1) Cathal Dennehy
There are some great moments in sport that are elevated still further by a great piece of commentary. Sometimes – as with – these moments are embellished with quick wit and composure, but mostly – in keeping with the high-octane sport around them – it is fully-grown adults going off script, spontaneously combusting to bring the fervour of the action to the viewer or listener, making everybody’s day a little bit brighter.
From Bjorge Lillelien’s to Harry Carpenter’s to Jack van Gelder’s simple but effective , there are pieces of commentary that become so synonymous with the action that one cannot live on without the other.
Enter Cathal Dennehy’s description of Phil Healy’s run in the Irish University Athletics Association Championships 4x400m in April this year. A touch more provincial than the Rumble in the Jungle or the 1998 World Cup quarter-final, then, but no less impressive, as University College Cork’s Healy started the final 400m lap in fifth place, 70-80 metres behind the leader (nobody can be sure as she is so far back, she is out of shot). Somehow, “from the depths of hell”, as Dennehy so brilliantly describes it, Healy storms through the field, pipping University College Dublin’s Michelle Finn – who herself represented Ireland at the World Championships in 2015 and in this year’s Olympic Games – right on the line, before collapsing into a quite outstanding faceplant. Perhaps that’s where .
Healy is not even a 400m runner, and 20 minutes previously had competed in a 200m race. “I was putting down my gear and one of the girls came over and asked would I have any interest in running the 4x400m relay,” Healy revealed afterwards. “I said, ‘Throw me into the last leg and I’ll see what I can do.’ It didn’t feel like I was dying with lactic, I reckon it was the adrenaline and the momentum. I had the burn but didn’t feel it but I crossed the line and fell.”
Unquestionably, it is Healy who is the hero of the hour. But with all the media attention that followed, including , is she unsung? Apart from the 200 or so people at Dublin’s Morton Stadium that day, her moment has been relived more than three million times on YouTube through the eyes of Dennehy – by his own admission, only a part-time commentator – who started the home straight with a classic one-liner before descending into glorious delirium. “Sometimes these things come to you – not that I have too much experience doing these things – but sometimes you get that flash of inspiration,” Dennehy told the excellent podcast . “I don’t know if it was the red singlet coming from so far behind, but something flashed up to say ‘coming from the depths of hell’.” MB
2) Leonardo Mayer
If you ever taught a bear how to play tennis, educating it in the intricacies of the game and introducing it to the concept of tactics, it would probably play like Juan Martín del Potro. The sport is so much richer for the explosive Argentinian’s return, and he has provided us with enough entertainment in the past six months to suggest that he will challenge for his first grand slam title since the 2009 US Open, provided he maintains his fitness when the new season begins in January. Just ask Stan Wawrinka. If you’re still not convinced, ask Novak Djokovic. Then Andy Murray. Or Marin Cilic.
There was nowhere left to hide for Cilic as Del Potro cranked up the venomous power of his groundstrokes during their epic singles rubber in last month’s . Croatia were within touching distance of a 3-1 victory when Cilic led by two sets, but he might as well have replaced his racquet with the white flag of surrender by the end of the match, so futile was the task of trying to contain a rampaging Del Potro. Tennis’s fifth Beatle roared back to win in five sets, leaving it to Federico Delbonis to seal Argentina’s first ever Davis Cup title in the final match of the tie, which he duly did with a comprehensive win over Ivo Karlovic.
It is fitting that Argentina’s never-say-die spirit was inspired by a player who had only recently made one of the great sporting comebacks. Having recovered from a wrist injury that almost forced him to retire, Del Potro stunned Wawrinka at Wimbledon, took silver after pushing Murray hard in their unforgettable Olympic final, and gained revenge on the Scot by beating him when Great Britain hosted Argentina in the Davis Cup in September.
Del Potro understandably dominated the headlines, both domestically and globally, but the Davis Cup is a team event and he could not have done it without some help. It was Delbonis who provided the finishing touch against Croatia, while Argentina would not even have reached the final without Leonardo Mayer’s victory over Dan Evans in the semi-final against a resurgent GB, who had fought back from 2-0 down to level the tie, thanks to the Murray brothers.
