THE 15TH ANNUAL ECHO WOMEN IN SPORT AWARDS
he Echo has always covered the highs and lows of Cork's female athletes and their efforts to be the best in their fields. In difficult Covid-impacted times, Corkonians still delivered in various codes on Leeside and beyond to make their mark in 2021.
Here we honour their achievements, featuring the 13 award winners across the year, and reveal our 15th Sportswoman of the Year and the Hall of Fame selection. This very popular scheme has been in operation since 2007, and former Echo journalists Alison Donnelly and Mary White leading the way in launching this were at the forefront of its early success.
SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR WINNER
Eoghan Dinan, Rowing Correspondent
ighly talented Emily Hegarty, Olympic rowing medallist and the pride of Cork and Skibbereen, is no stranger to winning rowing medals, and setting standards.
From Skibbereen in County Cork, the 23-year-old started rowing in 2009, and her highlights include winning silver at the 2019 World U23 Rowing Championships in Florida and winning the Irish Rowing Championships that same year. She also won bronze in the 2020 European U23 Championships in Germany.
But the big highlight was to come last year, when the talented Skibbereen athlete and her fellow crewmates - Eimear Lambe, Aifric Keogh and Fiona Murtagh - set the hearts of the nation racing in winning a stunning bronze at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Queue the excitement.
This was to catapult Emily and the others into superstar status.
In that all or nothing race they left it late and finished powerfully to win a fantastic bronze in a thriller at the Tokyo Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo Bay.
The delight was immediate, the excitement instant around the county and the world, where hundreds of thousands had tuned in to see if Ireland could take a medal in the final.
And in doing so these women made history in winning Irish rowing’s first women’s Olympic Medal.
It was one of the best days ever of Irish rowing as they stormed to bronze, stroked by Emily, and we celebrated another fantastic achievement on the water. And a huge day of pride for Skibbereen Rowing Club, where they now celebrate their numerous Olympians.
And despite the pandemic they managed to celebrate in a socially-distanced way in Skibbereen.
In that final they had fought a hard battle to storm back from fifth spot to clinch the bronze in fine style. It was to bring Team Ireland its first medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and the achievements of Emily, Aifric, Eimear and Fiona were toasted everywhere.
It was a thriller, with Ireland in fifth as they passed the half-way mark. Known for a strong finish, they then turned on the power, passed China and set about chasing down Team GB, who they passed in the closing stages to take bronze.
Favourites Australia took gold with Netherlands taking silver.
Emily Hegarty, shows off her Olympic Bronze Medal at Skibbereen rowing club on the bank of the River Ilen. PICTURE EDDIE O'HARE
Speaking after the race, the thrilled Irish crew described the strategies they worked with: “The race was a blur really, it went by so fast. Eimear was calling our strategies out, and it felt like she was calling them early, but then I looked out and we were at that point. It was very quick. It wasn’t the best race, but we always say we want to be the best on our worst day too, and we pulled that off.
“We always know that the second half is our stronger part, so we tried to stay with the pack as much as we can, so at this stage their strategies are probably to put as much time into us in the first half. And they did that!”
Olympics joy: Ireland's Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty celebrate winning Olympic bronze medals. PICTURE INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Speaking to RTE a delighted Emily Hegarty took her place alongside the achievements of Paul and Gary O'Donovan at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
"It's really exciting that only five years later there's a women's crews medal (and a heavyweight medal) and it's really really exciting for all the youngsters in Skibb. coming up, that there's no limits. Five years ago I definitely didn't think that I'd be here with an Olympic medal around my neck. but it's definitely going to give a massive boost to home, and give all those young girls coming up a bit of belief, boys and girls, and hopefully there will be more medals out of the week."
And there was, when Skibbereen's Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy took a stunning Olympic gold, and Ireland went rowing crazy. She added: "It's a really really great team to be part of, everybody backed each other, and everyone has been pushing each other on, it's a really competitive environment we have for ourselves, so that's how I think we got the most out of our training, our crews, just always trying to get the best out of each other."
Speaking about being not only an Olympian but a bronze medal Olympian, Emily said "it's still a bit hard to believe to be honest, it's really exciting to be part of."
Emily now studies Biological Sciences at UCC where she has continued her rowing with the university, but gets back to Skibbereen at every chance gets.
Which isn't many as one can imagine, the demands of being an international rower means training sessions can sometimes be up to three times a day out at the National Rowing Centre in Farran.
