Irish Sportswomen: Top 50 Memorable Moments Part Four - 20 to 11

In part four of five, Mary Hannigan continues her look at highlights in Irish women’s sport

Katie Walsh and Seabass in the Aintree Grand National in 2012. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Getty Images

Katie Walsh and Seabass in the Aintree Grand National in 2012. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Getty Images

 

It started out as just a bit of fun, a rule-free spot of reminiscing, a list of 50 memorable moments produced by Irish sportswomen. But then a hurdle or two got in the way.

Like, ‘how many places in the top 50 has Sonia taken so far?’

‘Oh, about 64.’

‘How far are we going back?’

‘Well, there was Lena Rice winning Wimbledon in 1890.’

So, for fear of it turning in to a top 550, we narrowed our moments to the last 30 years, and to just one per sportswoman.

Other than that, no rules apply, it’s an entirely unmethodical browse through three decades of landmark moments and sporting excellence, in team and individual sport, on the home and international front. We’ve no doubt missed some very obvious choices, so advance and profuse apologies are offered. We continue with part four, from 20 to 11.

20) Ciara Mageean 

Ciara Mageean celebrates with her bronze medal in Amsterdam last year. Photograph: Karel Delvoije/Inpho
Ciara Mageean celebrates with her bronze medal in Amsterdam last year. Photograph: Karel Delvoije/Inpho

After a brilliant junior career that, inevitably, earned her the unenviable tag of ‘the next Sonia O’Sullivan’, the Portaferry runner was struck by an ankle injury that threatened to end any hope she had of realising her potential. But in early 2016 she showed healthy signs of recovery when she broke the Irish indoor records for the 1,500m and the mile, and, precisely three years after reconstructive surgery on her ankle, she joined O’Sullivan and Derval O’Rourke on the list of the only Irish women to medal at the European Championships when she took bronze in the 1,500m in Amsterdam in July. The gutsiest of comebacks.

19) Cora Staunton 

Cora Staunton at the end of the 2000 All-Ireland final. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho
Cora Staunton at the end of the 2000 All-Ireland final. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho

Few debuts have launched a career quite like this one. It was 1995 and Mayo fielded a 13-year-old who had made such an impression at under-16 and minor level, they were confident enough that she’d hold her own in senior football. That she did. And 22 seasons later Cora Staunton is still representing her county, with 10 All Stars and four senior All-Ireland titles to her name. There’s rarely unanimity on these things, but you won’t find many who’ll argue there has ever been a greater player in the history of women’s Gaelic football.

18) Olive Loughnane 

Olive Loughnane shares the podium with Russia’s Olga Kaniskina and China’s Hong Liu in 2009. The Russian was later stripped of her gold medal. Photograph: Getty Images)
Olive Loughnane shares the podium with Russia’s Olga Kaniskina and China’s Hong Liu in 2009. The Russian was later stripped of her gold medal. Photograph: Getty Images)

Surreal was the only way to describe Loughane’s experience in July 2016 during day one of the European Championships in Amsterdam. Seven years after finishing second to Olga Kaniskina in the 20km race walk at the World Championships in Berlin, she was presented with a gold medal by IAAF president Sebastian Coe before the national anthem was played and the Tricolour raised. The Russian had been found guilty of doping, so Loughnane’s silver was upgraded, a world champion three years after she had retired from her sport. The most bittersweet of moments.

17) Arsenal’s Sextuple 

Republic of Ireland and Arsenal’s Yvonne Tracy, Emma Byrne and Ciara Grant with the FA Women’s Cup in 2008. Photograph: Getty Images
Republic of Ireland and Arsenal’s Yvonne Tracy, Emma Byrne and Ciara Grant with the FA Women’s Cup in 2008. Photograph: Getty Images

Before the likes of Chelsea, Sunderland and Manchester City began investing in women’s football, Arsenal were, by some distance, the most progressive British club on that front. They dominated throughout the 2000s, winning nine league titles in the decade, but their success in the 2006-07 season was unparalleled - they won every competition they entered, five domestic competitions and, most prestigiously, and a first for a British club, the Champions League. They beat Sweden’s Umea, who featured the great Brazilian forward Marta, over two legs, not conceding a goal in either. Central to that effort, and their success throughout the season, were three Republic of Ireland internationals: goalkeeper Emma Byrne, Ciara Grant and Yvonne Tracy.

