As another year of sport draws to a close it’s always a slightly conflicting time, and looking back at what stood out throughout the year for me is no doubt at times influenced by where I was watching or who I was with.
It’s impossible not to appreciate the ever-increasing levels of success across Irish sport, while trying not to get too distracted with what lies ahead and the hope for even greater success in 2023.
For many women and men 2022 was a real breakout year in Irish sport, so many achievements that truly made people sit up and pay attention, with the conversation continuing into the next day on the street.
Everything that we missed in the pandemic years was appreciated even more. Athletes wanted to perform and step up to a new level, while supporters wanted to travel and be involved like never before. All that was lost was found and in greater quantities than ever before. It was like the fear had been taken away and there was nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Individually for me the greatest performance had to be Ciara Mageean’s 1,500 metres win at the Brussels Diamond league, following on from back-to-back silver medals over 1,500m at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, and then at the European Championships in Munich.
It was no real surprise that Ciara finally cracked the four-minute barrier in style, taking with it my very own 27-year-old Irish record; it had been hanging on by a thread it was only a matter of time before Ciara stepped up and claimed the record. To be in the stadium that evening and witness Ciara’s run made it look all so easy, broken down into manageable 400m segments in a way I’d never really looked at the 1,500m when I was racing. It all seemed so achievable, and in ways even predictable.
It made me feel grateful that I had managed to hold onto the record for such a long time, Ciara was just three-years-old when I set it way back in 1995. It wasn’t just the time that impressed me but the manner in which Ciara controlled and won the race, the best way to achieve a time is by focusing on the race; the time will come.
[ Ciara Mageean breaks Sonia O’Sullivan’s Irish 1,500m record as she pips Laura Muir to Diamond League title in Brussels ]
So many people can be too easily focused or distracted on the times, but with the new shoe technology and advancements in training and racing shoes, the doors are wide open for so many fast times. Still the competition is the thing that wins out for me and putting yourself in a position to compete and running fearlessly.
It was a very similar result for Rhasidat Adeleke and Israel Olatunde at the European Championships in Munich, neither coming away with a medal but both rising to the competition as they progressed through the rounds.
It was no surprise that Rhasidat qualified for the final; what was a surprise was her fearless run, coming off the bend in medal contention only to narrowly miss out in the straight. All this in her 49th race of the season, breaking the Irish record and knocking on the door of 50 seconds. That’s another barrier to be broken in 2023 because that’s what it takes to get to a World Championship final, which is exactly where Rhasidat will be focused once she gets through another year of indoor and outdoor races at the University of Texas.
Better still, Rhasidat has been exposed to the extreme competitiveness on the NCAA stage. She’s yet to win an individual NCAA title, but it just shows when you train and compete with the best you eventually rise to the top and deliver the best. She’s currently ranked 25th in the world and automatically qualified for the World Championships in Budapest next summer which promise to be one of the great events after the just about passable edition in Eugene this past summer.
It’s just so hard to appreciate what we have achieved as a country without looking ahead to what’s next but, at least at the end of December with the annual award ceremonies we get to look back and reflect on so many achievements; some that can easily be forgotten when the bar is raised over and over again throughout the year.
It’s important to look back before we go forward, sometimes in awe and wonder at how what seemed almost impossible for so long is now expected.
The new and the different is always attractive, a new story in amongst the perennial achievers such as Katie Taylor and Rory McIlroy, maintaining their greatness, while others are just trying to stand out and do something that has never been achieved before,
For Israel Olatunde, being the first ever Irishman in a major 100m final at the European Championships was another incredible breakthrough, and he didn’t for one second look like he was out of his depth, finishing in sixth place and eclipsing Paul Hession’s 15-year-old record. It will be a big step up to compete at the World Championships but not an impossible task.
Leona Maguire has been knocking on the door for so long, finally taking her maiden LPGA victory in Florida early this year, and showing that when you keep turning up and believing eventually the door will open. Once you get to walk through, you wonder why did it take so long.
Rhys McClenaghan must wonder what he’s got to do to win the RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year award. The country’s first ever gymnastics World Champion, that’s now opening doors for young gymnasts all over Ireland to believe that there’s a place at the table for Irish gymnasts to belong and be competitive at the highest level.
Finally the standout achievement of the year is the one result that was embraced throughout the country; the women’s soccer team’s qualification for the World Cup, taking place in Australia and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere winter, a sport that has grown substantially across the world.
The harder the task, the greater the result is embraced, and there is no doubt the people of Ireland will be on the rollercoaster ride with the team when they kick things off on the very first day of the tournament against the hosts Australia in Sydney. Qualification is just the beginning for a team that is dreaming of big things.
Just one date of many to mark in the diary for 2023.