‘This year has just been a rollercoaster for absolutely everybody’

Monthly winners reflect on what’s been a tough, unusual yet still a successful year

 Ciara Mageean knocked three and a half seconds off Sonia O’Sullivan’s 27-year-old 1,000m mark in 2020. File photograph: Inpho

Ciara Mageean knocked three and a half seconds off Sonia O’Sullivan’s 27-year-old 1,000m mark in 2020. File photograph: Inpho

 

“This year has just been a rollercoaster for absolutely everybody, and it’s no different for us athletes,” said Ciara Mageean, speaking to us at Dublin’s Shelbourne hotel from Marple Village in Manchester, one of the happily virtual recipients of her monthly award.

A rollercoaster indeed, for many a helter-kelter too, a year where at times sport has never felt less important, at other times never felt so missed. At times too it felt like there might be very little of it, only in the end packed more than enough for a 17th staging of The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year awards.

Even if none of the 12 monthly winners could be there in person, their virtual spirit certainly was - as ever impressively spread across nine different sports, including last January’s joint winners Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal from cycling.

Back then, most of the world hadn’t even heard of Covid-19; by the time Mageean won her award for the month of July, the first Irish woman in history to run the 800m in under two minutes, part of the new normal was a year without the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“We started off the year relatively normal, with plans for races ahead, then Covid-19 happened,” she added. “And everything began to change, races dropping left, right and centre. And it was pretty hard to keep on that usual straight track that we have.

“Luckily, athletics is a relatively individual sport, and I was living in a house with my fellow team mates (in Manchester) and was able to train with them. And as soon as the lockdown lifted we travelled to a training camp in St Moritz, and that’s where I raced the 800m, straight out of camp, just dropped down from altitude, and ran the first ever sub-two for 800m for an Irish women, and that was a pretty special moment, to say the least.

“That two-minute barrier has been the monkey on my back for a while now, but I certainly didn’t expect to run it in the first race of my season.”

Mageean certainly wasn’t the only one to put the truncated season to good use (adding another record to her collection, knocking three and a half seconds off Sonia O’Sullivan’s 27-year-old 1,000m mark): Sanita Puspure, in her only competition of the year, retained her single sculls title at the European Rowing Championships in Poland, her sixth major medal in all, while overall winner Katie Taylor twice defended her five lightweight belts - the WBA, IBF, WBO and WBC straps, along with Ring Magazine’s commemorative “ring belt”.

Ireland’s Sanita Puspure celebrates winning a gold medal at the 2020 European Rowing Championships. Photograph: Inpho
Ireland’s Sanita Puspure celebrates winning a gold medal at the 2020 European Rowing Championships. Photograph: Inpho

For three other monthly winners - Kellie Harrington, Orlagh Farmer and Gina Akpe-Moses - the lockdown during Covid-19 provided other opportunities, Harrington bringing some of her fighting spirit out of the boxing ring and into her work, while Akpe-Moses also brought attention to the fight that still is the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It was coming after the (Tokyo) qualifiers,” said Harrington, “which were cancelled, then postponed into 2021, so I just dedicated myself to my job, put myself up for full-time work, and got full-time work there in St Vincent’s hospital in Fairview (in cleaning), and was doing seven days one week, four days the next.

“I’d bring in my speaker, put on some music, and we had all kinds of shadow-boxing challenges, just trying to lift morale of people in the job. Because it was a stressful time, at the start of Covid, when no one really knew what was happening, or about this virus. And in the community as well I started to a fitness class, once a week, 30-minute classes, and got my mam and dad involved, my neighbours . . . I just thought it was time to get people connected, in socially-distanced kind of way, and put a smile on people’s faces in a time that was very uncertain for many people.”

Akpe-Moses felt a similar draw towards the Black Lives Matter movement: “Because I wasn’t competing, and being a black person in my sport, I still wanted to let my voice be heard,” she said.

February’s monthly winner Rachael Blackmore went on to have one of her best seasons in the saddle; by the time she rode Honeysuckle to victory at Cheltenham back in March, the Tipperary woman had already won a Grade One double in Leopardstown.

“It was massive,” she said, “and it’s all about Cheltenham for jockeys, it’s where everyone wants to be, riding winners, so to get her to win there especially was a brilliant there.”

September’s winner Martina McMahon also had another standout season in handball, before the success her county Limerick also had in hurling, bringing further attention to the demands of the sport too: “Yeah, a lot of people say ‘I’ll try my hand at that, it doesn’t look too bad’, then once they come inside the four walls it’s a different story,” she said

Finally, November’s winner Stephanie Meadow collected her award virtually from Naples, Florida, where she’s competing alongside Leona Maguire at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburón Golf Club, with a prize fund of €3m, including €1.1m for the winner, the richest prize on offer on the LPGA Tour.

“It’s the biggest event of the year, and I’m thrilled to be here,” said Meadow, the Antrim woman already winning back some of her old consistency in 2020 too.

“A lot of up here,” she added, pointing to her head.” It’s been a tough road, but just believing in yourself, and having the confidence again, and seeing yourself as a person who can do it, and no a person who is going to miss. That takes a long time to recover, after it’s been damaged, but I’ve done a lot of work on that side, and continued everything else. But it’s definitely between the ears too, as in every sport.”

All part of the rollercoaster in a year like no other.

The monthly winners

December 2019: Fionnuala McCormack (Athletics)
January: Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal (Cycling)
February: Rachael Blackmore (Horse racing)
March: Diane Caldwell (Soccer)
April: Kellie Harrington (Boxing)
May: Orlagh Farmer (Gaelic Football)
June: Gina Akpe-Moses (Athletics)
July: Ciara Mageean (Athletics)
August: Katie Taylor (Boxing)
September: Martina McMahon (Handball)
October: Sanita Puspure (Rowing)
November: Stephanie Meadow (Golf)

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