16) Fionnuala McCormack 

Fionnuala Britton on her way to European Cross Country gold in 2012. Photograph: Sasa Pahic Szabo/Inpho
Fionnuala Britton on her way to European Cross Country gold in 2012. Photograph: Sasa Pahic Szabo/Inpho

We’ve had our fair share of top class distance runners through the years, but the Wicklow woman’s level of consistency at the European Cross Country Championships in particular has been nothing short of remarkable: between 2010 and 2016 she finished fourth, first, first, fourth, sixth, fourth and fifth. She emulated Catherina McKiernan’s success in the competition in 2011 when she triumphed in Velenje, Slovenia, but a year later not only did she become the first woman to retain her title in a bitterly cold Budapest, she also led the Irish team to gold. She was hardly off the podium, then, when she was back on it again for a second airing of Amhrán na bhFiann.

15) Katie Walsh 

Katie Walsh celebrates with her father Ted after winning the Irish Grand National on Thunder and Roses. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Katie Walsh celebrates with her father Ted after winning the Irish Grand National on Thunder and Roses. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

The photo of Walsh being embraced by her father after she became just the third female jockey to win the Irish Grand National, riding the Sandra Hughes-trained Thunder And Roses to victory in 2015, will always be hard to top when it comes to memorable moments from her career, Ted coming perilously close to quite literally bursting with pride. There were her Cheltenham Festival successes too, but the greatest badge of honour? No woman has come closer to winning the English National, Walsh finishing third at Aintree on board Seabass in 2012.

14) Susan Moran 

Susan Moran in action for Ireland.
Susan Moran in action for Ireland.

The Tullamore woman’s college basketball career with St Joseph’s University in Philadelphia was so outstanding they retired her jersey number when she left. But it was two minutes at Madison Square Garden in 2002 that had the biggest impact on her time in the sport. Moran desperately needed to impress as a triallist in her brief cameo for New York Liberty in their pre-season game against Houston Comets to persuade the coaches to draft her to their roster for the WNBA season ahead. Twice she drew fouls from the opposition, scoring from all four free throws. She’d done enough - next day she was drafted, making her the first Irish player to make it to the professional ranks of American basketball. The Irish international also played professionally in Spain, New Zealand and Australia and went on to coach in the game.

13) Beating the All Blacks 

Nora Stapleton celebrates at the final whistle in 2014. Photograph: Inpho
Nora Stapleton celebrates at the final whistle in 2014. Photograph: Inpho

Before meeting Ireland in Pool B of the 2014 World Cup, New Zealand, seeking their fifth successive world title, hadn’t lost a competitive match since 1991. When they went 8-0 up in the first half, they looked as invincible as ever, but tries from Heather O’Brien and Alison Miller, combined with the kicking of Niamh Briggs, made it 14-14 with 10 minutes to go. And then Briggs stepped up to convert a penalty that put Ireland 17-14 up, a lead they held on to for the most famous of victories, the greatest of World Cup upsets, and the first senior Irish win over New Zealand in the men’s or women’s game.

12) Deirdre Gogarty 

Deidre Gogarty and Christy Martin trade blows during their fight in Las Vegas. Photograph: Al Bello/Allsport
Deidre Gogarty and Christy Martin trade blows during their fight in Las Vegas. Photograph: Al Bello/Allsport

“It’s because of her that I’m where I am today,” said Katie Taylor of the Drogheda fighter who had to leave Ireland to pursue her career because of the ban on female boxing here. A lonely and frustrating trip it was too, women’s professional boxing a less than professionally run business back then. No bout she fought received more attention than the one against Christy Martin on the undercard of the Mike Tyson v Frank Bruno title in Las Vegas in 1996, a fight of such quality it was credited with changing the perception of women’s boxing. But it was the following year that she achieved her lifetime ambition when she became Ireland’s first female world champion after beating Bonnie Canino for the WIBF Featherweight title in New Orleans.

11) Madeline Perry

Madeline Perry (left) in action against Nicol David. Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Madeline Perry (left) in action against Nicol David. Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

At the peak of her 16 year career as a professional squash player Perry rose as high as third in the world rankings, but no match stood out in that time as much as her remarkable 2009 British Open quarter-final victory over Malaysia’s Nicol David, one of the biggest upsets in the history of her sport. David was the world number one, regarded as the greatest woman ever to play squash, had won 18 of her previous 20 tournaments and hadn’t failed to reach the final of a tournament in two years. She was two sets up and had match balls in the third, but Perry came back to win it 3-2. She went on to reach the final, beating the world number five in the last four, before losing to number two seed Rachael Grinham from Australia.

Tomorrow we conclude our countdown with the top 10.

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