As I look back over the result from the just-ended Olympics in Turin, I'm most fascinated by the gold-medal upsets. As sports fans, we clap politely for the consistent winners, but let's be honest: We all harbor a secret passion for the underdogs. They're the ones who make us jump out of our chairs and scream until our throats are raw.
That's really no different from the investing world, where big, established corporations get most of the Street's respect, even as smaller, scrappier, smarter companies -- the kinds of opportunities that my colleagues find at Motley Fool Rule Breakers -- arrive at the mountain and zip past the favorites to earn the gold. In fact, some of the games' most interesting upsets have interesting lessons to teach growth-oriented investors.
Don't believe me? Check out a few of the ways that competitors and companies can come from behind to earn surprise victories.
The impossible long shot
No one had ever heard of Julia Mancuso. There wasn't much reason anyone should have. She had never won a World Cup ski race. She'd never even led one at the split. But by the time she finished up the last leg of the giant slalom on Feb. 24, she not only took the gold medal, but she also ended an eight-year medal shutout for the U.S. women's Olympic ski team. Sound impossible? Maybe. But in skiing, the impossible happens all the time, and the longer the odds and the crazier the story, the bigger the celebration when they come through.
I've got another example of an incredible story and an impossible long shot. A couple of years back, if I had told you that I knew about a robot surgeon system that would change the world and make investors rich, you'd have thought I was nuts. (And I would not have blamed you.) But that doesn't change the fact that you'd have been wrong -- as I was. Fast-forward to today, and most of us are familiar with the surprise success that is Intuitive Surgical
The invisible winner
With all of the world's attention focused on the rivalry and bad blood between U.S. long-track speed skaters Shani Davis and teammate Chad Hedrick, no one was paying attention to the guy who would go on to be the real winner. By the time all of the competitors had finished their 1,500-meter runs, Italian Enrico Fabris had beaten the entire field, besting Davis' second-place time by a quarter of a second. He did it the old-fashioned way -- by training hard and staying focused. And he was thrilled with the experience. Davis and Hedrick, on the other hand, crumbled under the weight of their own drama and high expectations, and they continued their pouting even into the medal ceremony.
I see a similar story in CNET Networks
The long-denied veteran
Word out of the women's figure-skating competition was that an upstart from Japan had bested seasoned American poppet Sasha Cohen and Russian veteran Irina Slutskaya. Cohen and Slutskaya both bobbled badly in their final programs, while Shizuka Arakawa skated flawlessly and took home the gold. In fact, Arakawa isn't such a newcomer at all. Her first Olympics were in 1998, and she won a World Championship in 2004. Her performance wasn't enough to break the Russian dominance in the field -- hers was the only gold the Russians didn't win -- but it was enough to show that a determined background player can surprise the world by doing a solid job, while the favorites stumble.
The banking world isn't dominated by super-Russians (yet), but it is a place where the prizes tend to go to the powerhouses like Washington Mutual
Bankrate isn't exactly new or unheard of, nor is it, technically a competitor to the banks. But like our gold-medal skater, it's been around a while, patiently taking advantage of the stumbles of its behemoth brethren. While the rest of the financial world was out there trying to snatch business from the other guy, Bankrate has quietly profited by providing consumers with something they really want -- one-stop shopping for mortgage rates and other financial services. What are the rewards for this steady veteran? Its stock has soared nearly 150% over the past two years.
The closing ceremony
Upsets are great, but they're not entirely unpredictable. Each of the medal winners above can trace the big break to years of hard work. Similarly, most of the market's "overnight successes" were actually several years in the making. Turn your attention to the market's unheralded successes-to-be, and you'll have the opportunity to really celebrate when they finally get to the top of the podium.
If you want help spotting the market's future gold-medal upsets, we've got an entire team dedicated to looking for them. A free 30-day guest pass to the Motley Fool Rule Breakers village will show you why Intuitive Surgical, CNET Networks, and Bankrate have beaten the market by a combined 27 percentage points since they were recommended.
Seth Jayson missed out on ISRG, even though he saw it coming. At the time of publication, he had no positions in any company mentioned here. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Intuitive Surgical, CNET, and Bankrate are Rule Breakers recommendations. Fool rules are here.