Sportswoman of the Year 2017: The contenders
Monthly winners to receive awards on Friday and overall winner to be announced
The Irish Times Sportswoman of the year will be revealed on Friday
Soccer – Leanne Kiernan
The 18-year-old from Cavan collected our December 2016 award after a year that had a bit of a Roy of the Rovers feel to it, and she has maintained that form in to 2017, right up to her performance last month when she came on in Ireland’s World Cup qualifying draw away to European champions the Netherlands. A talented cross-country runner and Gaelic footballer, the Bailieborough native put her focus on soccer once her talent began being recognised with calls-up to Irish underage squads and a move to top National League side Shelbourne.
It was her performance in last season’s FAI Cup final victory over Wexford Youths at the Aviva Stadium that put her in the headlines, Kiernan scoring a hat-trick against the cup holders who simply had no answer to her pace and skill. That was one of many highlights for her in an exceptional year, Kiernan helping Shelbourne win the league title by averaging a goal a game. She was named FAI Young Player of the Year, not just for her club form, but also for her performances with the Irish under-17 and under-19 teams.
Basketball – Gráinne Dwyer
After losing four of their stalwarts to retirement (Niamh Dwyer, Miriam Byrne, Amanda O’Regan and Marie Breen), Glanmire might have expected their first season without the quartet to be one of transition. So much for that. Inspired by Dwyer, they won a record fourth National Cup in succession with a 61-48 victory over Courtyard Liffey Celtics. That success brought to five the number of National Cup medals won by the Thurles woman, her ability to produce a big performance on the biggest of days demonstrated by the fact that she was named MVP (most valuable player) in three of the last four finals.
Dwyer, who joined Glanmire in 2008 and has been one of the driving forces behind their unrelenting success, celebrates her 33rd birthday this month. And she has plenty left to offer. “I’ll stop playing when I feel like I don’t care any more,” she said. That, you suspect, won’t be for a while yet, the quest for more success now pushing in to 2018 which will include challenges on the international front too, Ireland hosting the European Championship for Small Countries in Cork next summer.
Rugby – Paula Fitzpatrick
The 2017 Six Nations seem like a lifetime ago now, the bulk of the year’s rugby focus on the summer’s World Cup hosted by Ireland. Back in February and March, though, Fitzpatrick took over the captaincy of the side in the absence of the injured Niamh Briggs and led the team to victory in their opening four games, against Scotland, Italy, France and Wales. While it was an indication of the standards the team had set for itself that there was little satisfaction with the performances in those games, even if they yielded maximum points, Fitzpatrick made the point herself at the time – the ability to grind out victories while not being at your best is a handy weapon to have too.
In the first half of their grand slam decider against the then reigning world champions England in Donnybrook, Fitzpatrick and her team showed glimpses of the form they wanted to bring in to the World Cup. In the end, though, England won comfortably. Ultimately, of course, the World Cup proved to be a disappointment, Fitzpatrick’s two tries against Japan, that rescued a victory when Ireland had trailed 14-0, rare enough bright spots in the competition.
Camogie – Aoife Cassidy
It’s probably been the most common refrain in Gaelic games the last year: “They’re some club, Slaughtneil.” And if 2016 wasn’t momentous enough, when the Derry club won an historic Ulster treble in camogie, hurling and men’s football, they only went and did it again in 2017, all three teams in to the All-Ireland club championship semi-finals in early 2018. Only one of them, though, will go in to their game as defending All-Ireland champions, Slaughtneil’s camogie team winning their first title back in March when they beat Galway’s Sarsfields, becoming only the second club from Ulster to achieve the feat.
Winning appears to have become a habit. Towards the end of October, captain Aoife Cassidy was raising the Ulster trophy again after Slaughtneil came from behind to beat Antrim’s Loughgiel Shamrocks. Cassidy was captain too on that March day in Croke Park, lining out alongside her sisters Eilis and Brona, the occasion a deeply poignant one for her family following the death the previous October of their father Thomas, one of the driving forces behind the development of hurling and camogie at the club. She delivered her victory speech in Irish, a tribute to her father who had a passion for the language. “Ni neart go cur le chéile,” she concluded, “there is no strength without unity”. Slaughtneil have been the living embodiment of that.
