So there we were, in the Shelbourne hotel in December 2019, listening to our monthly award winners talk about how much they were looking forward to 2020, not least the group who had qualified for the Olympics and so had nothing but Tokyo on their minds.
Then 2020 arrived and, well, you know yourself.
A year like no other, then, nobody having it easy, and time and again when our sportswomen, at every level, spoke about their own experiences, they were quick to put them in a wider perspective, downplaying their own hardships.
- Tune in to www.irishtimes.com/sport from 12.15pm on Friday, December 18th to watch the awards live
Still, for women for whom sport had always been at the very core of their lives, to have it taken away from them for that spell was a challenge like no other they’d ever faced.
“I will never, ever complain about a training session again,” said Orlagh Farmer, the Cork Gaelic footballer who was our May winner. “Football isn’t everything, you have other things going on in your life,” she said, “but at the same time it makes you appreciate what you’ve lost. As they say, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. It’s all just opened my eyes to how much I love it.”
She spoke for the bulk of her sporting colleagues.
Farmer was one of three monthly winners this year who was chosen for their efforts outside the sporting arena, in a period when there was no sport happening at all. At first we figured we’d just have to press pause on the awards and wait for some level of sporting normality to resume, but on hearing of the variety of contributions so many of our sportswomen were making to their wider communities, we reckoned they deserved to be saluted.
It’s not, of course, possible to have our usual awards ceremony this year, instead it will be held online on Friday, December 18th, starting at 12.30pm, with all our monthly winners interviewed.
Farmer, Kellie Harrington and Gina Akpe-Moses feature in that roll of honour which includes three former Sportswomen of the Year – Katie Taylor, Harrington and last year's overall winner, Sanita Puspure – as well as some of our most established stars, Fionnuala McCormack, Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal, Rachael Blackmore, Ciara Mageean and Stephanie Meadow. And we have three new names on the list, Farmer, football international Diane Caldwell and handball legend Martina McMahon.
Now the tricky part. Narrowing the list down to one.
December 2019: Fionnuala McCormack (Athletics)
Only Katie Taylor has a wider gap between her first and latest monthly awards, McCormack debuting on our list back in December 2006 when she won silver in the under-23 race at the European Cross Country Championships. And since then, the Wicklow woman has developed in to one of our finest ever athletes.
While she suffered the disappointment of being denied her fourth appearance at the Olympic Games, a feat only achieved by two other Irish sportswomen – Sonia O'Sullivan and Olive Loughnane – and the cancellation of this month's European Cross Country Championships, she picked up yet another medal at the event in Lisbon a year ago.
Agonisingly, she finished fourth – for the fourth time – in the individual race, missing out on bronze by just two seconds, but that run, combined with top 20 finishes from Aoibhe Richardson (17th) and Ciara Mageean (20th), was enough to seal team silver for Ireland, her sister Una Britton, Fionnuala Ross and Mary Mulhare also earning a medal.
January: Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal (Cycling)
Their goal at the start of the year was to add yet more Paralympic medals to their collection in Tokyo. Little did they know that that venture would be postponed. But they started 2020 as they meant to go on, winning silver – and breaking their own national record – in the tandem pursuit at the Para-cycling Track World Championships in Canada.
The bulk of their success until then had come on the road, having won five gold medals at Para-cycling Road World Championships, but they transferred that pedigree in to their track performances in Canada.
They should be well prepared for Tokyo next summer, the usually UK-based Dunlevy living with McCrystal and her family in Dundalk for four months this year, allowing them to train daily. That spell paid off handsomely for McCrystal come October when, at the age of 42, she became national time trial champion for the first time.
February: Rachael Blackmore (Horse racing)
By the time Blackmore rode Honeysuckle to victory at Cheltenham back in March, the Tipperary woman had already taken our award for February, the highlight of which was that day in Leopardstown when she pulled off a Grade One double.
Her first victory on day one of the festival was on board Notebook in the ERSG Arkle, and then she completed her day with the big one, when she rode another Henry de Bromhead winner, this time on Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Once racing resumed, she kept on winning, even on the flat, her first triumph in her less familiar world coming in June on board outsider Oriental Eagle in Limerick. Jumps or no jumps, Blackmore is, truly, grade one.
