Monday 17 June 2019

Paul Kimmage: Going into battle without fear or favour

Recently retired jockey Katie Walsh. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Recently retired jockey Katie Walsh. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

It's fair to say my mind was elsewhere that Friday. I'd spent the day pushing hard to get a story across the line, and the evening having dinner with a woman so hot I didn't think of looking at my phone. So it was the late train from Pearse before I pulled it from my pocket and cranked up the Twitter machine.

At the top of my feed was a tweet from John Kroll, a journalism specialist who engages me with stuff that keeps me on my toes. His latest was a quote from Dwight Emerson Mitchell in 1939: "The reader does not care to be told that some interesting facts were brought out; he wants to know what the facts were, then he will judge for himself whether or not they are interesting."


I scrolled down. There was a tweet from the athletics writer Cathal Dennehy about some comments Sonia O'Sullivan had made about what it's like for female athletes who don't have hyperandrogenism to compete. A tweet from the cricket writer Ger Siggins with "great news" that RTE had committed to one-hour highlights programmes of the Test against Pakistan and the Twenty20 internationals against India.

Record-breaking former cyclist Debbie Kane with her father Dave
Record-breaking former cyclist Debbie Kane with her father Dave

If it stops raining for that long.

The rower, Sanita Puspure, had posted a short but delightful video of her friend Aifric Keogh dancing in the gym. The business journalist Dearbhail McDonald was tweeting about Brexit and an All-Island Civil Forum event in Dundalk. The broadcaster Nathan Murphy seemed intrigued that the chronically asthmatic Chris Froome - pro cycling's current Lazarus - was intending to ride the Giro: "Team Sky are attempting the sporting equivalent of kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse."

Ahh go on, go on.

Just below Nathan, his employers, Off the Ball, had invited former Kerry footballer Aidan O'Mahony to explain why punditry didn't appeal to him. And just below that, there was a tweet from Horse Racing Ireland that almost felt like a slap: "Emotional scenes after the novice hurdle at Punchestown as Katie Walsh announces her retirement from the saddle."


In the spring of 1987, I was having coffee one morning with a copy of L'Equipe when I happened upon a story about a big stage race I was scheduled to ride called the Criterium du Dauphine. The race would start in Grenoble with a three-kilometre time trial along the banks of the River Isere, and the organisers had extended an invitation to local hero Jeannie Longo to set a time.


A multiple world champion and time-trial specialist, Longo was one of the greatest women racers of all time and for the month that followed she was the talk of the peloton:

"How many guys do you think she'll beat?"

"Nom de Dieu!"

"What if it's you!"

"Nom de Dieu!"

It was a different time, of course, and a state of mind best captured by the late Frank Deford in his memoir, Over Time: "Although it is now so common, even natural, for girls to grow up as athletes, for a long time it was customary to view women athletes as oddballs. To psychoanalyse my own gender, I would say that much of it has been sheer envy. Or fear. What is the worst thing you can say about a man? That he got beaten by a girl."

Longo's performance that day (she took quite a few scalps!) reminds me of one of the things I admired most about Katie Walsh. There were no concessions. She was competing on equal terms. Press the rewind button on her final win in Punchestown and she's toe to toe with Barry Geraghty. Watch her crashing fall in her final ride at Aintree and she's trampled into the ground. Same rewards, same risks and yet . . .

Bike racing wasn't a sport for girls when I was growing up . . . which is not to say that girls didn't race. Debbie Kane from Belfast was one of the all-time best. Her father Dave was a former international and winning was in her genes: five Irish road titles, three time-trial championships and the first Irish woman ever to beat the hour for 25 miles.

In 1988, she travelled to an international in Harlow and was lying third overall going into the final stage. It was a wet and windy morning and she was leading the field down a twisting decent when her front tyre blew and she overshot a corner where a truck was parked. She crushed the radiator with her head and broke her shoulder, collarbone and arm. When Dave got to the hospital they told him she would never walk again. He had two sons, both of them raced, but the wound is deeper when it's your daughter. "It almost broke me," he said.

I never met Katie Walsh, but often watched her race with my fingers over my eyes and that same sense of dread. It's a dad's thing, I guess, but I can't imagine how it felt for Ted. Because you can say that he knows the sport but this is not tennis or cricket or golf. There are no separate lanes or ladies' tees.

So it was a relief that night, sitting on the train and reading that she was done. And on the 30th anniversary of her accident in Harlow, it was a joy to learn that Debbie was doing fine.

She had been out on 'Black Betty', her hand-cycle, that morning and had posted a note on her Twitter feed: "The sun in my face . . .the wind (partly) on my back . . . the cherry blossom falling like confetti around me today . . . days I'm thankful for what I can do."

Way to go, girls.

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