From Katie Taylor to Megan Rapinoe – the 20 best moments of the year in women’s sport

It has been a remarkable year for women’s sport, domestically and internationally. Here we recount 20 highlights from 2019.

 

March 15th, Cheltenham

Rachael Blackmore  wins at Cheltenham

Day by day, we are watching history unfolding with Rachael Blackmore. Before 2018/19, the highest number of winners ever by a female jumps jockey in a season stood at 39 and belonged to Nina Carberry. Blackmore blitzed that last season, eventually ending up with 90 and coming second in the Irish jockeys’ championship to Paul Townend. For context, the only other jockeys who’ve hit 90 winners in a season this decade are Ruby Walsh (four times), Davy Russell (three) and Bryan Cooper (once). It’s not just that no woman has ever been at this level before; very few jockeys of either gender have.

She’d been to Cheltenham for the festival before but had never ridden a winner. This time around, she rode two. On the opening day, she cruised to a 16-length win in a handicap on A Plus Tard but it was on the final day that her first festival Grade One arrived. Riding the 50/1 outsider Minella Indo, she controlled the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle from the front, took it up three from home and powered up the hill in front. They teamed up again to double up at Punchestown the following month, another in a long line of winners for the prolific, mould-breaking jockey. – MC

March 3rd, Glasgow
 

Ciara Mageean  wins European indoor bronze

Even before Ciara Mageean played her part in winning team silver for Ireland at the European Cross Country Championships in Portugal at the beginning of December, she had already been named Irish Athlete of the Year at a ceremony in Dublin. It was, then, an unforgettable year for the 27-year-old from Portaferry.

She began it by setting a new Irish indoor mile record in Boston and taking two seconds off her own indoor 1,500m record before she set off for Glasgow for the European Indoor Championships. And there she won bronze to add to the same colour medal she collected at the outdoor European Championships back in 2016. She came close enough to making it a silver too, just overtaken by Poland’s Sofia Ennaoui at the death, with Scotland’s Laura Muir winning gold.

Mageean took that form in to the outdoor season, culminating at the World Championships in Doha where she became only the second ever women’s finalist from Ireland, after Sonia O’Sullivan in 1987, her time of 4:00.15, in an insanely fast race won by Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands, agonisingly close to seeing her break the four-minute barrier. And just for good measure, she completed her year with that rare enough cross country outing, her 20th place finish helping Ireland to that team silver. – MH

March 31st, Adelaide Oval  
 

Ailish Considine  wins title with Adelaide

Five Irish women played in the third season of the AFLW – by the time the business end of it came around, Ailish Considine was the only one still standing. The Clare footballer/camogie player/multi-talented all-rounder was a key player for Adelaide as the Crows regained their title having not made the finals the previous year.

Considine’s route to Australia came through the CrossCode trials, a kind of Aussie Rules version of the NFL Combine run for athletes from other sports to see if they can apply their skills to the oval ball. She was snapped up by the Crows without really knowing that it meant she’d be going to one of the strongest contenders for the overall title.

They lost their opener but went unbeaten the rest of the way and demolished Geelong and Carlton to take the title. Considine scored early goals in the semi-final and final to send them on their way and emerged as one of the best rookie imports in the league. It is no surprise, therefore, that the AFLW have come back looking for more ahead of the 2020 season, with 18 players having signed up so far to spend their spring down under. – MC

May 17th, North Carolina

Leona Maguire  earns her LPGA Tour card

Recently, when Golfweek magazine did their end-of-decade lists for college golf, they put Leona Maguire in at number one, describing her as one of the greatest collegiate golfers in history. That’s her past. The first step along the road to her future came in the early summer of this year when she won two professional tournaments inside the space of five weeks on the Symetra Tour, one step down from the LPGA tour.

The second one was the Symetra Classic in North Carolina in May. Four players tied for the lead going into the final round but Maguire blew the competition away with a bogey-free 66. As everyone else fell away, she racked up birdie after birdie to win comfortably in the end, five shots clear. The win pushed her to number one on the Symetra Tour rankings and with full LPGA cards going to the top 10 players at the end of the season, it meant she could cruise through the rest of the summer reasonably sure of making it. She saw it out with ease, finishing seventh overall and securing full tour rights for 2020. – MC

May 26th, Poznan
 

Jenny Egan  takes canoe sprint silver

Jenny Egan has long been one of Ireland’s leading sportswomen on the international stage and 2019 proved to be yet another successful year, the fact that she finished the season at number one in the canoe sprint world rankings a fair indication of the consistency and level of performance she produced.