March: Diane Caldwell (Soccer)
You couldn't but feel for all the Irish players when they missed out on the runners-up spot in their Euro 2022 qualifying group. But for the 30-something stalwarts in the squad, Aine O'Gorman, Niamh Fahey, Louise Quinn and Diane Caldwell, who, with over 350 caps between them, have been trying for over a decade to get Ireland to a major tournament, it was especially gut-wrenching.
Alongside Quinn at the heart of the Irish defence, Caldwell had helped Ireland to a near-perfect start to the campaign, the concession of just three goals in their first five games, four of which they won, the other drawn, helping put them top of their group.
The Dubliner, who plays her club football with SC Sand in Germany, had a major impact at the other end of the pitch too in their March games, scoring the only goal of the game against Greece before heading home Ireland's opener against Montenegro. It all ended in tears but, knowing Caldwell, she'll go again.
April: Kellie Harrington (Boxing)
So, with not a scrap of sport going on, we started a three month spell when we doffed our caps to sportswomen making admirable contributions outside their more familiar sporting worlds, the first of which was our 2018 Sportswoman of the Year, Kellie Harrington.
It was when she was in London for the subsequently postponed Olympic qualifying tournament that the sporting world was locked down. When she came home to Dublin, she chose to return to her job as a cleaner in St Vincent's Hospital in Fairview, knowing that they were understaffed through sickness and holiday leave.
Her frontline work included cleaning the hospital’s newly opened isolation ward, and when she had that done she was entertaining the patients and staff by shadow-boxing to a variety of tunes, the clapping and cheering suggesting that she was keeping spirits high. She found time, too, to get involved in a campaign to help people deal with both the physical and mental impact of the crisis, while carrying on training in her homemade gym. The Energizer Bunny could only watch and weep.
May: Orlagh Farmer (Gaelic Football)
The six-time All-Ireland winner was another who never rested during lockdown, using it to finish her PhD, which focussed on the reasons for why so many young girls drop out of sport at an early age. As a player, coach, qualified PE teacher and lecturer at the Cork College of Commerce in Early Childhood Physical Activity, she is better placed than most to understand the challenges on that front.
“Fun and enjoyment” are, she concluded, “the biggest motivators for young girls staying in sport”, so, with that in mind, while worrying that more girls would drift away from football during lockdown, she created a series of online videos largely aimed at them, the sessions combining lessons in the basic skills of football with everything from dancing to Tai Chi, all designed to make them both instructive and fun.
She was, she said, blown away by the reaction with clubs from all over the country contacting her to say how much their young girls, especially, were loving them. Come November, though, Farmer had less time to produce them – she was busy helping Cork reach yet another All Ireland final.
June: Gina Akpe-Moses (Athletics)
Akpe-Moses first came to the attention of most of us back in July 2017 when, at 18, she won gold in the 100 metres at the European Under-20 Championships, Ireland’s first ever European women’s sprint title at under-20 to senior level.
This summer, though, while her sport was locked down, she became a powerful voice on the issue of racism, along with other Irish sportswomen like athlete Nadia Power and footballer Rianna Jarrett.
In response to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, Akpe-Moses spoke of her own experience of racism since moving as a child to Ireland from Nigeria with her family and, even though she has represented Ireland in athletics since she was 15, the notion that her allegiance is fleeting, the tricolour a flag of convenience, and that, because of the colour of her skin, she's not really Irish.
“I am part of Ireland,” she said. And she intends representing her country for many years to come.
July: Ciara Mageean (Athletics)
Before the first race of her post-lockdown season in Switzerland, Mageean previewed the run-out by describing it as a "rust-buster". It might have been reasonable to assume, then, that she'd just be easing herself back in to action, that there'd be no fireworks.
So much for that. She only went and became the first Irish woman to break the two-minute barrier in the 800 metres. That was some rust-busting.
Rose-Anne Galligan had held the record, running 2:00.58 in London seven years before, but the Co Down woman produced an exceptional effort to clock 1:59.69 to put herself, not for the first time, in the Irish athletics' history books. She was already the holder of the indoor mile and 1,500m records, setting both marks last year. And come August, at the Diamond League in Monaco, she added another record to her collection, knocking three and a half seconds off Sonia O'Sullivan's 27-year-old 1,000m mark.
August: Katie Taylor (Boxing)
She won her first monthly award back in 2005 when she was just 19, and since then she’s collected 12 more – not to mention her four Sportswoman of the Year awards. Much as she is in boxing, then, Taylor is out on her own in these awards.
