“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote in the 19th century. But his infamous line could probably be more accurate to describe the events that befell the year 2016. Admit it, even you cringe when you remember some of 2016’s most defining moments (2016 U.S. Presidential Election, cough).
While 2016 may have been a tumultuous year for many, there are some sparkling moments that outshine everything else. Those moments were led by some of the most influential people of the year. From political figures to Olympic athletes to pop culture icons, we’ve gathered a list of some of the biggest heroes of 2016.
Let’s start with CNN’s 2016 Hero of the Year, Jeison Aristizábal. Growing up in Colombia, Aristizábal was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a young boy and his parents struggled to gather money to take care of him. Still, he had the goal to be like other children his age, who ran around and played while he was confined to a wheelchair. Eventually, he started getting treatment and physical therapy so that he could live like everyone else.
Inspired by a young boy who was in his position, he teamed up with a physical therapist to work with children who have disabilities and to show their parents that they are capable of living normal lives. His non-profit foundation, ASODISVALLE, has helped more than 1,000 young people with a wide range of disabilities through schooling, clinical services, and different forms of therapy.
Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D.
Michigan-based pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha has become famously vocal about public lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan. She shares stories of how lead contamination in Flint’s water supply have been affecting unborn children and children aged six and younger, whose brains are still developing, citing evidence of lead present in the blood streams of affected demographics.
She has been invited to speak before distinguished audiences, but even speaks to groups of young children, who are very receptive to her cause. She has since become an activist to help find solutions to better Flint’s water supply and to initiate programs to assist kids who are affected by this crisis.
In October 2016, the Divergent actress was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing and engaging in a riot when she was protesting for the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Many Native Americans have been protesting construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline for fear of crude-oil contamination in the water supply of millions of people in affected areas, but Woodley’s participation made more people pay attention.
Following her arrest, Time magazine released her official statement, in which she wrote about America’s disregard for the presence of Native Americans and their culture, saying the following: “Treaties are broken. Land is stolen. Dams are built. Reservations are flooded. People are displaced. Yet we fail to notice. We fail to acknowledge. We fail to act. So much so that it took me, a white non-native woman being arrested on Oct 10th in North Dakota, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to bring this cause to many people’s attention. And to the forefront of news publications around the world.”
Many may not know the name, but Jason Harding is a firefighter from Tennessee. On September 11, 2016, the following photo was shared by Planet Fitness employee Lezlie Bauler, who wrote, “This man asked if it was okay for him to climb 110 sets, fully suited, of stairs in honor of his fallen brothers and sisters for 9-11. Yes sir, you can. I am not one to get emotional, but a few tears were shed. Thank you for your services.” Bauler’s post subsequently went viral.
Harding, who was unable to attend Nashville’s annual Memorial Stair Climb said, “When I went to the gym this morning at 6 a.m. before coming onto shift I was only wanting to honor the fallen heroes and their families on this day 15-years-ago.” He didn’t need the attention but has received praise from many across the country for his honorable act.
The Chicago Cubs were infamous for their 108-year-old curse that had plagued them for every World Series Championship after 1908. But eventually, all curses are broken since manager Joe Maddon led the Cubs to the 2016 World Series Championship against the Cleveland Indians.
When the Cubs finally won the World Series, they became heroes for the city of Chicago, whose citizens prayed every year for a successful season, even if they thought it was never going to happen. In 2016, they were considered the best team in the MLB, winning a total of 103 games, which is the most wins they’ve had since 1910.
“The game of baseball has a handful of signature sounds: you hear the crack of the bat, you got the crowd singing in the seventh inning stretch, and you got the voice of Vin Scully.” That is how President Obama introduced the iconic Dodgers baseball announcer when he awarded him with the highest civilian award of the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Celebrating a career that spanned over half a century, Vin Scully was humbled to receive the honor. He had been the sportscaster for the Dodgers since 1950, before they had moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn. Baseball fans everywhere know Vin’s voice and remember him for the life he brought to the game of baseball. In 2016, he announced his retirement, ending the longest tenure of any broadcaster with a single team in sports history.
President Obama also honored Ellen Degeneres for teaching people “to be kind to one another and to treat people as each of us wants to be treated” throughout her 30-year career as a comedian, actress, and television host. Obama has cited her coming out at a time when it was taboo to do so and the efforts she has made to support the LGBTQ community.
Ellen has certainly had a successful career and is probably best known today for her talk show and her role as Dory on the Finding Nemo franchise. In addition to her support for the LGBTQ community, she is an animal rights activist and supporter of other humanitarian causes. She has set an example for acceptance and love for generations of Americans who know her name.
Also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, Tom Hanks was honored for the roles he chooses to play in all of the film projects that he has been a part of. He has been known to play real-life heroes on the big screen, such as Captain Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips, about the actual hijacking of a US merchant ship by Indian Ocean pirates, and Captain Chesley Sullenberger in Sully, which is about the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009.
In addition to playing real-life heroes, Hanks has had a prolific acting career playing roles primarily of good people, such as Forrest Gump or Sheriff Woody.
Actor and producer Leonardo DiCaprio is another person with a prolific acting career. He was the subject of many jokes, having been nominated for five Academy Awards — considered the highest honor for an actor — since 1994 and not winning a single one. But in 2016, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his lead role in The Revenant and he finally won.
With all the accolades and film credits to his name over his career since the early ’90s, he finally was given an Oscar after over 20 years. Leo’s exemplary graciousness and patience through the years never wavered, as he continued to take on serious and iconic roles despite never winning an Oscar until 2016. He is truly his own hero.