Badminton – Chloe Magee
Having represented Ireland in three Olympic Games by the time she was 27, the first as a 19-year-old in Beijing, Donegal’s Chloe Magee decided she needed a different kind of challenge in her badminton career once she returned home from Rio in 2016. Her decision then was to step away from singles and put all her energies in to her mixed doubles partnership with her brother Sam, 13 months her junior, to see how far they could go as a team.
When they stood on the podium in Denmark back in April to collect their bronze medals at the European Championships, making them the first players ever to medal for Ireland at the event, she knew then that her post-Rio decision had been a wise one. They went in to the tournament unseeded, but beat the number five and four ranked partnerships en route to the semi-final . It was, said Chloe, “the biggest achievement of my whole career” and the realising of a long-held ambition, to win a major international medal.
Two months later they teamed up to win the Spanish International in Madrid, and come the end of the year they were ranked in the world’s top thirty. A fourth Olympic appearance could well be within reach.
Horse Racing – Jessica Harrington
Harrington’s year just got better and better as it went along. Turning Sizing John into a three-mile chaser looked a desperate throw of the dice at the time, likely forced on her by the fact the horse kept coming second to Douvan at two miles. But to make him a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner into the bargain was an outlandish feat.
To follow up with a Punchestown Gold Cup and an Irish Grand National, this time with Our Duke, was beyond the beyonds. “It’s been an unbelievable year, it really has. If anyone had told me it would be like this I would have said, ‘Oh Jesus, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.’ But it’s been an incredible year and I’ve been so lucky. It’s so very horse-dependent, that’s the key to it. Everything came together this year and when it does come together, those things happen.
“That’s how it turned out. Dream stuff. And you’ve got to be hopeful that it will keep going. If we weren’t hopeful we’d be no good at all.”
Golf – Leona Maguire
The Mark K McCormack medal for the world’s leading amateur golfer has been awarded for the past seven years on the women’s side and only three names are on the roll of honour – Minjee Lee, Lydia Ko and Leona Maguire. The Cavan golfer joined the already legendary Ko as a three-time winner this year after winning three of her 10 NCAA tournaments for Duke University.
“It’s a huge honour for me,” said Maguire. “To win it once was one thing but to win it three times is quite a humbling feeling. I know there have been some great names before me but to have my name on there three times is something very special and something that I am very proud of.”
Maguire racked up numerous awards in 2017. She became the first golfer to win the Annika award for a second time, presented to the outstanding college golfer in the US. And she was also voted the Women’s Golf Coaches Association (WGCA) player of the year for the second time.
Swimming – Mona McSharry
Out of the blue, a new star in the pool. The Sligo teenager picked up two golds and a silver medal at the European Junior Championships in Israel in June and followed up with the first ever Irish swimming gold at the World Junior Championships later that month in the US.
“I just didn’t believe it,” she told Keith Duggan earlier this month. “It felt like a dream. Even going out and collecting my stuff out the back, I couldn’t believe it had happened. It was so fast. I was so happy because, yeah, I knew I’d put in so much effort.”
McSharry is in Copenhagen this week, competing at senior level in the European short-course championships. Her first attempt at taking on senior swimmers saw her make the semi-finals of the 50-metre breaststroke and finish 12th overall. Her time of 30.39 seconds was 0.2 seconds outside her own Irish record and for her first appearance at a senior championships, it was no mean feat.
Athletics – Gina Akpe-Moses
Success came sooner to Gina Akpe-Moses than she could have imagined. She went to the European under-20 Championships in Italy in July confident of making the 100m final but not expecting a medal. By the time she got on the plane home, she was the European champion. Mad.
“No, I didn’t expect it,” she says. “By my ranking, I was expecting to make the final but not to medal. I went there ranked fourth so I figured I would be one person short of actually getting a medal. It was very different to what I had expected. Because mentally I had prepared for a challenge and I was ready to take on the challenge, the fact that it went quite smoothly in the end was something I didn’t expect.
“Getting a sponsor and an agent and the commercial stuff that started to come along after it, that probably hit me more than anything in the aftermath. That wasn’t something I had thought about at all. But winning helped me get those things, they kind of made me realise, like, ‘Oh yeah, what happened was actually quite big.’