Come the end of 2020, she remained undefeated in her professional career: 17 fights, 17 wins. The first of her two bouts this year was the big one, her much anticipated rematch with Delfine Persoon in the peculiar surroundings of Eddie Hearn's Matchroom HQ in Essex. If the verdict in their first fight in New York was controversial, this time Taylor was given a unanimous points decision over the Belgian after another gruelling battle that went the distance.
And come November, she overcame another gutsy opponent in Miriam Gutiérrez at the Wembley Arena in London, where she headlined the card, to retain her WBC, IBF, WBO and WBA titles.
September: Martina McMahon (Handball)
One of the most striking aspects of 2020 was how quickly so many of our sports people got back in to the groove after such lengthy lay-offs from competition. McMahon was a case in point.
The Limerick woman, a multiple world title winner and commonly regarded in her sport as one of its greatest ever players, passed her time, while the handball courts were closed, travelling the country and doing relaxing things like climbing Carrauntoohil.
Come September, though, as she put it herself, it was “gloves tied, goggles on, ready to go” when the All Ireland Senior Softball Championship came around. How’d she do? Quarter-final: won 21-0, 21-0. Semi-final: won 21-1, 21-2. Final: 21-2, 21-8. It was her third All Ireland 60x30 Softball title in a row, and her fourth in all.
As Dessie Keegan, President of the GAA Handball Association, put it after the match, "I think Martina McMahon is probably a once in a generation handball player. She is absolutely dominant."
October: Sanita Puspure (Rowing)
When our reigning Sportswoman of the Year headed to Poznan in October it should have been her first outing after the Tokyo Olympics. As it proved, it was her first competitive event of the whole year.
By then, she admitted to having struggled to stay motivated, finding training alone especially hard. “I found that really, really challenging,” she said. “The intention to train well was there, but I don’t think I did because subconsciously there was no motivation to push myself to the very limit of what I could have done.”
Her expectations might, then, have been low enough when she set off for Poland, but she not only retained her single sculls title at the rescheduled European Championships, she cruised to victory, collecting her sixth major international medal. And no sooner had she that gold medal around her neck, she was talking about her Tokyo ambitions again. All eyes on 2021.
November: Stephanie Meadow (Golf)
It's eight years since the Antrim woman won her first monthly award, the then 20-year-old having a stellar year with the University of Alabama's golf team, winning the point that sealed the Curtis Cup for the British and Irish team over the United States, and then, for good measure, winning the British Open Amateur title.
It’s been a rollercoaster since, from the high of finishing third at the 2014 US Open, her first tournament as a professional, to losing her tour card, all the while struggling with the loss of her father through cancer and the blight of back problems.
Last year, she saved her card with a 25-foot putt on the final hole of her season, and this year, despite all its interruptions, she’s kicked on. The highlight came in November when she matched that US Open third place finish with a superb final round of 69 at the Pelican Women’s Championship. That earned her a cheque for $101,250, lifting her from 59th to 35th on the money list and securing a place in the end-of-season Tour Championship.
Previous Overall Winners
2019: Sanita Puspure - Rowing
2018: Kellie Harrington - Boxing
2017: Jessica Harrington - Horse racing
2016: Annalise Murphy - Sailing
2015: Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery - GAA
2014: Katie Taylor - Boxing
2013: Fiona Coghlan - Rugby
2012: Katie Taylor - Boxing
2011: Nina Carberry - Horse racing
2010: Grainne Murphy - Swimming
2009: Olive Loughnane - Athletics
2008: Katie Taylor - Boxing
2007: Katie Taylor - Boxing
2006: Derval O’Rourke - Athletics
2005: Briege Corkery - GAA
2004: Cathy Gannon - Horse racing
Previous Outstanding Contribution Award Recipients
2019: Mary Geaney - Gaelic Games
2018: Irish Hockey team
2017: Mary Davis - Special Olympics
2016: Sonia O’Sullivan - Athletics
2015: Catherina McKiernan - Athletics
2014: Joanna Morgan - Horse racing
2013: Rosemary Smith - Rally driving
2012: Maeve Kyle - Contribution to sport
2011: Mary McKenna - Golf
2010: Jessica Harrington - Equestrian
2009: Ann and Angela Downey - Camogie
2008: Mary Peters - Athletics