She succeeded in building on a memorable 2018 during which she became the first ever medallist for Ireland at the sprint canoe World Championships, winning bronze in the K1 5000m in Portugal, adding a gold to her medal haul over the same distance at the sprint World Cup in the same country.

The high points of 2019 for Egan, a member of the Salmon Leap club in Leixlip, came in Poznan and Duisburg where, in the space of a week, she won two more World Cup medals. In Poland, in what was her first 5,000m race of the year, she missed out on gold by less than a second, Ukraine’s Inna Hryshchun pipping her in the sprint for the line, and a week later she was back on the World Cup podium, this time in Germany, once again involved in the tightest of finishes, crossing the line just behind Australian pair Alyce Burnett and Alyssa Bull. Not a bad week’s work. – MH

July 7th, Lyon

Megan Rapinoe  leads US to World Cup 

It’s a measure of the year the 34-year-old Californian enjoyed, and the impact she made both on and off the field, that come December Sports Illustrated chose her for their much coveted Sportsperson of the Year award, making Megan Rapinoe just the fourth woman – after Chris Evert, Mary Decker and Serena Williams – to win it by herself (six other women have shared the award, and the entire World Cup-winning US squad collected it in 1999).

She also hoovered up the Golden Ball (player of the tournament) and Golden Boot (top scorer – six goals and three assists) awards from the World Cup, her sixth goal the opener in the final when she converted a penalty to send the US on their way to victory over the Dutch. And in December she was the overwhelming choice for the Ballon d’Or.

Off the field, Rapinoe used her platform to speak out on a number of issues, among them the US team’s battle for equal pay, racism and homophobia, her insistence that she would not visit the White House in protest against Donald Trump earning her the honour of an angry tweet from the President. “She should WIN before she TALKS! Finish the job,” he said before the World Cup. Her celebration of her goal in the final was, then, one of the sporting images of the year, her outstretched arms and raised head sending a message to the Oval office: job done. – MH

July 28th, Evian-Les-Bains

Jin Young Ko  wins second major of year

Very few people worldwide have dominated their sport like Jin Young Ko dominated golf in 2019. She won four times on the LPGA Tour, including two majors. She was almost half a shot clear of the field when it came to scoring average – for context, Rory McIlory led that stat on the men’s tour by just under a quarter of a shot. She was runner-up three times, had five other top-10s and didn’t miss a cut all year.

The 24-year-old South Korean golfer also broke one of Tiger Woods’s most incredible records at the Portland Classic in August. Wood’s streak of 110 holes without a bogey in competition had lasted for 19 years before Ko passed it across three tournaments in late summer, going the final 36 holes of the British Open and the whole of the CP Women’s Open in Canada bogey-free.

Her run came to an end on the ninth hole of the Portland Classic, where she missed a three-footer for par to end the streak at 114. She was asked afterwards what was she thinking when the three-footer missed. “Now it’s done,” she said. “I’m free.”

She begins 2020o as the world number one, a distance clear of the field. Catching her will be a huge task for the rest of the sport. – MC

August 11th, Kansas City, Missouri

Simone Biles  performs triple double 

As Sports Illustrated put it, “this holiday season, consider the less fortunate, such as all the world-class female gymnasts who had the lousy luck to be born around the same time as Simone Biles. Many of them could have won gold medals if they had just come along a decade earlier or later. Instead, they’re all battling for second place.”

It was back in August that the video of Biles becoming the first woman to land a triple double in competition during a floor routine attained viral status, the bulk of the replies along the lines of: ‘How is that even humanly possible?’

She was a bit puzzled herself. “Sometimes I wonder how I do it,” she said. But she did it, and she now has yet another gymnastics move named after her in a year also saw her complete the unprecedented double twisting, double somersault dismount on the balance beam. And she ended up with five gold medals at the world championships, making her the most decorated gymnast in the tournament’s history with 25 medals in all.