The movie streaming service has expanded into its own entertainment company by the time 2016 came around. Ever since the success of its own in-house productions, such as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and House of Cards, Netflix has continued to produce and distribute shows and movies that have become popular without ever being on television.
Netflix has displayed true heroism by not only giving us new shows to enjoy, but reviving old television shows that many people have missed since they went off the air. In 2016, Netflix has graced us with a second season of Fuller House, a spin-off continuation of the beloved ’90s sitcom Full House, but users were primarily excited for the revival of the classic WB series Gilmore Girls.
Mark Zuckerberg & Priscilla Chan
The Facebook co-founder and the philanthropic pediatrician were named together on Time Magazine‘s 2016 list of the 100 Most Influential People. In 2015, they wowed the public when they announced that they’d use 99 percent of their Facebook shares for charitable causes.
In late 2016, they one-upped themselves when an article in The New York Times announced that “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the limited liability company into which Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan put their Facebook shares, on Wednesday said it would invest at least $3 billion over the next decade toward preventing, curing or managing all diseases by the end of the century.”
2016 was also the year of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where Michael Phelps won five gold medals and a silver medal in multiple swimming events, completing the 200-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley in under two minutes. He was voted one of the team captains of the US Olympic Swim team and also had the honor of bearing the American flag during the opening ceremony.
After a successful 16 year career and being the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals, Phelps announced that the 2016 Summer Olympics would be his last. He has been an inspiration and a hero for many aspiring athletes, including the next hero on our list..
Katie Ledecky is only 19 years old, but she is already a five-time Olympic gold medalist and nine-time world champion. In 2006, she was an ambitious nine-year-old who beamed when she got an autograph and picture from Michael Phelps. Ten years later in Rio, they recreated the picture, only this time Phelps was getting an autograph from Ledecky.
She currently holds the world record for swimming in the women’s 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter freestyle courses. She is just one of several young women who have risen to prominence after the 2016 Summer Olympics, being featured on media outlets and magazine covers like our next set of heroines.
The Final Five
The Final Five are a team of young women who were on the Olympic gymnastics team for the United States. They all were gold medalists in 2016’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, winning eight gold medals among all of them. 20-year-old Gabby Douglas, 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez, 19-year-old Madison Kocian, and 22-year-old Aly Raisman each won one gold medal. 19-year-old Simone Biles came out on top with a total of four gold medals.
They have all won medals and set records at previous Olympics and championships, but they’ve made headlines as The Final Five for their cumulative efforts. Their accomplishments at such young ages have made them heroes for young girls all over America.
Another Olympian who wowed us in 2016 was Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. The nine-time Olympic gold medalist is considered the fastest human ever timed, holding the world records for the 100- and 200-meter races since fully automatic timing became mandatory. He is also an honest athlete, being open to drug testing for steroids, which shows how confident he is in his own body and its ability to win.
In just 9.81 seconds, Bolt won the 100-meter gold medal, becoming the first athlete to win the event three times at the Olympic Games in Rio’s 2016 games. Because of his feats, he is nicknamed “Lightning Bolt” and continues to inspire with his unbelievable athleticism.
By now we’re all probably tired of hearing about the 2016 Presidential Election, but it goes without saying that Hillary Clinton – although she did not end up winning – is a hero in her own right. In 2016, she accepted the official nomination for the Democratic National Convention and she is the very first female in American history to do so.
In addition to that, she has had quite an outstanding political career leading up to her campaign for the presidency. After running her own law firm, she became the First Lady of the United States for a good chunk of the ’90s and was subsequently a U.S. Senator and the Secretary of State. Whether you loved or hated her, you got to admit that there are not a lot of high-powered women with that kind of career.
The junior United States Senator from Vermont announced his campaign for the 2016 Presidential Election back in 2015. The general public wasn’t yet aware of who he was back then, so they didn’t think he stood much of a chance. But after the public learned about his campaign for a “political revolution” that relied solely on small, individual donations and rejected corporations, many people were soon on board with Bernie.
As a democratic nominee up against Clinton, Sanders acknowledged issues like the country’s wealth inequality, women’s rights, and climate change. He championed tuition-free college and making college students debt free, which struck a chord with a majority of young adults, who saw Bernie as the hero that America needed. Soon, all millennials were saying that they #FeelTheBern. Despite the enthusiasm for Bernie, Clinton was announced the presumptive nominee for the Democratic party but he endorsed Clinton, urging people to continue the “political revolution” his campaign started.
In February 2016, Beyoncé released the song “Formation” online and performed it during the Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show the next day. This set up her fans for her “Formation World Tour” and the release of her second visual album, Lemonade.
The album explores themes such as female empowerment, relationships, and cheating. Beyoncé was once again able to create a powerful album that resonated with a lot of women, who view her as a literal goddess. She received nine nominations for the 59th Grammy Awards and three nominations for the song “Formation” alone. Queen Bey is considered a hero for all converts to the Bey Hive.
Elderly dogs are often overlooked in shelters, and many end up being euthanized. The older dogs don’t have a chance against charismatic puppies when people are selecting their next pet. A San Francisco woman named Sherri Franklin has dedicated her life to changing this problem.
Franklin, who grew up loving dogs, started a nonprofit rescue group called Muttville from her home in 2007. Her group of volunteers places old shelter dogs into the homes where they’ll live out the rest of their doggy days. More than 4,000 senior dogs have been rescued due to Muttville’s efforts. CNN recently honored Franklin, and she told them that the dogs help her as much as she helps them: “They have so much to teach us. I’ve learned to be present and live in the moment. They’ve taught me to let the little stuff fly.”