Sonia O’Sullivan: Irish sports women ready for just rewards

From Kellie Harrington to the hockey team a taste of success and reward can be the driving force

 Women’s world boxing champion Kellie Harrington:  So many different paths have been taken by each of the monthly award winners. Photograph:  Tom Honan.

Women’s world boxing champion Kellie Harrington: So many different paths have been taken by each of the monthly award winners. Photograph: Tom Honan.

 

It’s possibly a little unfair to say we’ve never had a year like this before. There have been lots of high achievers in Irish women’s sport in recent years, only never has there been so many, or so varied, as in 2018.

The list of contenders for The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year award is the perfect reflection of that, the annual gathering at the Shelbourne Hotel on Friday bringing together nine individual monthly winners, and six joint-winners, from the previous 12 months.

Plenty more high achievers narrowly missed out, and can only be inspired to try that little bit harder in 2019 to raise their performance to stand out further and join this elite group.

It shows how far women’s sport in Ireland has come in recent years when you look closely at that range of winners: 10 different sports, with joint winners for August in Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal (cycling), September in Sanita Puspure (rowing) and Sinead Aherne (Gaelic football), and October in Rachael Blackmore (horse racing) and Katie Taylor (boxing).

This bringing together of the finest group of Irish sportswomen gives each athlete the opportunity to reflect and also to look forward to what is yet to be achieved in the year ahead. Sometimes too an athlete can be lost within their sport, not realise the diversity and high level of achievement across such a wide range of sports by their fellow sportswomen.

Bringing these women together also helps them to realise they are not alone but part of a movement that is inspiring young women coming through throughout the country to follow in their footsteps and aspire to even greater success.

These women’s awards, now in their 15th year, possibly have bigger pressure than before too: choosing just one standout performer as the Sportswoman of the Year.

Ireland’s hockey team celebrate with their World Cup silver medals. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ireland’s hockey team celebrate with their World Cup silver medals. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

In any non-Olympic year, there is an argument for each monthly winner to lay claim to the overall winner’s trophy, and it really is difficult to single out one winner that deserves the overall award more than any other.

Yet this is not just about one athlete achieving more, but also how their achievements inspired a nation of sports women to believe that maybe they too can achieve success if they play a bit harder, train a bit more specific and aim that bit higher.

There is very little that Irish women have not achieved: World Cup finals, Olympic finals, World and European championship gold medal winners. Four of the 2018 monthly winners are world champions; Kellie Harrington and her former Irish team-mate Katie Taylor in boxing, Sanita Puspure in rowing and cycling’s Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal.

For any young girls that are exposed to this level of success they will see that women who have grown from young girls just like them can achieve success and no dream is too big. Each of these athletes will also have had ups and downs along the way yet the lows are easily forgotten when they reach the highs of winning and walking out for a final.

So many different paths have been taken by each of the monthly award winners there is a wide web of connection to aspiring schoolgirls throughout the country. Part of the challenge now is to get as many young girls involved in sport as possible.

The Daily Mile is one such route, sprouting up all over the country, giving school boys and girls the chance to burn off some energy and energise for the school day ahead. This is an all inclusive fun activity, and I’ve no doubt it is also the perfect talent spotting ground in a non-competitive unpressurized environment.

We are in a time now where talent needs to be spotted and nurtured from a young age, athletes need to be introduced to formal sporting activities, encouraged without being pushed and introduced to the successful athletes that they can aspire to.

I was a little surprised recently at the National Cross Country Championships at Abbotstown as there were All-Ireland medals given out to the top-10 finishers in all under-age races. There were also chances to pick up county and provincial medals, some athletes came home with three All-Ireland medals, and it just seemed a bit too easy to feel like you’d achieved more success than you really had.

Dublin’s All-Ireland winner Sinead Aherne: Each of these athletes will have had ups and downs along the way yet the lows are easily forgotten when they reach the highs of winning and walking out for a final. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Dublin’s All-Ireland winner Sinead Aherne: Each of these athletes will have had ups and downs along the way yet the lows are easily forgotten when they reach the highs of winning and walking out for a final. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

A medal should just be for the podium, top-three athletes, so that it feels like an elusive and exclusive club.

There is no doubt to finish in the top-10 of an All-Ireland cross country race is a great achievement. But this should also be something that drives the hunger to get closer to the top three next time, rather than be rewarded with a token medal that in a way degrades the bronze medal, when you get the same medal finishing in 10th position.

When I look back at the recent European Cross country Championships and the junior women coming agonisingly close to a bronze, just three points shy of stepping on the podium, you realise success doesn’t always have a reward. To see three young Irish girls hovering in the top 10 for much of the race was a rare sight, and yet it felt right, but missing out on bronze can only heighten their desire for next year.

There were many “what ifs” after the race, questions that would no doubt have been put aside if a medal was achieved. Yet just by the narrowest of margins the mood went from what could’ve been scenes of jubilation to one of devastation.

These are times when you look back on all the hard work put in, and realise that sometimes things can be out of your control, and for all the plans and scenarios played out in your mind cross-country can be one of the most unpredictable sports out there. This is the time when an athlete is really tested, made to put things in perspective and realise that one race does not determine your life in sport.

It also made me think back on a cross country race I ran over 30 years ago in Monaghan, in the under-13 All-Ireland cross country championships. We had travelled all the way from Cork by bus, it was cold and wet and dark, a muddy field with a big steep hill. I was 12 years old and lost my shoe in the mud early on, and crossed the finish line way down the field.

Cork county still won a bronze medal, but I didn’t even make the scoring six. It was probably one of the worst races I ever ran, and with many “what ifs” on that long drive back to Cork.

You can’t change a past result but you can put it aside, look ahead and always do better the next time. A taste of success and just rewards are often the best driver of that.

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