Along the way, she wore a leotard with a bedazzled G.O.A.T. on the back. As in ‘greatest of all time’. No one’s arguing. – MH

August 15th, Istanbul

Stephanie Frappart  referees the Super Cup

The sky didn’t fall in. The ground didn’t shake. There were no plagues of locusts and it didn’t start raining frogs. On August 15th, in Istanbul, a woman refereed the Super Cup game between Liverpool and Chelsea and the one time nobody made a big deal of it was during the actual game.

French referee Stephanie Frappart led an all-female officiating crew, assisted by Irishwoman Michelle O’Neill and Manuela Nicolosi of Italy. It nearly feels embarrassing now to look back at the fuss that was made of it beforehand, not to mention the round of competitive back-slapping that went with it afterwards. If everyone has to fall over themselves to highlight how enlightened a move it was, maybe we’re not as advanced on this front as we think we are.

Frappart also refereed the women’s World Cup final this year, as well as several matches in Ligue 1. And in November, she took charge of the under-21 men’s international between Italy and Armenia. All of which would make you imagine that it surely won’t be long until she and other female refs are given the whistle for full internationals and Champions League games and all the rest of it as a matter of course. And we’ll all look a bit silly for the days when they weren’t. – MC

September 1st, Ottensheim, Austria
 

Sanita Puspure  retains world rowing gold

Sanita Puspure’s 2019 would have been impressive enough, but that she achieved what she did while coping with the pain of the loss of her sister Inese, who passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer, made her success all the more remarkable. “It was a tough year,” she said after successfully defending her World Championship title in Austria, “there were times when I thought I’d be happy just to qualify. I hope Inese would be proud of me. Now, finally, I can put training and competition aside and go home and reflect on what happened and cry my eyes out. Now is the time.”

But still, through it all, she managed to take gold in the two major events of her year, first in June at the European Championships in Lucerne, where she set a new European record to beat title holder Jeannine Gmelin of Switzerland, and then, most memorably, in Austria. Her powerful performance in the semi-finals sealed her qualification for the Olympics, and she came from behind in the final to overtake former world champion Emma Twigg of New Zealand for a clear-water win to retain the gold medal she had won in Bulgaria the year before. - MH

September 8th, Croke Park

Niamh Kilkenny  bosses All-Ireland  final

It only happens a handful of times in any given year that a player takes over a match and steers it to their own liking. The All-Ireland camogie final began and finished in more or less the same way – with Niamh Kilkenny on the run, in charge, dictating the course of the minutes that mattered.

This was her fifth All-Ireland final. She’d lost three of the previous four. You only had to watch the opening 90 seconds to know that she was in no mood to make it four defeats from five. Her first incision split the Kilkenny defence after gathering up scraps around midfield and draw the cover, sending Ailish O’Reilly away for the opening goal. Two minutes short of half-time, she and O’Reilly repeated the dose in virtually the same manner – Kilkenny on the rampage, defenders sucked in, O’Reilly applying the finish.

Galway were six clear at half-time but wobbled a touch in the second half and allowed the margin winnow to two with six minutes to go. At which point, Niamh Kilkenny just took it over again, swapping her third and fourth points of the day and wet-nursing her team across the line. For those of us lucky enough to be there, it was a sight to see. – MC

September 15th, Gleneagles

Suzann Pettersen  holes winning putt 

No Solheim Cup has ever finished with this level of drama. Suzann Pettersen wasn’t even supposed to be there. She had fallen to 635th in the world after taking a career break to have baby and indeed most people had presumed she was retired. She was initially brought on board as a vice-captain and when Catriona Matthew made her wildcard pick to play, there was plenty of crabbing at what was perceived to be an old pals act.

Europe were huge underdogs going up against a star-studded American team. They went into the singles level at 8-8 and it was assumed that the greater firepower of the American team would see them through. But when Bronte Law won three of her closing four holes to beat Ally McDonald, Europe were in with a squeak. Georgia Hall won the headline match against Lexi Thompson and Anna Nordqvist finally found some form at the end of a patchy week to beat Morgan Pressel.

It all came down to Pettersen’s match against Marina Alex, which made it all the way to the 18th. A tie would have left the final score at 14-14 and the US would have retained the cup. Instead, Pettersen rolled in an eight-footer for the most dramatic win the competition has ever seen. –MC

September 15th, Croke Park
 

Dublin win third All-Ireland in-a-row

It gets lost a little just how far Dublin have come over the back end of the decade. For years, they were supplicants to the all-conquering Cork team, charged essentially with finding new and interesting ways to lose to them. To go from that to being the all-purpose killers that have now put three titles back-to-back is some turnaround.