Having taken five hours and seven minutes to defeat Murray on the first day in Glasgow, Del Potro had nothing left in the tank after surprisingly deciding to play in the doubles. The reasoning was justifiable. Leading the tie 2-0, selecting their best player boosted their chances of sealing their place in the final with a day to spare. But GB had other ideas and Argentina’s gamble looked to have backfired when Del Potro decided that he was in no condition to face Dan Evans in the fifth rubber on day three.
Murray had easily beaten Guido Pella to level the tie, meaning that Argentina were relying on their supposedly unthreatening substitute, Mayer, to beat Evans, who had recently given Wawrinka the fright of his life at the US Open. All Evans needed was a win over a player ranked No114 in the world, whose previous match was a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 defeat to an obscure Belgian called Joris de Loore in a Challenger event in St Rémy, and all was well when he took the first set.
But when Mayer’s fearsome serve clicked at the start of the second, Evans had no answer. The 29-year-old rained down aces on Evans, drowning him with 15 in total and a first serve percentage of 84, taking control of the match before to put Argentina into the final.
Mayer has produced little of note in 2016. He lost in the first round at the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon, did not appear at Flushing Meadows, and was last seen losing to Lithuania’s Laurynas Grigelis in Brescia. Overall he played 27 matches this year, winning 12 and losing 15, and his ranking has dropped another 15 places since he beat Evans. But Argentina’s historic victory would not have been possible without his vital contribution. Argentina played their joker without much confidence, but they had the last laugh. JS
3) Achmat Hassiem
In a sport that tends to see most elite athletes peak in their teen years or early twenties, it was remarkable to see 34-year-old swimmer Achmat Hassiem compete in his third Paralympic Games for South Africa in Rio. But rather than his age, what is most notable about Hassiem’s appearance, other than his 6ft 4in frame, is the fact that he is missing a leg.
More notable still is the story of how he lost it: to a great white shark, when Hassiem and his brother were training to be lifeguards off the coast of Cape Town in 2006. “I saw this little triangle moving on top of the water moving towards my brother,” Hassiem said in Rio. “I decided to see what was attached to this triangle and that’s when I saw a 4.7m great white shark. Immediately my first instinct as the older brother was to protect my younger brother, and I started drumming on top of the water to draw the shark’s attention away from him and towards myself. Next thing I know, the shark grabbed my leg and I got pulled 50m under the water towards the depths. The worst part was listening to the sound of the rescue boat’s propellers disappearing. As human beings, we are designed to fight back, and that’s what I did: I started hitting the shark on the side of its head, started kicking it with my free leg. And that’s when I could feel my leg break in half.”
Hassiem swam to the surface, survived a second attack by the shark and clambered aboard the rescue boat, where his brother embraced him, and thanked Achmat for saving his life. This year’s Olympics marked 10 years since that incident, during which he won a bronze medal at London 2012 in the S10 100m butterfly, and after qualifying for the same final in Rio, Hassiem hung up his trunks. However, this is just the beginning of a new chapter for the South African, who has a new challenge after being named a Global Shark Guardian by the United Nations’ Save Our Sharks Coalition in February, a conservation role set up to protect the species which left him dismembered. MB
4) Rob Greenwood
There was plenty to celebrate from a British perspective at the Paralympics in September. Picking out individual moments is not easy given that Great Britain surpassed their target by winning 147 medals and achieving their best result since Seoul 1988, but good places to start are ’s unrelenting excellence on a bike, becoming the first British Paralympian to top the podium in two different sports since 1984, ’s hat-trick in the Olympic Stadium, ’s impish leap onto the table tennis table and ’s successful defence of his T11 100m title.
