2008 Texaco Sportstars
Published 12/11/2008 | 00:00
The 2008 Texaco Sportstars of the Year
In the same manner that Usain Bolt astonished the world in Beijing with a record-breaking, double-gold sprint double, Jason Smyth replicated the successes in the Paralympics in the same city some weeks later. Two 21-year-olds -- one from Jamaica, the other from Derry -- who left the world in their wake
If the name Jason Smyth was not on everyone's lips before the Paralympics, his talent had been noted in the athletics world when he went to the Irish Schools Championships in Tullamore two years ago and won the sprint double.
And it was only afterwards that his coach, Stephen Maguire, explained that Smyth was suffering from Stargardt's Disease, a hereditary degenerative visual impairment that can affect central vision, though not always peripheral vision.
Asked how he felt his visual impairment affected his physical performance, Jason said he didn't know because it was the only way he had ever known how to run.
It is now eminently possible that Jason will be looking towards the Olympic Games in London, and maybe the two sprint stars of Beijing 2008 will get to face the starter's gun, side-by-side, in four years' time.
Kenny Egan had a goal early this year: he wanted to be in Beijing, mixing it with the best of the world's boxers.
He failed at the first qualifier in Pescara in late February, but the determination of the man saw him through four tough encounters in Athens in April.
The light-heavyweight from Clondalkin was now going to China, but his target had changed. He wanted a medal.
And as the country willed him on, he disposed of Jackson of the Virgin Islands, Muzaffer of Turkey, Silva of Brazil and Jeffries of Britain. The dream of winning a medal had changed to winning gold.
Even though this eluded him, he became a national hero. "Deep down in my heart of hearts," he said later, "I feel I won the fight, but that's sport at the end of the day." Instead he stood proudly in the ring, smiled, saluted his supporters, and took time to kiss the medal that hung from Xiaoping Zhang's neck.
But in defeat, Kenny Egan's stature had soared, nationally and internationally, the man and the boxer.
Mayo manager John O'Mahony felt that Tyrone were a team in decline during the National League -- and he would not have been alone in expressing the view. That Tyrone walked out of Croke Park on September 21 with the Sam Maguire Cup is testament to Mickey Harte's managerial magic and an outstanding squad of players.
But it took a supreme performance from one player to see them through. Having scored 1-14 in the four games before the final, Sean Cavanagh epitomised all the qualities that have put him on a pedestal with the game's greatest in a period of 26 minutes, when Kerry were threatening to rescue the game.
Between Brian Dooher's second point in the 44th minute and Enda McGinley's in the 70th minute, Cavanagh was the only Tyrone player to score. He did so three times and each one inspired pressurised colleagues. The third point oozed class. He got possession, held the ball up until a comfortable position had been engineered and then popped it over to push Tyrone in front by a point. It was a lead they would not lose.
In October, he was again instrumental in a major success in Australia, where he captained the International Rules side to victory over Australia.
Is it possible a young Paddy Harrington decided that one Claret Jug could not hold all the visiting ladybirds to his south County Dublin home late last summer, and asked daddy for another earlier this year? Or is it a case that Padraig has recently developed a Major case of tunnel vision?
Most of us would go with the second view -- even though the country might have been satisfied with the British Open title of 2007 as a lifetime's highlight from their favourite golfing son.
But '08 emphasised that Padraig's game has moved onto a higher plateau and the steel that is required on the back nine on the final day of a Major is present in abundance. Locked in battle with Greg Norman and Ian Poulter in the British Open, Padraig moved to the top of the leaderboard with birdies on the 13th and 15th holes on the Sunday before a piercing five wood to the par-five 17th landed perfectly and rolled to within three feet of the cup to set up an eagle.
Not satisfied with back-to-back British Opens, Padraig produced a stunning final 36 holes at the USPGA Championship with two rounds of 66, the culmination of which was a superb final nine holes of 32 which saw off Sergio Garcia and Ben Curtis. Not since Tommy Armour in 1930 did a European win the final Major of the year and Padraig was only the fourth player in history to win the British Open and USPGA titles in the one season.
Aidan O'Brien was tutored by Jim Bolger for nearly four years at the Coolcullen stable in Co Carlow. When the time came to depart, to move on to another challenge, Jim was sorry to see him leave, so much so that he subsequently said: "I would have done anything to hold on to him, short of marrying him."
Those words have a certain irony this year as Bolger had outstanding claims to be the Texaco award winner for 2008 -- but it is his pupil who will be going up next Wednesday to receive it.
The reality is that no trainer may ever have a year to match the one just concluded for O'Brien. Take his year in Ireland. He made a clean sweep of all the classics with Halfway to Heaven, Henrythenavigator, Frozen Fire, Moonstone and Septimus. And after Henrythenavigator went on to win the English 2,000 Guineas, he then took a raiding party to Royal Ascot and won five of the prestigious purses, and that included Yeats winning the Gold Cup for the third successive year.
There followed the disappointment of Henrythenavigator being beaten by Raven's Pass in the Breeders Cup Classic, having mastered Curlin, but then out came the indomitable Yates again to take the French St Leger and conclude a remarkable season of 22 Group One victories.
Now 24, Eoin Larkin joined the Kilkenny panel in 2005 and has been a steady work in progress since. Three All-Ireland senior medals to complement his U-21 and minor successes suggests he has absorbed Brian Cody's training manual like a Grade A student.
But the flying half-forward really came into his own this season, laying down an early marker in the All-Ireland final by cutting through the Waterford defence and picking out an unmarked Eddie Brennan to drive home a goal. Kilkenny romped home and Larkin got a goal in the second half.
In fact, ever since he came back from a six-month stint of UN peace-keeping duties in Kosovo, he has been creating and scoring at will. In June, not long after returning, he shot four points on the trot against Offaly in the Leinster semi-final.
And if life in the 3rd Battalion does not weigh too heavily on his time, one feels there is much more to come from a quiet man of the game who is officially the GAA's Hurler of the Year. A quiet man, but no longer unsung.
"Each blade of grass in Croke Park knows her name, and I think she covered them twice today." Those words of Cork's camogie boss Denise Cronin refer to Briege Corkery and were uttered after her county's All-Ireland final victory in September. Words that tumbled in the euphoria of victory, you might think, but such a supposition would be wrong.
Briege (21) has played for her county in the last four All-Ireland senior camogie finals, winning in 2005 and '06 and again this year.
But that is only half the story. In those same four years she has been an outstanding performer for the county's football team, winning four consecutive All-Ireland senior titles.
And in doing so, Briege had to play camogie and football semi-finals within 24 hours, and the finals within a fortnight.
The mind boggles at what Briege could conceivably win at senior level if her career continues on its present path. Rest assured that her dedication to camogie and football ensures that her familiarity with the grass in Croke Park can only be enhanced with the passing years.
To define Ronan O'Gara by numbers would alight on things like he is Ireland's most capped out-half, that he requires 21 points to reach 1,000 in the Heineken Cup, that on three occasions he has been voted the Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year ... or maybe even that he was the first Irishman to score a try at Croke Park.
Those statistics only touch the surface of the qualities he has brought to Presentation College Cork, Cork Constitution, UCC, Munster, Ireland and the Lions in a wonderful career.
This year he stood alone in Irish rugby for many reasons, primarily his role in Munster's Heineken Cup march, which was crowned with 11 of the 16 points in the final against Toulouse. Equally important, though, was his guiding influence throughout the series, in particular the two games against Wasps and the away match in Llanelli. And if further confirmation of an outstanding year is required, well, just ask Munster's Red Army.