Mick Bohan’s team did it this time around with the minimum of fuss. On an apocalyptic afternoon weatherwise in Croke Park, they outlasted a young Galway team as much as outplayed them. The game was actually scoreless for the first 22 minutes, as conditions and nerves led to players snatching at scoring chances all over the place.

It was no shocker that the player to put an end to the misery was Sinead Goldrick, Dublin’s leader from centre-half back. She surged up towards the Hill 16 end and exchanged a one-two with Hannah O’Neill before burying a goal past Galway ’keeper Lisa Murphy. On a day like that, Galway were never going to reel in the defending champions. With Lyndsey Davey increasingly influential, they chalked up their second goal 10 minutes into the second half and that was that. – MC

September 29th, Doha, Qatar

Allyson Felix  wins 12th World  gold

The 34-year-old sprinter actually brought her tally of World Championship gold medals to 13 in Doha, but much of the focus was on her 12th, which she won when she was part of the successful American mixed-gender 4x400m relay team.

That gold saw her move ahead of Usain Bolt in the list of athletes to collect the most World Championship gold medals, Felix making it a lucky 13 when she was a member of the triumphant women’s 4x400m relay team – although she only ran in the heats. Those feats leave her as one of the most decorated track and field athletes of all time, having won nine medals from her four Olympic appearances, six of them gold.

And Felix, who gave birth to her first child in November 2018, used her status to join fellow athletes Alysia Montano, Kara Goucher and Phoebe Wright to speak out against her former sponsors Nike who, they revealed, either paused or cut payments to their female athletes when they became pregnant. As a result, Nike changed their maternity policy, exempting their athletes from ‘minimum performance standards governing pay for 18 months’. “Our voices have power,” said Felix on hearing the news. – MH

October 27th, North Carolina

Denise O’Sullivan  wins second US title

It felt a lot like this was probably the year that the penny dropped and people realised what we have in Denise O’Sullivan. For the second year in a row, her team won the top league in the US. Vera Pauw, the new Ireland manager, said publicly that she had one of the world’s best midfielders in her team. The Guardian put her at 65 in their ranking of the best female footballers in the world.

In November, the dynamic Cork number 10 signed a new multi-year contract with the Courage, just a few weeks after winning senior women’s footballer of the year at the PFAI awards. “She has a genius soccer IQ,” said her club coach Paul Riley. “It makes her a brilliant reader and manipulator of the game. She is the spine, the engine and she brings the consistency that’s made us a tough team to play against.”

Despite losing players to the World Cup mid-season, the Courage gathered up their second title in a row, topping the table in the regular season and walking the play-offs. For the second year in a row, O’Sullivan was voted the most valuable player on the team by her teammates. – MC

November 2nd, Manchester

Katie Taylor  becomes  two-weight champion

In the course of 2019 Taylor took her professional record to 15 wins out of 15, the undisputed lightweight champion becoming a two-weight world champion in November when she beat Christina Linardatou in Manchester to add the WBO super lightweight belt to her collection.

By then Taylor had continued amassing titles by beating Rose Volante in Philadelphia back in March and, controversially, Delfine Persoon in Madison Square Garden in June. To this day the Belgian insists she won that night in New York, and there were plenty in boxing who supported her claim - all of which will ensure that a rematch between the pair would attract no little attention.

But in a sporting world that’s never short of trash-talking, hype and controversy, Taylor has just carried on being Taylor, quietly going about her business and, as Ross Whitaker’s outstanding film showed, dedicating herself to her sport and being the very best she can be. And, as was pointed out in that film, she continues to be a pioneer, just as she was in the amateur game, much of the onus remaining on her to earn her sport respect when the depth of its quality is questioned. She could do no more than she did in 2019. - MC

November 3rd, Donnybrook
 

Irish Hockey team qualify for Tokyo

It might have been hard to imagine as memorable a day in the history of Irish women’s hockey as that time they reached the World Cup final, but events in Energia Park in November, when over 12,000 spectators turned up to watch their two-leg Olympic qualifier against Canada, might just have topped it.

