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Winners sometimes come up on the inside and surprise a few people at the finishing post, and it felt a bit like that as Jessica Harrington was announced as The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year for 2017.
Suddenly the achievement is then recognised in all its glory, and it felt that way with Harrington too.
Even with Katie Taylor in the same ring, amateur golf number one Leona Maguire and 18-time All-Ireland winner Rena Buckley – amongst others – this was an extraordinary year for an extraordinary woman. The 70-year-old Kildare-based horse trainer boldly broke new ground, and is far from finished yet.
It was an acknowledgement too that Irish racing’s most recognisable female figure is now in a class of her own. Harrington was joint monthly award winner in April, having trained Sizing John to victory in the Irish Gold Cup, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Punchestown Gold Cup – the first time any horse has won all three races in the same year.
She also claimed a first win in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse with Our Duke, then went on to enjoy another record season on the flat. A truly rare year in sport that kept getting better – and which doesn’t come along very often, if at all.
Even so, Harrington didn’t expect her name to be announced as the outright winner.
“No, not when the rest of them are all athletes,” said Harrington, modestly, given she too was a successful three-day event rider in her younger years.
Her award was presented by last year’s outright winner and Olympic sailing silver medallist Annalise Murphy, and with that Harrington offered a reminder that women’s place in sport was a little different when she first got her training licence 28 years ago, working alongside her late husband, Johnny.
“There weren’t too many women trainers when I started, and the owners used to ring up and they always wanted to talk to Johnny. In typical Irish fashion, you know. Talk to the man. I’d say fine, then they’d get on to him and he’s say ‘actually I haven’t a clue what’s going on, I have a job’... and eventually they got round to talking to me.
“I suppose the results counted, but it’s funny because Irish men are very good at talking to men, they’re not quite sure about talking to women. Except occasionally.”
She also acknowledged the input of her two daughters, Kate and Emma, and “also to all my owners, who put their faith in me, that I might actually train their horses properly.
“But I am most surprised I won this award, and all the monthly winners are fantastic, their enthusiasm, and it does get tougher, but the great thing is the tougher it gets, the better you get. But it has been an unbelievable year, it really has. And I’ve been so lucky. That’s how it turned out. Dream stuff.”
Now in its 14th year, The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman awards also recognised each of the monthly winners, 15 in total, most of whom were present at the Shelbourne Hotel, including Buckley, the Cork camogie All-Ireland winner who was the joint recipient for September – along with Dublin’s now two-time All-Ireland women’s football winner Sinead Aherne.
Taylor was unable to attend as she was undergoing a routine medical following the successful defence of her world title in London on Wednesday night.
But others who were present included Gina Akpe-Moses, the July monthly winner for her European Junior 100m gold medal, and also Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal, the August winner for their double gold at the Para-cycling Road World Championships in South Africa.
The Outstanding Contribution to Sport Award for 2017 went to Mary Davis, CEO of Special Olympics International and long-term campaigner for the rights and inclusion of children and adults with intellectual disabilities – that award also presented by last year’s recipient Sonia O’Sullivan.
“An outstanding contribution to sport isn’t always about success on the track or field of play, or under the spotlight of the sporting arena,” said O’Sullivan. “Not every champion of sport needs to run fast times or score winning goals. And for the best of her life, Mary Davis has dedicated herself to bettering the lives of children and adults with intellectual disabilities through the medium of sport.”
Women’s sport monthly award winners 2017:
Leanne Kiernan (December, 2016)
Gráinne Dwyer (January)
Paula Fitzpatrick (February)
Aoife Ní Chaiside (March)
Jessica Harrington, Chloe Magee (April)
Leona Maguire (May)
Mona McSharry (June)
Gina Akpe-Moses (July)
Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal (August)
Rena Buckley, Sinead Aherne (September)
Katie Taylor (October)
Katie McCabe (November)