Para-cycling – Eve McCrystal & Katie-George Dunlevy
This pair have just gone from triumph to triumph over the past few years. They followed up their gold and silver at the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016 with a phenomenal double gold at the World Championships in South Africa in August. Eve McCrystal also had success as a solo rider in the Rás na mBan, ditto Katie-George Dunlevy in the national championships with her other partner Katherine Smyth. Where they go now is anyone’s guess.
“We made up our minds in Rio, before we raced at all, that we were going to continue on until the World Championships at least,” says McCrystal. “For every rider the rainbow jersey is a jersey that you want so we had said that regardless of what happened, we would continue and go for that jersey.
“So we didn’t really take that break that most athletes do after an Olympic or Paralympic cycle. So we’ve kept working really and it paid off. Tokyo is a long way away. We would obviously like to defend the jersey next year so that’s a short-term goal.”
Camogie – Rena Buckley
If there’s one thing that makes Rena Buckley uncomfortable it’s having to talk about her achievements. She had a lot of talking to do in 2017. Since she first pulled on the Cork jersey as a teenager, she has enjoyed a bewildering amount of success, playing in 22 senior All-Ireland finals in camogie and Gaelic football, suffering defeat in just four. The six years she did the double with Cork might always be hard to top, but on a personal level 2017 was especially memorable, Buckley captaining Cork’s camogie team to victory over defending champions Kilkenny.
That triumph earned her an 18th All-Ireland medal, made her the first woman to captain Cork to success in both camogie and football, and moved her ahead at the top of the roll of honour of her long-time comrade Briege Corkery, with whom she shared our 2015 Sportswoman of the Year award. She is, then, now the most successful woman in the history of Gaelic games. The personal honours kept on rolling in after that. She collected her 10th All Star (five each in football and camogie), and was named camogie player of the year for the first time. And, since then, she has been named as one of the nominees for RTÉ’s sportsperson of the year.
Gaelic football – Sinead Aherne
It’s easy now to say that the Dublin famine in women’s football was going to end sometime. But it can’t ever have felt that way on the inside – given the string of lost finals, chances are the opposite was true. Sinead Aherne has been through the mill with them over the years and the end of a long wait was down in no small part to her display in the final against Mayo.
“It’s not something we’d won since 2010 and it was a lot of people’s first All-Ireland - a good few of them weren’t there in 2010. It’s a huge achievement in terms of what players spend their whole careers trying to go after and not everybody can get there. So we’re very aware of the privilege of being in that position.
“Any season stands on its own too, it’s separate to what’s gone before. In terms of personnel, in terms of experience, it’s different to what went before and what comes after. So as a season on its own, it was certainly sweet enough by itself and winning an All-Ireland definitely stands by itself.”
Boxing – Katie Taylor
The four-time winner of the Irish Times Sportswoman of the Year award is still crossing new boundaries, finding a new path for women’s sport. Her first year as a professional boxer has gone to plan. At the time of writing, she was preparing to defend her world title and protect here pristine record in the paid ranks.
“It’s an absolute privilege to be in this position,” said Taylor at the weigh-in on Tuesday. “The fight last time for my pro title was probably the best fight of my career. It’s been a great year for me. I’m definitely a more professional fighter now than I have ever been. I am learning all the time. I’ve only seven pro fights and I believe every fight for me is a learning curve as well, especially in the last fight. I definitely learned a lot in that fight.”
Last night’s fight took her career earnings across the €1m barrier, making her the first Irish sportswoman to do so. In a league of her own, just like she’s always been.
Soccer – Katie McCabe
Katie McCabe won’t forget 2017 in a hurry. At both club and international level there was a distinct shortage of dull moments for the young Dubliner, her year with the Republic of Ireland concluding with arguably their finest ever result, a draw away to European champions the Netherlands in their World Cup qualifying group. By then 2017 had been turbulent enough, McCabe standing alongside her international team-mates at Liberty Hall back in April when they took a stand against their treatment by the FAI.
One of the leading voices that day was goalkeeper and captain Emma Byrne, and when she announced her retirement from the international game come summer, it was McCabe who coach Colin Bell chose as her successor, despite being just 21. But Bell was confident McCabe had the required leadership skills – and so it has proved. She led the team in to three World Cup qualifying games, they won two of them 2-0 and they drew with the Dutch, leaving them joint top of the table at year’s end. They’ve put themselves in the running for a place in the 2019 finals in France. On the club front, McCabe has returned to Arsenal after a loan spell with Glasgow City who she helped win the league title.