IRELAND's economic recession clearly hasn't filtered down into the world of sport, judging by the fantastic array of talent at Saturday's 2012 Fingal Independent/ Clarion Hotel Dublin Airport Sport Star of the Year Awards. Sixteen monthly winners and wildcard entrants were honoured at the glittering black-tie dinner, before the excitement intensified as the packed audience waited to hear the destiny of the evening's four main prizes.
Given the often hectic lives of modern-day sportsmen and women, it was remarkable that all 16 recipients - representing 11 different sports - were able to attend the sumptuous bash, brilliantly compered as ever by RTE sports presenter Michael Lyster.
For many of the winners this was their first time on the big stage and a cherished opportunity to showcase their sport and rub shoulders with the more established stars. Double medal-winning Paralympian Catherine Walsh was declared the overall Fingal Independent Sport Star of the Year, taekwondo and athletics champion Anne-Marie Torsney won the Young Sport Star accolade and soccer manager and former League of Ireland player Liam Kelly entered the Hall of Fame.
However, first up to the podium was a man hoping to become established with the Dublin footballers, namely January winner Micheal McCarthy, who took the 2012 O'Byrne Cup by storm, scoring nine points in two games. He was hoping to make his mark on the same competition this year, but this time with DCU who faced Carlow the following day, while the importance of club commitments wasn't lost on Micheal. 'Things are going great with St Sylvester's too. We took our first big step last year by getting to the quarter-final of the championship which we hadn't been in for 15 years, so we'll be hoping to keep that going.'
Skerries RFC's rise to the All Ireland League was acknowledged in February as their young winger Kevin McGrath was honoured after ending 2011/12 as their leading try scorer in his debut season. 'Getting back to senior rugby was huge for the club and well due, and the highlight for me was probably the last match against Monivea when I got the try for the winning score and it got the club up which was brilliant.
'The plan is just to go on from there and try and get promoted again.' Fingal hurler Peter Daly expressed the hope that the county could tap into the increased interest in hurling around the capital generated by Dublin's rise to prominence in the small-ball game.
'Hurling in Dublin is after coming on hugely and although last year was a bit of a mixture in terms of wins and losses, they were there or thereabouts in every game and it's only a matter of time before they make the next step. 'Fingal will be going all guns blazing to win the league and we're hoping to be back in the Nicky Rackard this year. There's a couple of things going on behind the scenes [to make it happen] and hopefully it will come off because everyone wants to play in the championship.'
First of the five lady winners on stage was 14-year-old Chloe Gray who won her first national boxing title just months after stepping into the ring for the first time and aims to make a successful defence in 2013. Michael Lyster was floored by a couple of her jab-like short, sharp answers, especially when she declared to great amusement: 'It's the best sport. Everybody in Balbriggan boxes at some time!' After the MC established that she meant only in the ring, the inevitable question was put to Chloe - could she be another Katie Taylor in years to come? 'I don't know about that - hopefully,' she replied. ' She is very inspirational, not just for boxing but for other sports.'
May winner Kevin O'Brien was keeping his feet firmly on the ground for 2013 after captaining the Dubs to an All-Ireland U-21 triumph and then breaking into the senior panel, now managed by Jim Gavin. 'It was a great year,' he acknowledged, 'but you don't look back until you retire and I want to push on and develop as a footballer. 'It's exciting times for Dublin GAA. There's a lot of young players coming through and a very good squad whenever Jim Gavin names it, and so I'm hoping to impress in the league and then hopefully get a chance in the summer.'
One of the highlights of the DVD montage of sporting achievements shown on the night was the on-board footage of road racer Andy Farrell, giving the audience a flavour of motorcycling at its most exciting - and dangerous. The courage of the Skerries man was evident as he had a serious crash in the Ulster Grand Prix - and then returned from injury to win the Irish Championship in his first race back in the saddle. 'It was a bit of a big off in the Ulster GP. I broke my collarbone, but I came back and won at Killalane and put all the demons behind me and that was the highlight,' he said. 'It does faze you and make you think [after a big accident], but it's in the blood and you can't get away from it.'
Last but not least of our four winners from Gaelic games was St Sylvester's lady footballer Nicole Owens as her goals steered Dublin's B team to an Aisling McGing All-Ireland triumph against Kerry, before she broke into the Dublin senior team. She rearranged a flight home from Spain - where she is on a gap year from college - to be at the awards night. 'Life's a lot different in Spain,' she acknowledged. 'There's no football there and I haven't played for three months, having not stopped playing since I was six. 'But I think Dublin are starting an Under-21 team and I'd love to have an opportunity to play there within my age group.'