The joy is Olympic bronze is very much still in her thoughts.
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 28: Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty of Team Ireland celebrate winning the bronze medal during the Women's Four Final A on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Sea Forest Waterway on July 28, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. PICTURE NAOMI BAKER/GETTY IMAGES
Asked what it was like to take part in an Olympics during a pandemic, Emily says she doesn't know any different. Of course she can't, she has nothing to compare it to.
"But it was a fantastic experience to be at the Olympic Games and to represent my country."
And it was "wonderful" to arrive home to Ireland and be greeted by her parents at Dublin Airport. Describing the moment when she realised she had just become a medal-winning Olympian, Emily says it was a fantastic moment.
"It was amazing, but it did take a while for it to sink in. When you're younger and coming up through the ranks, it's an amazing feeling to be part of it."And they were buzzing arriving back home to Ireland, where they were greeted by family at Dublin Airport.
Celebrating the win in July 2021 was Emily's Dad Jerry Mum Mary and brother Dermot with dog Bella. PICTURE DENIS BOYLE
Emily's parents Jerry and Mary were there at the airport to share this special moment with their daughter, and Emily's sister Alice joined from Australia on Facetime."
We hadn't been home for the bones of two months, as we'd been on training camp first and then went on to Tokyo. Even with no medal it would have been a special moment to see them, it was incredible to see them, and even better to bring something home to them," which just happened to be an Olympic bronze medal, a rare achievement in any athlete's life.
Emily can remember being at the National Rowing Centre in Cork in 2016 with Aoife Casey training for the junior championships and watching on the TV as Paul and Gary O'Donovan won Olympic silver for Ireland.
"Yea, I was there with Aoife training for the juniors and we watched Paul and Gary win silver, it was amazing.
"And that was to bring more youngers to rowing, and more again have taken up the sport since Emily became a role model following her achievements.
"Yes, it's a situation where you don't see yourself as a role model, but you remember that we had so many role models growing up. There are so many successful females doing well in sport, it's really cool, and it's inspiring to other people."
Irish Rowing Training, London 2012 Olympic Games, Eton Dorney Rowing Centre, Dorney Lake, Dorney, London, England 24/7/2012. Irish rower Sanita Puspure during a practice session ahead of the start of the single sculls competition PICTURE INPHO/MORGAN TREACY
Emily herself had role models like Sanita Puspure to look up when she was taking up the sport of rowing.
"I remember watching Sanita when she was at London Olympics in 2012, and she was the only rower there from Ireland, and she was a big figurehead."
And looking to her own future, Emily has her eyes on the prize for Paris 2024.
"We're in training camp in Italy at the moment and it's going well," says Emily, "and we're preparing for the Europeans in August and the World Championships in September."
Looking to the next Olympics in France in just two years, Emily says it's an exciting time for Irish rowing.
"Yes, we have such a great group of girls at the moment in Irish rowing, it's an exciting prospect what Ireland can achieve in the coming years. And it's great to be part of it."
For Paris 2024 Olympics, the dream goes on.
THIRTEEN OUTSTANDING SPORTSWOMEN OF 2021
THE BIG INTERVIEW
andie Fitzgibbon is one of the most naturally talented and successful sportswomen Cork ever produced. She is an all-time great in two sports, camogie and basketball. Skillful, dedicated, honest and unflappable, she never failed to deliver for her teams.
With Glen Rovers, Sandie collected a staggering 10 senior camogie counties, eight Munster crowns and four All-Irelands, while in Rebel red she captained Cork to All-Ireland glory. As a basketballer, she helped Blarney win four National Leagues and three National Cups, and also picked up silverware with Lee Strand in Tralee, while excelling for Ireland on the hardwood as well.
Sandie's enduring popularity with Cork sports fans saw her voted as The Echo Rebel Legends winner last March. In an online poll featuring 32 of Leeside's greatest, she beat Billy Morgan, Denis Irwin, Rob Heffernan, Roy Keane and Rena Buckley to be crowned the last athlete standing.
HALL OF FAME AWARD
rriving into the family home of Sharon O'Keeffe, there was a warm welcome for Jim Coughlan (photographer) and me. And no it wasn't from the fire that was burning brightly, although Jim did get a bit of a roasting from it when taking the pictures. No, it was from her family members present which was no great surprise really as that what Sharon was – a warm and welcoming person.
