Small in stature, but a colossus of equine class and courage, Tiger Roll is developing into the horse of a generation. An animal with an awe-inducing engine who, on a Saturday afternoon in April, had trainer Gordon Elliott, jockey Davy Russell and owner Michael O’Leary questioning the depth of their good fortune. He didn’t just win the Grand National. He turned it into a procession. Russell barely budged for the first four miles before engaging top gear after the last and the little horse with the big heart duly rolled into the history books, the first since Red Rum in 1974 to win back-to-back Nationals.
The mountaintop of immortality is impossible to summit without enduring an avalanche of adversity, and before the Dublin footballers could reach it, they’d have to weather a green-and-gold storm that had been brewing in the Kingdom. But the mark of the all-time greats is their ability not to lose when all evidence suggests they should. Dublin didn’t lose the first All-Ireland final, and in the replay Jim Gavin’s men were rewarded for their resilience with an opportunity to again stamp their supremacy on their sport. Five in a row, for so long unfathomable. But this was a football team without flaw. Invincible. Irresistible. Immortal.
On a day when more than 56,000 fans braved the rain at headquarters, the All-Ireland Ladies Football final played out like a sweet symphony that celebrated the exploding popularity of women’s sport. And just as it had been in 2017 and 2018, the Blues Sisters hit all the right notes. The wet conditions ensured a low-scoring game, but goals from Sinéad Goldrick and Hannah O’Neill and a player-of-the-match performance from Lyndsey Davey meant Mick Bohan’s ladies rose above the rest once again. This was victory as true champions achieve it: keeping their heads and showing consistent class in conditions that could cause a lesser team to crumble.
To carry a four-shot lead into the final round of a Major is both a blessing and a burden. Any golfer would take it, but they’d do so knowing every stroke is played under poisonous pressure, the kind that could make their world come apart at any moment. Shane Lowry had been there before at the 2016 US Open, but this time around he was flawless. On the final day of The Open at Royal Portrush in July, he beamed his giant grin right back at the atrocious conditions and, after keeping the calmest of heads through 18 arduous holes, he raised the Claret Jug with an astonishing six shots to spare.
The journey from the canvas back to your feet after absorbing a gut-wrenching blow is as much about the mind as the body. So in this year’s FAI Cup final, when Shamrock Rovers placed one hand on the trophy after Aaron McEeneff’s penalty with a minute to play, but then conceded an injury-time equaliser to Dundalk, it took something special, something rare, for the players not to slump with self-pity. They didn’t. Stephen Bradley’s men rallied in extra-time and in the kill-or-be-killed arena that is the penalty shootout, they showed nerves of steel to slot home four for four, ending a 32-year FAI Cup famine.
Eight games, eight goals, and one hell of a summer for the 2019 Hurler of the Year. At a time when Tipperary possessed an embarrassment of attacking riches, it was Séamus Callanan whose killer instinct proved pivotal. He got the green flag waving in every game of the championship, and the 31-year-old from Drom topped off his terrific year with a captain’s performance in the All-Ireland final, pitching in 1-2 during Tipp’s demolition job on Kilkenny. All year, defences tried their best to neutralise Callanan. All year, they failed. A sure sign that you’re dealing with a true great.
In the end, it wasn’t even close. After seven minutes of searing pain, during which Sanita Puspure had to go to a deep, dark place to overhaul Emma Twigg of New Zealand, the 36-year-old crossed the line with room to spare. Puspure’s victory in the single sculls in Ottensheim, Austria meant she retained her world title, an astonishing feat after a hard year, during which she lost her sister to cancer. But the Latvian-born rower is made of such resolute fabric that her mind never faltered from her final destination: the top of the medal rostrum. The world’s best, yet again.
Many a great career has floundered by attempting to be too much. When it comes to boxing, that usually happens when a fighter goes on past their prime or rolls the dice with a move up in weights. For Katie Taylor the risks were real in moving to super-lightweight, but the Bray boxer again proved peerless. Aware of the power of Christina Linardatou during her world title fight in Manchester, Taylor boxed from range, picking her shots with a surgeon’s precision. In the end it was a unanimous decision and Taylor earned her 15th professional win, becoming what she had long wanted to be: a two-weight world champion.
Few teams have a knack for such dramatic denouements as the Irish women’s hockey team, who in 2019 strapped the sporting public in and took them on another rollercoaster ride. More than 6,000 fans squeezed into Donnybrook to lend their support in the Olympic qualifier, their nerves shredded and fingernails chewed to pieces by the end of the nil-all draw. And just when it seemed like their Olympic dream was slipping, as they trailed Canada 3-1 in the shootout, back they came. Among the many heroes, Ayeisha McFerran stood apart, an immovable, impassable object during the key stages of the shootout. And so it’s onwards to Tokyo 2020. Here we go again.