Let’s move on to the Aquatics Centre, though, where Britain won an unprecedented 47 medals, including 16 golds. swam brilliantly, became the first SM6 swimmer to race below three minutes in the 200m medley and took up two golds, while the youngsters excelled as well. , who took up swimming after watching Simmonds in London, won S6 50m butterfly gold at the age of 15. The youngest member of the team, 13-year-old Abby Kane, became a silver medalist.
All of which explains why Rob Greenwood, the head coach of Britain’s Para-Swimming team, was named High Performance Paralympic Coach of the Year at the UK Coaching Awards last month. The glory always belongs to the athletes in major tournaments, but it is worth taking a moment to acknowledge the guidance they receive from the people behind the scenes. With Greenwood in charge, the future looks bright for Britain’s swimmers. JS
5) Chelsea Gray
Chelsea Gray has spent most of her basketball career on the sidelines. Literally. She has spent the majority of her college years on the physio table after two potentially career-ending injuries. When she has been fit, as a back-up point guard in the WNBA, she is generally found on the bench, rather than the court.
It is a miracle that Gray ever made it to the WNBA. In college at Duke, she badly dislocated her right kneecap, one of the most gruesome injuries a basketball player can sustain. After 11 months of intensive rehab she returned to fitness, but only 16 matches later dislocated it again, this time compounding the injury with a fracture. Two surgeries later, Connecticut Sun took a chance on the 5ft 11in Californian, giving her an annual salary of $30,000.
Her earnings increased when she was traded to the LA Sparks in the off-season, but her bit-part role remained. In context, Gray started zero games out of 34 for the Sun in the 2015 season; for the Sparks, who boast five WNBA All-Stars in their ranks, she did well to start one match out of 33 in 2016. Yet without her, the Sparks would have never won their first championship since 2002, and her efforts in the deciding fifth match of the play-off final against the much-heralded Minnesota Lynx earn her a spot on this list.
Candace Parker, Alana Beard and Nneka Ogwumike are the best paid, undisputed star players of the Sparks, perhaps of the whole league. Yet during the finals, Gray continually made her presence felt, without ever stealing the headlines. When , it was Gray who provided the assist, dictating the play and drawing the defenders. In Game 4, no Sparks player scored more than Gray’s 20 points.
Tied at two games apiece going into Game 5, Gray came off the bench to score 11 unanswered points at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, silencing the Minnesota crowd with a variety of three-pointers, jumpshots and driving to the rim. At 75-76 down with 15 seconds remaining in the fourth and final quarter, once again it was Gray who forced the issue, her shot rebounding to Ogwumike, who sunk a fadeaway jumper to seal . As the team mobbed Ogwumike, Gray was just another body in the melee, and then, just like that, she seamlessly slotted back into the background. MB
6) Norway’s handball team
The next time your football team finds itself on the wrong end of a controversial refereeing decision, resist the temptation to spend the next week venting your frustration at the Football Association’s Twitter account and instead follow the example of the Norwegian men’s handball team, and accept that sometimes life is unfair and there is nothing much to be done about it. After their hopes of qualifying for the Olympics were ended by a defeat to Germany in the semi-final of the European Championship in January, it would have been easy for Norway to kick up an almighty stink when it transpired that the Germans had too many players on the pitch after Kai Hafner’s winning goal.
True, they pointed a finger at Germany’s misdemeanour at first. “The Norwegian Federation/Delegation considered several photos and videos which clearly show that GER had too many players on the playing field, including 2 goalkeepers and that there was taken no action from the judges table to adjust the situation,” the Norwegian federation said on its website. “Normally this would have given GER a two-minute suspension, leaving NOR to play seven players against five for five seconds. The remaining time in the match was very short, a mere five seconds, but nevertheless sufficient to equalise.”
Yet they were big enough to admit that Germany’s indiscretion had no meaningful impact on the result and quickly decided not to appeal. No Rio for them, then, but at least their sportsmanship earned them a Fair Play Award from the International Olympic Committee. The point here isn’t that no one likes a snitch; we are not in the playground. This is more about self-respect and mutual trust. With their honesty and lack of disingenuousness, Norway adhered to the spirit of competition. That is good karma. JS