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Irish Times/Sports Ireland Sportswoman Award for September

Dunlevy and McCrystal in tandem for gold medal glory at the Rio Paralympics

Katie-George Dunlevy along with her pilot Eve McCrystal in action at the Paralympic Games in Rio. Photograph: Jean-Baptiste Benavent/Sportsfile

They only raced together for the first time in April 2014 but when Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal came fifth on their debut at the Track World Championships in Mexico, they had a notion there might be good times ahead. They were right..

By then both women had been steeped in sport, Dunlevy a gifted swimmer, athlete and rower, McCrystal another all-rounder with a background in swimming, athletics and football before taking up the triathlon.

Dunlevy’s life changed when, at 11, she was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment. She wasn’t going to allow it end her sporting career, though, but it was her fateful meeting with McCrystal towards the end of 2013 that kickstarted a richly rewarding partnership.

Enjoyed success

Dunlevy, a native of Crawley in West Sussex, had already enjoyed success in para-rowing with Britain, becoming World Champion in 2004 and 2005.

But she switched her allegiances to Ireland in 2010, qualifying through her father who was born in Mountcharles, Co Donegal where she spent her holidays as a child.

A year later she left rowing behind her to focus on cycling and with her pilot Sandra Fitzgerald came fifth in three of their four events at the London 2012 Paralympics.

Meanwhile McCrystal, a Dundalk native who is a Garda based in Ballybay, Co Monaghan, took up cycling in 2012 having focused for a spell on the triathlon. Fitzgerald was a friend of McCrystal’s and when she stepped down from her pilot role with Dunlevy, McCrystal replaced her.

The pair clicked and developed a mutual trust and understanding that, allied to their ability, has brought them enormous success.

When they finished fifth in their first event in Rio, the 3000m Individual Pursuit, just 0.173 seconds away from the medal race, they were distraught, but by the time they returned home they had gold and silver medals in their luggage.

Their golden moment came in the Road Time Trial where they finished 33 seconds ahead of Japan. The photo of the exhausted pair reacting when they were informed they had taken gold is one for the ages, their joy indescribable.

And they added silver to their haul in the Road Race, leading for three quarters of the event before being passed by their Polish rivals who went on to win by 59 seconds.

Dunlevy and McCrystal contributed handsomely, then, to the Irish effort in Rio, four gold, four silver and three bronze medals won in all, three of them coming in the discus – from Cork women Noelle Lenihan, Orla Barry and Niamh McCarthy – and another in swimming, Dubliner Ellen Keane taking bronze in the 100 metre breaststroke.

Previous Monthly Winners

December: Fionnuala McCormack (Athletics). McCormack just missed out on an individual medal at the European Cross Country Championships in France, finishing fourth, but led the Irish team, completed by Lizzie Lee, Caroline Crowley and Ciara Durkan, to bronze. She went on to finish 20th in the Olympic marathon, producing a personal best time.

January: Áine McKenna (Basketball). The Kerry woman won the Most Valuable Player award for her performance in the National Cup final when she captained Glanmire club Team Montenotte in their outstanding 96-64 victory over Killester.

February: Ciara Mageean (Athletics). On the comeback trail from a serious ankle problem, the runner from Portaferry, Co Down broke two Irish indoor records in February, the 1,500m and the mile, one 16 years old, the other seven. She went on to win bronze in the 1,500m at the European Championships in July and, in Rio, reached the semi-finals in the same event.

March: Nina Carberry (Horse Racing). For the second year running Carberry won the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham on the Enda Bolger-trained On The Fringe, making it three victories in the race in all, and six career victories at The Festival.

April: Ellis O’Reilly (Gymnastics). The 18-year-old became the first woman to represent Ireland in gymnastics at the Olympic Games after she qualified through the test event in Rio in April.

May: Kellie Harrington (Boxing). The Dubliner won silver in her first ever World Championships, beating opponents from Lithuania, Germany, Kazakhstan and Canada before losing out to China’s Asian champion Wenlu Yang in the light-welterweight final.

June: Leona Maguire, Olivia Mehaffey and Maria Dunne (Golf). The trio contributed 9 ½ of Britain and Ireland’s 11½ points on their way to reclaiming the Curtis Cup from the United States at Dun Laoghaire Golf Club. Later, Maguire tied for 21st at the Olympics, producing a sparkling 65 in her second round.

July: Jenny Egan (Canoeing). The disappointment of narrowly missing out on Olympic qualification for the second Games running didn’t stop Egan from having a hugely successful summer, the highlights coming in Portugal and the Czech Republic where she won gold and silver World Cup medals, making her the only Irish canoeist, male or female, to medal in World Cup events.

August: Annalise Murphy (Sailing). Four years after the shattering disappointment of just missing out on a medal in London, Murphy replaced the pain with joy when she took silver in Rio.