If you reduce sports to its smallest discrete units, its subatomic particles, you're left with protons and electrons and neutrons called moments. They're the building blocks of every season, every game, every series of downs. Two or more moments may accrete into something more, a propulsive energy called momentum, which in turn can snowball into something greater still, that which is momentous.
Consider those consecutive moments last Aug. 4 in London, when Michael Phelps—in his final Olympic race—caught and then overtook Japan's Takeshi Matsuda on the butterfly leg of the men's 4 × 100 medley relay. Momentum passed to Phelps's U.S. teammate Nathan Adrian, who pulled away on the freestyle leg, sealing a victory that yielded Phelps's 18th gold medal, and 22nd medal overall, more than any other Olympian in history. It was like the conjugation of some Latin verb: moment, momentum, momentous. Or if you prefer: Veni, vidi, vici.
But 2012 had more than One Shining Moment. With apologies to the Kentucky men or the Baylor women who won the NCAA basketball tournaments, there were Hundreds of Shining Moments, too many to count. We counted them anyway and reduced them to 10, and asked you, through Facebook, to choose the very best sports moment of the year for our final cover of 2012. The winner was that last gold medal for Phelps, an Olympian whose name is now always preceded by the phrase most decorated, as if he were a wedding cake or a Christmas tree or some other totem at the center of a celebration. Which of course he is.
A shorter conjugation—Manning to Manningham—provided the quintessential moment in Super Bowl XLVI, a 38-yard pass that kept the Giants' comeback alive and led them to victory over the Patriots, whose tight end, Rob Gronkowski, partied postgame in Indianapolis to show that, hey, it wasn't the end of the world.
We thought it might be. But if you're reading this, the Mayans were wrong and the world didn't close up shop in 2012. (It only seemed that way to NHL fans.) Which isn't to say that we didn't witness rapture. On the contrary, we saw it at every turn. Miguel Cabrera and I'll Have Another both flirted with the Triple Crown. (The Tiger won it, the horse did not.) Moments unforeseeable even by ancient mystics demanded the coining of new words, like Linsanity and Fail Mary and Buttfumble.
If Buttfumble sounds like a Dickensian solicitor, it was much more fun than that. But then the year in sports was so often a joy. Only McKayla Maroney could fail to be impressed. And even the U.S. gymnast's cheek-biting, lemon-sucking pose in London became a source of endless amusement, mimicked by Maroney herself and President Obama. Hers was the year's most memorable expression of dyspepsia. But was it the year's most meme-able, the most widely repeated online and at watercoolers?
That's a clown question, bro.
National League Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper, at 19, was the majors' biggest minor since Mike Trout, the American League Rookie of the Year, who didn't turn 21 until August.
In China, 2012 was the Year of the Dragon. So why were these other creatures so often invoked? Not just Trout and butterflies—Phelps's historic one, and that flutter-by butterfly of R.A. Dickey's gnarly knuckleball. There was also 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas—runner-up in SI's Facebook voting for the year-end cover—showing uncommon grace on a beam four inches wide, not unlike the Flying Squirrel for which she was nicknamed. In San Francisco, 2012 was the Year of the Panda, the Giants' Pablo Sandoval having hit three home runs in his first three at bats of the World Series, one of baseball history's most glorious displays of power.
In London, powerful and historic and glorious were combined in a compound word: Pistorius, less a sprinter's surname than a necessary new adjective. And what of that other aptly named Olympic sprinter, Bolt, who also ran his way into posterity last summer? It took the fastest man on earth years to overcome the temptation to look over his shoulder near the end of a race, but that's what we're compelled to do now, at year's end: to ignore Satchel Paige's advice and look back.