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Tough choice in an exceptional year


It’s customary for us to start these annual previews of the Sportswoman of the Year awards, which got under way in 2004, by talking about just how difficult a task it was for the judges to pick a winner, but when it comes to 2021, “difficult” would be the mother, father, auntie and uncle of all understatements.

Quite genuinely, six or seven, maybe even more, of those who won monthly awards in 2021 could have been an overall winner in any other year, the breadth of their achievements over the last 12 months – internationally and domestically, in team and individual sports – simply exceptional.

In the end, we managed to get 18 names, representing 12 sports, onto our list, 11 of them new to these awards, two of them – Katie Taylor and Kellie Harrington – former sportswomen of the year. We lost count of how many deserved to be included but were squeezed out.

Taylor, remarkably, won her 15th monthly award in 18 years, while Leona Maguire took her tally up to 10, equalling the mark of the now-retired Madeline Perry, the professional squash player who was once ranked in the world’s top three.

From Croke Park to Cheltenham, from Aintree to Ohio, from Adelaide to Helsinki, from Tokyo to Harare, with several stops in between, it was a year like no other, so many of our sportswomen dominating the sporting headlines and taking over the front pages.

We’ve come a long way from 2004.

Monthly Winners

(The awards ran from December 2020 to November 2021, inclusive)

Aoife Doyle of Kilkenny in action against Offaly at St Brendan’s Park, Birr on May 29th. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Aoife Doyle of Kilkenny in action against Offaly at St Brendan’s Park, Birr on May 29th. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

December: Aoife Doyle (Camogie) and Sinéad Goldrick (Gaelic football)
The pair were instrumental in their counties’ All-Ireland successes in December of last year, both named player of the match in their finals. Doyle’s display in the Kilkenny attack against Galway helped her county end a run of three successive final defeats, while an outstanding performance against Cork by Goldrick was a major factor in Dublin completing a four-in-a-row.

Nadia Power at the 2021 European Athletics Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland on March 5th. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Nadia Power at the 2021 European Athletics Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland on March 5th. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

January: Nadia Power (Athletics)
The Dubliner enjoyed a terrific start to the year, setting a new Irish 800m indoor record and knocking another two seconds off the mark a fortnight later. A string of consistent performances across Europe gave her a ranking that ultimately earned her a place on the Olympic team for the 800m, an experience that will stand to her as she looks to an even more productive 2022.

Rachael Blackmore wins the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Honeysuckle on February 6th. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Rachael Blackmore wins the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Honeysuckle on February 6th. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

February: Rachael Blackmore (Horse racing)
It’s hard to know where to start with the Tipperary jockey’s 2021; if we were to list all her victories of note we’d be here ’til 2023. Among the many highlights, though, were that historic, never-ever-to-be-forgotten victory on Minella Times in the Aintree Grand National and her six winners at Cheltenham, making her the festival’s leading jockey.

Ireland’s Leona Maguire at the Amundi Evian Championship in Evian-les-Bains, France on July 22nd. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Ireland’s Leona Maguire at the Amundi Evian Championship in Evian-les-Bains, France on July 22nd. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

March: Leona Maguire (Golf)
The Cavan woman had an exceptional 2021 that included five top 10s on the LPGA Tour, shooting the lowest-ever final-round score by either a male or female golfer with a 61 at the Evian Championship, and becoming the first Irish woman to play in the Solheim Cup, where she was the star of the show for the winning European side in Ohio, taking 4½ points from a possible five.

Orla O’Dwyer of the Brisbane Lions holds the trophy after their AFLW Grand Final victory over Adelaide Crows in Adelaide on April 17th. Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images
Orla O’Dwyer of the Brisbane Lions holds the trophy after their AFLW Grand Final victory over Adelaide Crows in Adelaide on April 17th. Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

April: Orla O’Dwyer (Australian Rules)
O’Dwyer became just the second Irish woman, after Ailish Considine in 2019, to win the Aussie Rules AFLW Premiership title when she was part of the Brisbane Lions team that beat Adelaide Crows in April’s Grand Final. One of the country’s most gifted dual players, she returned home to play in both the camogie and football All-Ireland championships for Tipperary.

