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11 Amazing Under-the-Radar Sports Dynasties

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You've heard all about the great Yankees teams, or the Chicago Bulls dynasty that won six championships in eight seasons. But can they top a 452-game winning streak? Or how about 17 consecutive championships? From squash to horseshoe pitching, here are some of sports' best little-known dynasties.

1. Heather McKay

What's more impressive about Heather McKay's squash career: that she won every women's title at the British Open (the de facto championship) from 1962 until 1977? That she allowed her championship opponents to score only two points (over a three-game match) no less than three times? That in 1968, she won the championship by a perfect score of 9-0, 9-0, 9-0? That she lost only two professional matches over her two-decade career?


No, probably her most impressive feat was that she wasn't content to just dominate the world of squash. After retiring from the sport in 1979, McKay turned her sights to racquetball and almost instantly became a sensation, reaching the semifinals of her first invitational tournament without even knowing how the game was played. She would later switch to the sport full time because, as she told Sports Illustrated, ""There was nothing left for me to accomplish in squash except to do it over again." Oh, and McKay also played field hockey in her spare time well enough to be voted All-Australia in the sport twice.

2. Edwin Moses

Moses had already won an Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles race and set two world records before he began an incredible winning streak that would define his legacy. Starting in 1977, Moses went nine years, nine months and nine days without losing a race, rattling off 122 wins in that time. During the stretch, which ended in 1987, Moses had set two more world records, won two World Championships and won a second Olympic gold (he was unable to compete in a third games because of the 1980 boycott of the Moscow games). Since retiring from track, Moses also went on to win a bronze medal at the bobsled World Cup in 1990 and helped shape the drug testing policies for track and field competition.

3. Esther Vergeer

Esther Vergeer was named the world's number 1 wheelchair tennis player in 1999, a title she hasn't relinquished since. Not that there's any cause to drop her from the top spot -- Vergeer hasn't even lost a match since 2003. She's on an incredible winning streak of 454 straight matches in singles competition. She's also racked up 39 Grand Slam titles, 22 championships and 5 Paralympic gold medals.


Vergeer developed paraplegia at age 8 after a surgery to relieve hemorrhaging around her spinal cord. She started playing wheelchair basketball and even played for the Dutch national team that took the 1997 European championships before turning her attention to tennis. Since then, she's completely dominated the sport, although the bulk of her fame came from the 2010 ESPN: The Magazine body issue, where she posed nude.

4. Wayland Baptist Women's Basketball

When the University of Connecticut women's basketball team was on its way to tying the NCAA basketball winning streak record at 88 in 2010 (they would go on to win 90), the New York Times ran a story on an earlier, even longer streak. In a stretch that lasted from 1953 until 1958, the women's team of Wayland Baptist University in Texas rattled off 131 straight games. The Flying Queens set the streak in the Amateur Athletic Union, since this was almost 30 years before the NCAA sponsored women's basketball. The streak (which included four AAU championships) is unparalleled in the sport, even if it is largely ignored. However, it's something the team is used to -- in their early days, players joked that more players would come to watch their Harlem Globetrotters-inspired warmups (set to "Sweet Georgia Brown," of course) than the games.

5. Alan Francis

It would be enough to look at Alan Francis' 16 world championships in the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association since 1989 and see why the New York Times called him "perhaps the most dominant athlete in any sport in the country." But the real secret to his dynasty lies in his lifetime ringer percentage. He's the only professional to have that mark above 90 percent in a sport where 70 percent is considered great. Known for his three quarter reverse pitching style, Francis actually keeps the sport in the family: his wife, Amy, is a three-time world runner-up.

6. Eddy Merckx

Sure, you know all about Lance Armstrong and his seven straight Tour de France wins. But history's most impressive cyclist might be Eddy Merckx, who over a 13-year career won all of the monument cycling races at least twice (19 total) and took five Tour de France victories. Merckx almost didn't get to even start his first Tour de France in 1969 when a doctor discovered that he had an abnormal heart rhythm. He was later cleared to compete and he ended up not only winning the race, but taking the general, points and mountains classifications, the only rider to achieve that trifecta in the event.

7. Aleksandr Karelin

Known as "The Experiment," Aleksander Karelin is widely regarded as the best Greco-Roman wrestler ever thanks to a 13-year undefeated streak in international competition (including gold medals at three straight Olympic games). Over the last six years of that streak, Karelin even went without giving up a point, before losing to Rulon Gardner at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Karelin was known for using the Karelin Lift, a suplex move where he would lift an opponent lying on the mat, then throw him down. After retiring, Karelin joined the Russian legislature in 2008.

8. The United States sailing team

In terms of length, you'd be hard pressed to find a better winning streak than the U.S.'s 132-year domination of the America's Cup sailing race. After winning the inaugural race in 1851 (the winning boat was named "America" and the trophy was later named in her honor), the country did not relinquish it for 25 more iterations until 1983, when the Royal Perth Yacht Club took the trophy. The "Australia II," which won that race, would usher in a new string of champions and the cup has since also been held by New Zealand and Switzerland.

9. Houston Comets

The WNBA's first champion was also its first dynasty, as the Houston Comets would quickly dominate the new league. Starting with their 1997 championship in the league's inaugural season, the Comets would go on to win every championship until 2000, including one season where they amassed a whopping .900 winning percentage after going 27-3. The team was led by its so-called Big Three: Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. After the four-year streak, however, the Comets dropped off. They never returned to the championship game and were shut down after the 2008 season when the WNBA was unable to find an owner for the team.

10. Trinity Squash

After 252 straight wins, 2012 was not a good year for the Trinity squash team. First in January, the Bantams lost to Yale for their first loss since 1998. Then in February, they were defeated by Princeton in the collegiate finals in their quest to win a 13th straight championship. Still, their perfect record remains one of the longest in college athletics, although it is not without its blemishes. In 2010, Trinity captured national attention when star player Baset Chaudhry screamed at a Yale opponent after defeating him.

11. UNC Women's Soccer

When the University of North Carolina set up their first official women's soccer program in 1979, it was the only such team in the Southeast above the club level. It would quickly become the only team worth knowing, as well. They won the 1981 Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women championship, then reeled off a string of 13 straight NCAA championship appearances, winning 12 of them. The team has now won 20 of the 28 NCAA women's soccer championships, plus 20 of the 22 Athletic Coast Conference championship games, for one of the most unparalleled dynasties in college sports.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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