time; both experienced their finest years earlier than that age. Lastly, some of these athletes did go on to make a return to sport following their original retirement, while others left the world of sport prematurely never to return. Here are the top 15 athletes who retired in their prime:
15 Pat Tillman
14 Annika Sorenstam
13 Carlos Roa
12 Bo Jackson
11 Barry Sanders
10 Lorena Ochoa
9 Bobby Jones
8 Rocky Marciano
7 Eric Cantona
6 Mark Spitz
5 Ken Dryden
4 Robert Smith
3 Mario de Castro
The most clinical striker in soccer history, Mario de Castro scored an incredible 195 goals in 100 games. It is a record which make him not only a legend of Brazilian soccer but also a legend of the sport itself, holding a record which could quite possibly never be beaten. His career lasted only five years - from 1926 to 1931 - but despite that he remained Atletico Mineiro's all-time top scorer until 1972.
2 Michael Jordan
The greatest basketball player of all time and one of the most recognizable athletes in all of sports history, Michael Jordan requires little introduction, so we shall keep it brief. A six time NBA champion, six time NBA finals MVP, five time NBA MVP, 14 time NBA All-Star and three time NBA All-Star MVP. Those are the stats which define Michael Jordan, the first billionaire athlete according to Forbes.
1 Jim Brown
Regarded by most as the NFL's greatest ever running back, Sporting News even went as far as naming Brown as the greatest professional football player of all time. He was certainly the best player in the NFL when he decided to call it a day on his career. His NFL career lasted only eight years, remarkably short for a player of his caliber, and he spent all eight years with the Cleveland Browns.
Three-time NFL MVP and nine-time Pro Bowl selection, Brown retired as the NFL's all-time leading rusher. Brown was quoted as saying, "Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts," and that mantra certainly did him well. He remains the Cleveland Browns all-time leading rusher and his 133 yards per game average in the 1963 season has only since been beaten by O.J. Simpson in the 1973 season.
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