Katie Taylor celebrates her victory over Natasha Jonas on May 1st to retain her WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles. Photograph: Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing/Inpho
Katie Taylor celebrates her victory over Natasha Jonas on May 1st to retain her WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles. Photograph: Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing/Inpho

May: Katie Taylor (Boxing)
Taylor retained her WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO lightweight titles with one of the gutsiest displays of her career when she beat England’s Natasha Jonas at the Manchester Arena, producing a stunning final two rounds to take the fight on a unanimous decision. Come the end of the year she’d extended her professional record to 20-0 with victories over Jennifer Han in Leeds and Firuza Sharipova in Liverpool.

Kellie Harrington celebrates after defeating Caroline Dubois in the European Boxing Road to Tokyo Qualifier in Paris on June 8th. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho
Kellie Harrington celebrates after defeating Caroline Dubois in the European Boxing Road to Tokyo Qualifier in Paris on June 8th. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

June: Kellie Harrington (Boxing)
Even before the Dubliner’s magical trip to Tokyo she had made our list of monthly award-winners by triumphing at the Olympic qualifier in Paris, beating reigning IBF super-featherweight world champion Maïva Hamadouche in the quarter-finals before getting the better of Britain’s Caroline Dubois in the final. Once she got to Japan? Pure gold.

Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty of Team Ireland pose with their bronze medals in the Women’s Four Final A at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 28th. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images
Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty of Team Ireland pose with their bronze medals in the Women’s Four Final A at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 28th. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

July: Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty (Rowing)
The quartet won Ireland’s first medal of the Olympic Games when they produced a stirring effort in the women’s four final to come back from fifth in the race around the 1,000-metre mark to power through the final 1,000 metres, finishing in third behind world champions Australia and European champions the Netherlands.

Tandem cyclists Katie George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal at Dublin Airport on September 7th with their two gold medals and one silver medal won at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Tandem cyclists Katie George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal at Dublin Airport on September 7th with their two gold medals and one silver medal won at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

August: Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal (Cycling) and Ellen Keane (Swimming)
The trio all had golden experiences at the Paralympics, Keane winning a thriller of a 100m breaststroke final when she recorded a personal best to hold off New Zealand’s Sophie Pascoe, while Dunlevy and McCrystal helped themselves to three medals in the space of one gruelling week: silver in the individual pursuit and gold in both the tandem time trial and tandem road race.

Meath’s Vikki Wall in the TG4 All-Ireland Senior Ladies Football Championship Final against Dublin in Croke Park on September 5th. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Meath’s Vikki Wall in the TG4 All-Ireland Senior Ladies Football Championship Final against Dublin in Croke Park on September 5th. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

September: Vikki Wall (Gaelic football)
It’s safe to say the 23-year-old won’t forget 2021 in a hurry. Her player-of-the-match performance in the All-Ireland final inspired Meath to their first-ever senior title when they stunned the five-in-a-row-seeking Dublin. She went on to be named Player of the Year, won her first All Star, before leading her club Dunboyne to their first-ever Leinster title.

Ireland’s Amy Hunter, who struck an unbeaten 121 against Zimbabwe on her 16th birthday to become the youngest player, male or female, to score a one-day international century. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/iZimPhoto
Ireland’s Amy Hunter, who struck an unbeaten 121 against Zimbabwe on her 16th birthday to become the youngest player, male or female, to score a one-day international century. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/iZimPhoto

October: Amy Hunter (Cricket)
At just 15, the Belfast cricketer made her debut for Ireland back in May, but it was her 16th birthday that proved to be one that she’ll never forget, Hunter becoming the youngest-ever player, male or female, to score a one-day international century when she hit an unbeaten 121 against Zimbabwe in Harare.

Republic of Ireland’s Katie McCabe during their 11-0 rout of Georgia at Tallaght Stadium on November 30th. Photograph: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images
Republic of Ireland’s Katie McCabe during their 11-0 rout of Georgia at Tallaght Stadium on November 30th. Photograph: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

November: Katie McCabe (Soccer)
The Irish captain has enjoyed the most spectacular year of her career, her form for Arsenal earning her a place in the 2020-21 team of the season, a new long-term contract with the club and the Super League’s player and goal of the month awards for October. And she has led Ireland to a bright start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, the highlight a 2-1 win in Helsinki against Finland, the team in the play-off spot at the halfway stage.



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