The greatest tales of inspiration in sports usually involve an athlete who has stumbled, then recovered. Whether the crux of the story involves injury, illness, disappointment, failure or some other form of hardship, the sports star who defies outside forces and reaches a pinnacle of achievement holds a place in the hearts and minds of fans usually reserved for family members and sweethearts.

Mario Lemieux (Canada), ice hockey: Just the name is enough to wobble the knees of the most hardened, toothless National Hockey League enforcer. But the sight of him on skates and holding a stick is positively terrifying, especially since he practically picked up where he left off when he retired at the end of the 1996-97 season, after a cancer scare, back surgery and general fatigue had taken their toll.

In his return Dec. 27, the 35-year-old Lemieux had a goal and two assists to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 5-0 rout of the Toronto Maple Leafs. By the end of January, Lemieux had a dominating 30 points in 15 games.

Jennifer Capriati (U.S.), tennis: In the beginning, there was nothing outlandish about the idea of Capriati hoisting the champion’s trophy from a Grand Slam event. Such happenings were deemed inevitable ever since the wunderkind turned professional in March 1990, and especially after she earned the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. But then came a long period of disappointment, marked by various drug and alcohol problems.

If there was any doubt that 25-year-old Capriati is back, it evaporated when she smoked top-seeded Martina Hingis 6-4, 6-3, to win the Australian Open. That placed her seventh in the world, her highest ranking since 1994, when she was No. 9.

Janica Kostelic (Croatia), skiing: In December 1999, Kostelic crashed on a training run in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The incident caused extensive damage to her left knee. A promising career that began in juniors and got a major boost when she became the youngest World Cup race winner in skiing history in a 1999 event at St. Anton, Austria, was in serious doubt.

Her mission since then has been to put that doubt to rest, and she succeeded in spectacular fashion. During the 2000-2001 World Cup season, Kostelic, 25, won the first six slalom races — stretching her victory streak in the downhill to eight races.

Dara Torres (U.S.), swimming: Usually, someone who returns to competitive swimming after a seven-year retirement is simply in dire need of career counseling. Try telling that to Torres.

After captaining the U.S. team in Barcelona in ’92, she hung up her goggles. Despite the odds, she returned in July of 1999. Last year, she broke the U.S. record in 50 meters at the Cadillac Challenge in Los Angeles.

But her greatest moments came at the Sydney Olympics, where she became the first American to swim in her fourth Olympiad. Torres, 34, won two gold medals — in the women’s 4 x 100-meter medley and the women’s 4 x 100 freestyle — as well as three bronze medals.

Heike Dreschler (Germany), track and field: Durability is not a trait automatically associated with long jumpers. But at 36, Dreschler’s accomplishments in 2000 betrayed conventional thinking. She won her second Olympic gold medal at Sydney last year. She also went on to win the Grand Prix final in Doha, Qatar.

Those leaps only added to her sparking credentials, which include three European Championship gold medals. What’s more, Dreschler has produced leaps of over seven meters more than 400 times in her career.