Sharon is the Echo Women in Sport Hall of Fame award winner for 2021, but sadly the award had to be presented to her family posthumously as she passed away in December after her battle with cancer.
Sharon was someone that you couldn't help but like and her dedication to the GAA and in particular ladies football was second to none. It was an honour to sit and just listen to her family talk about her and share some of their memories over the years, but one thing came out above all else.
Yes, she loved ladies football and GAA, but above everything came family, her husband Michael, parents Catherine and John, children Sarah, Daniel, Gavin and their partners, extended family members, including her brother Daithí, and the apple of her eye - her grandson Jack. They were the centre of her world and no doubt she is keeping an eye on all of them from above.
Her mother summed it up beautifully when Catherine, better known as Kitty said: “As her parents, we are at a loss to comprehend, even in a small way, how Sharon managed to achieve and do so much while she endured intense suffering, all kept low in order to give.” That sums Sharon up, always thinking of others before herself and always willing to give and help out no matter what.
Sharon was born in England and along with her parents and brother moved to Kerry in 1977, where she attended Coolick NS before moving on to Presentation Convent School in Killarney. After completing her Leaving Cert in 1987 she went on a holiday to San Francisco.
There Sharon enjoyed many a great chat with her uncle, Frank O'Keeffe, and his wife Kathleen, who would be well-known in GAA circles. She always had an interest in GAA but Kitty said it was Frank and his family who gave Sharon that “undying and fiery passion for the games she so dearly loved.”
When they got married Frank was and still is, a highly respected referee. Then he used to referee at inter-county level, but now he tends to stick mainly to games in his division. Frank said that “Sharon had two options really, come with me or stay at home alone and thankfully she decided to come with me.”
And so in earnest began her love affair with the game and as the children came along so did theirs. Though Michael did say there were times he regretted Sharon coming along, especially if Sarah was there as well. “They would umpire for me and I always said I never needed a referee assessor as between the two of them they would point out any mistakes or decisions they didn't agree with on the way home,” said Michael.
As a team, Sharon and Michael were instrumental in setting up the ladies football section of Dromtarriffe GAA Club. Sharon soon found herself involved in administration roles within the club. Word of her expertise in this area made its way to the Cork ladies county board and soon she found herself as an officer.
In her time Sharon was secretary and PRO and her time as the former coincided with the great run by the Cork ladies footballers in the All-Ireland championship.
Whilst the hard work on the pitch was done by Eamonn Ryan, his selectors and the players have no doubt that Sharon played her part, working hard in the background to make things easy for all involved to reach the heights they did.
There have been many great runaí in Cork GAA over the years and Sharon is up there with the best of them. From that role, she moved on to become PRO, again another position she held with distinction until a few years ago.
At the end of that Sharon might have been thinking of taking it easy for a while, but Dromtarriffe GAA Club had other ideas. No sooner had her time with Cork ended, she stepped into the role of PRO of the club.
As an administrator, she has played a huge role in the development of ladies football, first within her club, and then across the whole county.
Sharon spent countless hours sitting at her kitchen table working on her laptop for hours for the good of others and for the betterment of ladies football.
People like this don't come along too often and in Sharon, Cork and Dromtarriffe simply had a gem.
The outpouring of grief and tributes after her untimely passing in itself showed the high regard she was held in across the county and country.
Leading the tributes Cork Ladies Football chairman Neilus Carroll expressed condolences to the extended O’Keeffe family.
“We both served on the North Cork board together, Sharon holding the positions of chairperson, secretary, treasurer, and PRO before progressing to county secretary from 2001-2008 and again in 2012 having also occupied the PRO position between 2007-2011.
"At all times, Sharon gave 100% to every aspect of the Cork LGFA and in no small way contributed to the great success that Cork enjoyed those years.
“Sharon remained very involved with her club Dromtarriffe, a great supporter to her husband Michael John in his refereeing, taking time to umpire at many a game. Her untimely passing leaves a big void in her local community, Sharon so well respected and treasured,” said Mr Carroll.
That sums Sharon up perfectly and The Echo is delighted to present the Hall of Fame award to her family to honour and remember the great work she has done and the great person she was.
WOMEN IN SPORT AWARD:
Denise O’Sullivan - Soccer
Christina Desmond - Boxing
Orla Barry - Paralympic Discus
Juliet Murphy - Ladies Football
Derval O’Rourke - Athletics
Olive Loughnane - Athletics
Briege Corkery - Ladies Football
Jessica Scannell - Basketball