Qualification had been the holy grail for Irish teams since the women’s game was added to the Olympic programme in 1980, Ireland having come agonisingly close in 2015 when they were beaten in a shoot-out by China. And it all went down to a shoot-out again in Donnybrook after both games against the Canadians ended scoreless.  Twice Canada, having built a 3-1 lead, had opportunities to seal qualification, but twice Ayeisha McFerran saved their efforts. And twice Ireland had to score to keep their hopes alive, Bethany Barr and Chloe Watkins, with a remarkable score from the narrowest of angles, nervelessly obliging.

The shoot-out then went to sudden death and Róisín Upton, who had failed to convert her earlier effort, was gutsy enough to step up again, this time scoring - and with a broken bone in her arm too. Pause had to be pressed on the euphoria that followed Amanda Woodcroft’s failure to score for Canada while the video umpire checked for a foul, but mission accomplished - Ireland were Tokyo bound. – MH

December 4th, Glasgow

Mona McSharry  takes European bronze

Mona McSharry would appear to have a mighty relationship with the month of December. In that very month in 2018 she collected six titles in the space of just three days at the Irish Short-Course Championships, breaking six national records along the way, including Michelle Smith’s 23-year-old 100m freestyle mark.

Twelve months on and the 19-year-old from Sligo, a member of the Marlins club in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal and a former World and Junior European Champion, won her first ever medal in a world senior event when she took bronze in the 50m breaststroke at the European Short Course Swimming Championships in Glasgow, setting a new Irish record in the process.

And she missed out on a second medal in the championships by just .04 of a second when she finished fourth in the 100m breaststroke final, having qualified the fastest, breaking yet another Irish record in the semi-final.

McSharry, who was competing in a senior meet for the first time since recovering from a bout of glandular fever earlier in the year, heads for the University of Tennessee in 2020, having had no shortage of offers on the scholarship front. She also managed to squeeze in appearances on RTÉ’s Ireland’s Fittest Family in 2019, as if she wasn’t busy enough. – MH

December 5th, Southwell

Hollie Doyle  sets record for most wins 

It is 11 years since Hayley Turner broke new ground for female jockeys by riding 100 winners in a season. Getting to that level isn’t just about mastering the horses, it’s about mastering the grind. Day after day, horse after horse, motorway after motorway. Hollie Doyle was 10 years old at the time, the daughter of equestrian parents, obsessed with ponies. Where Turner led, Josephine Gordon followed and now Doyle has become the third rider to break to 100 barrier.

Gordon’s highest total was 106 in 2017, a number Doyle passed nine days ago with her win on Class Clown, trained by David Barron. And there’s still a couple of weeks of racing left in the calendar year. Wherever the number ends up, it’s a further push on the boundary of what was thought reasonable or possible for decades.

Doyle is tiny even for a jockey, standing a flat five feet in her riding boots. But her small stature allows her to put on more weight as muscle than those taller than her and her fierceness in a finish has stood to her across the season. Her next step will be to try and ride a group winner in 2020. You wouldn’t put it past her. – MC

December 8th, Lisbon

Silver lining for cross country team

On a personal level, Fionnuala McCormack would have been forgiven for feeling decidedly frustrated after her run at the 2019 European Cross Country Championships, the 35-year-old Wicklow woman finishing fourth for the fourth time in the senior race, edged out for bronze on the home stretch by Sweden’s Samrawit Mengsteab.

That she had led the team to silver, though, provided no little consolation for the 2011 and 2012 gold medallist. Combined with top 20 finishes from Aoibhe Richardson (17th) and Ciara Mageean (20th), McCormack’s fourth was enough to seal second in the race behind Britain and ahead of Portugal, completing what was a fruitful day for Ireland.

By then Efrem Gidey had secured Ireland’s first medal of the day with a third-place finish in the men’s under-20 race, before an outstanding run from Stephanie Cotter earned her bronze in the under-23 event, that effort along with Omagh twins Eilish and Roisin Flanagan finishing ninth and 17th enough to earn silver for the team. A gruelling race it was too. “My legs were nearly dead under me. But I managed to hang on,” said Cotter. “If you don’t try, you’re never going to know.”

The total haul of four medals made this Ireland’s most successful ever European Cross Country Championships. – MH