Five Incredible Underdog Stories

Susan Boyle's newfound singing career is one of the most amazing underdog stories of recent times—but we've rounded up a few others that you might find just as inspiring.

By now, more than 64 million people have seen the inspiring video clip of an unpolished 47-year-old woman named Susan Boyle performing an audition song in front of the famously ruthless Simon Cowell and other judges, turning their smirks into smiles of pure delight. (If you’ve somehow managed to miss the video, go watch it now. We’ll wait.)

As you may know, Boyle only came in second in the Britain’s Got Talent competition—but that doesn’t make her story any less of a success. Just months ago, Boyle was singing songs at her local karaoke club; now, she’s a household name, and is likely to sell millions of copies of her inevitable debut album.

Apart from the fact that Boyle is a genuinely fantastic singer, there’s another reason why she’s become so famous in such a short amount of time: Everybody loves an underdog. We’re used to seeing the prom queens and trust fund babies winning whatever they set their hearts to, but watching an ordinary woman like Boyle transform into a star is a heartwarming surprise. Here are a few other underdog stories from recent years that might inspire you, too.

An autistic teen scores big on the basketball court.

Jason McElwain, a teenage boy with autism, had always loved basketball. At his Rochester high school, he was responsible for helping out the varsity players as team manager: taking care of their equipment, getting fresh towels, and taking on other odd jobs to ensure that the team had everything they needed at their practices and games. During his senior year in 2006, McElwain’s coach decided to add him to the team roster for the last game of the season, and give him an opportunity to play on the court for the first time ever. No one expected much from him, but McElwain proved that he knew his stuff: During three minutes on the field, the game’s surprise hero sank six three-pointers and an additional shot, scoring 20 points for his team.

Although McElwain’s amazing play wasn’t enough to win the game, that didn’t matter. The crowd went wild for the game’s unlikely star, and McElwain’s teammates carried him off the court in celebration of his amazing victory.

For McElwain, the basketball game was about more than sports—it helped him prove what he was capable of to the world. “This is the first moment Jason has ever succeeded (and could be) proud of himself,” his mother, Debbie McElwain, told CBS News. “I look at autism as the Berlin Wall, and he cracked it.” Check out the amazing video of his play below.

An 88-year-old woman walks the entire continental U.S. by foot and runs for Senate.

At the age of 88, Doris “Granny D” Haddock, a widow who had never held political office, decided to take on the system in an unusual way: by walking across the whole of the continental United States, going door to door to advocate for campaign finance reform that would help ensure that people could become involved in politics, even if they didn’t have millions of dollars to spend on their campaigns. She spent two years traveling the nation, finishing her journey in Washington D.C., where she was escorted to the Capitol by dozens of members of Congress to the cheers of thousands. Several years later, Granny D decided to run for a New Hampshire U.S. Senate Seat, challenging the Republican incumbent. Although Granny D didn’t win the race in the end, she attracted widespread support, capturing 33 percent of the vote and the admiration of millions. Her political campaign was documented in a fascinating HBO Film, Run Granny Runvisit the website to see a clip from the movie, or rent, download, or order it through Amazon.

A “surfer dude” shocks the academic world with a brilliant new physics theory.

Last year, a new “theory of the universe” took the physics world by storm, drawing acclaim and admiration from many luminaries in the physics world. The brilliant theory didn’t come from a well-known physicist at Harvard or Stanford, however: the author of the academic paper was 39-year-old Garrett Lisi, who received a Ph.D in physics in 1999, but then abandoned academia for a life of surfing and snowboarding, working on his theory in his ample spare time. Most academics had never heard of Lisi until his “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything” was released, but now he’s seen as one of the most promising researchers in his field, with a theory that may topple long-held beliefs in the physics world. Maybe the lesson for the rest of us here is to spend less time in the library and more on the beach. To learn more about his innovative ideas, check out Lisi’s TED talk on particle theory.

A Japanese homemaker prepares to become the world’s oldest boxing champion.

In the mornings, 46-year-old Kazumi Tzaki prepares her daughter’s school lunch, then spends the days taking care of cooking, cleaning, and household errands. But in the evenings, this seemingly traditional wife and mother takes on a surprising new role—as a boxing champion. Izaki started fighting in the ring in 2001, and became addicted to the sport, though her spars with men half her age have left her with broken bones on numerous occasions. Now, she is hoping to compete internationally to become the oldest boxing champion in the world. While the World Boxing Council hasn’t yet ruled on whether Izaki is in shape to take on her Mexican challenger, who is 17 years her junior, Izaki is gearing up for battle either way—and she’s built up a reputation as a fighter that you wouldn’t want to mess with.

When Izaki first started training, her trainer, Susuu Hanagata , told the Independent, “she looked like any other housewife, but she worked very hard. Now I think she is probably stronger than me. I wouldn’t like to go up against her.”