The audience were in awe of 14-year-old Donabate schoolboy Kevin Le Blanc's achievement in bringing his handicap down from 4.3 to +0.1 during the calendar year of 2012. 'I was working on my game all winter and it just paid off. Not just winning tournaments - even coming runner-up or third was great.' He smiled when asked whether he'd enjoy the life of Rory McIlroy, who apparently commands a €2 million appearance fee, replying: 'I don't know if I will get there, but it would be some dream alright!'
September was the month when Catherine Walsh became a household name as - together with partner Fran Meehan - she won silver and bronze medals in the paracycling events at the Paralympics. 'The velodrome was quite an intimidating atmosphere nearly because I wouldn't be used to so many people, but it was a fantastic venue,' she recalled. 'I was delighted to win a medal and it was a nice payback for all the support staff who put so much work in. 'Normally the track and road seasons are separate, so it was quite a challenge getting back on the bike again straightaway, but we put our medals away and went for it. Don't ever give up!'
One of the most physically demanding sports is Ironman and super-fit Alan Ryan is hoping to make progress up the podium in 2013 after winning age-group bronze in last year's World Championships in Hawaii. Playing down his achievements, he insisted: 'I'm awful at the bike and was scared stiff. I cycle too fast for my own age. Sometimes you're reaching 90kph and you would nearly close your eyes and hope for the best. 'I have two young kids now and their college fund is being eaten into all the time, but I would love to go back.'
Multi-talented Anne-Marie Torsney made her first trip to the podium to collect her award for November, the month she added two gold medals at the National Taekwondo Cup, to add to her huge medal haul at county, provincial, national and Community Games level in the Discus, Shot Putt, Hammer and Javelin. 'Athletics used to be my favourite, but now they are equal and I love both sports,' she said. 'Getting to black belt level in taekwondo was the hardest part because there are so many other grades before that.' Michael Lyster inferred that she might like to try one of her most fearsome moves, but AnneMarie rebutted the suggestion emphatically. ' There are moves like that, but you're not allowed to do them outside the hall!'
Most clubs and sporting organisations would not exist without the help of dedicated volunteers, including Siobhan White who was honoured for her role behind the scenes on behalf of the Community Games. 'It's very necessary for children to be involved in sport, and I have none of my own and have time to do it,' she explained. 'Unfortunately it's always left to the same few people and if you want something done properly you do it yourself.'
The first of two cricketers among the four wildcard entries was Naseer Shoukat, captain of The Hills who won the Bob Kerr Irish Senior Cup for the first time, an achievement that saw him nominated by Cricket Ireland for O'Neills Club Player of the Year. 'We had been waiting for a long, long time and so we were really happy. All the guys worked really hard and they got their rewards.' Naseer also paid tribute to fellow cricketer, 17-year-old James King, one of the other wildcard nominees, who won the Division 2 Wicketkeeper of the Year Award with Rush. Returning the compliment, James said: ' We're going to try our best to win Division 2 and get into Division 1 and be a big club again, up there with The Hills. 'My ambition is probably to play for Ireland and for Ireland to get to Test standard. People see cricket on TV and think it's boring, but once Ireland are in it the people will follow it.'
Noel McGinty was honoured for helping steer Malahide United back to the top flight in soccer's Leinster Senior League, and he acknowledged the efforts of former League of Ireland star Glen Crowe. 'He's not as mobile as he was a few years ago, but he can still bang them in and we were scoring goals for fun. We worked well together and were sad to lose him [to St Mochta's recently]. 'But we're still going well this season in the top flight and I'm loving my football. Going to a new club, being from Portmarnock, I got a lot of stick, but it had to be done and it's a great set-up at Gannon Park.'
The last word has to go to Cian Arthurs, the charismatic young man from Swords who won four points out of five to help Europe trounce the USA in the Fightmaster Cup, the Ryder Cup for onearmed golfers. 'We showed them it was easy beforehand and said go out and make it a double,' he said, referring to Rory McIlroy and Co who were performing at Medinah the following week, 'and it took them until the last putt. 'Golf is a large part of my life and I want to get it into the Paralympics and we're pushing towards that.' Sadly, Cian and his colleagues weren't able to stay for the Ryder Cup proper. 'Our event was over and we had to come home. There's a recession on and all that! It was tough, but we got to watch it at home on TV and in the pub.' The main prizes were presented then, but after seeing such an outstanding group of talented sportsmen and women, the phrase 'everyone's a winner' rang true.