Golden memories as the Illawarra celebrates again

Gold medals, world titles and tearful farewells were among the highlights of a fabulous sporting year for the Illawarra. 

In an Olympic year, the region finished with a gold and two bronze medals, an impressive haul among the eight South Coast athletes competing.

David Smith was the man of the moment - and the year - producing an amazing performance in the K4 1000m final to win gold in London.

Closer to home, Hawks great Mat Campbell and Dragons stars Ben Hornby and Dean Young waved goodbye to the Wollongong faithful for the last time.

The Mercury sports team recalls the moments that made 2012 so memorable for the Illawarra. 

1 GOLD FOR THE ILLAWARRA

Warilla paddler David Smith became the Illawarra's first Olympic gold medallist in 40 years when he was part of the K4 1000m triumph in London.

Putting the disappointment of missing out on the final in Bei-jing four years ago behind him, Smith joined jubilant teammates Jacob Clear, Murray Stewart and Tate Smith to produce a stirring start-to-finish victory.

With 150 metres left in the race, Smith beamed as he snuck a glance to see where his rivals were and knew the gold was his.

"A few years and memories have been erased," Smith said at the time.

"It was never really in the back of my mind worrying about it. It's good to prove to the world we are the best in the world and Beijing was just a once off. I'm a better paddler than I was there."

Smith could barely describe the feeling of joy when he knew the gold medal was coming his way.

The region's previous Olympic gold came when Beverley Whitfield won the 200m breakstroke final in Munich in 1972.

2 GOVERS' GOLD AFTER BRONZE

The mixed emotions of Olympic bronze gave way to sheer Champions Trophy elation for Illawarra Kookaburras' star Kieran Govers.

In extra-time in the final against the Netherlands last weekend, Govers produced a stunning back stick shot which rocketed into the backboard and broke the deadlock, winning 2-1.

The pass to Govers had come from Wollongong teammate Tristan White, playing in his first Champions Trophy.

The victory came after Govers played in his debut Olympics campaign in London, where the Kookaburras lost 4-2 in the semi-final against Germany.

Govers scored in the game and again in the bronze medal playoff, as Australia beat hosts Great Britain 3-1.

"I'm pretty ecstatic - it's not the one we wanted, but any medal to get in an Olympics is pretty special," he said in London.

"Not everyone walks around with a bronze medal - we'll take it."

3 CAMPBELL BOWS OUT

After 17 seasons, 524 games, a championship and one extraordinary rescue mission, Mat Campbell retired in March as a Wollongong Hawks legend.

Not just one of the great players in NBL history, Campbell will be remembered as the team's saviour after leading the campaign to keep Wollongong in the competition in 2009.

Their future was secure after mining magnate Arun Jagatramka became the club's financial guarantor.

The next season they made the grand final, only losing to Perth in game three to miss out on adding to their 2001 championship.

Campbell bowed out with a victory over Adelaide, which lifted the Hawks off the bottom of the ladder last season.

"I'm a little bit overwhelmed by all the attention," he said after his final game.

"Nobody here owes me anything, I owe all you people everything.

"It's been my life and something I'm very proud of. I'm happy to have you guys as part of my life and I thank you all."

4 THUMBS UP FOR MARMONT

Even with an injured hand and under trying circumstances, Wollongong's Jay Marmont grasped the Supercross national title for the second consecutive year.

Marmont was upstaged in the championship's final round in Newcastle by past world champion Chad Reed, but the result was enough to ensure he would top the Australian pointscore.

The 29-year-old raced part of the season with a badly dislocated thumb from a training accident.

With his hand heavily strapped, Marmont finished the Pro Open main event with a comfortable lead over fellow championship contender Daniel McCoy, who finished third.

"I went into the night with nerves with a thumb injury that I was keeping under wraps," Marmont said.

"It was playing a little bit of havoc on my riding and I was worried about that, to be honest. But then I had a really good heat result, and I was able to put it behind me."

5 REPRESENTATIVE HONOURS

Kiama juniors Brett and Josh Morris combined to help Australia win the end of season Test against New Zealand in Townsville.

It completed an outstanding year for Josh, who was in career best form as the Bulldogs made it to the NRL grand final, when they were beaten by Melbourne.

While success in the NRL and State of Origin eluded them, Josh and Brett both represented NSW and Australia this year.

Brett scored nine tries in his final eight games upon returning to the wing at the Dragons, after spending much of the NRL season at fullback.

The burst of scoring couldn't lift St George Illawarra into the top eight, but it did earn Brett his 11th Test cap.

Josh, who played in all three Origin games this year, made his third appearance in green and gold in October, as Australia won 20-12 against the Kiwis.

6 SILVER LINING

Wollongong's star wheelchair basketballers claimed Paralympic silver after being upstaged by Canada in the final in London.

Current Rollerhawks players Brett Stibners, Nick Taylor and Grant Mizens joined former club teammate Tristan Knowles at the Games.

Their campaign was a success, but they would not prevent Canada from snatching the gold 64-58 with a second-half surge.

Knowles was restricted to five points and Stibners just two.

Earlier, Australia had beaten the United States 72-63 to qualify for the gold medal playoff, as well as overpowering Poland 76-53 in the quarter-finals.

They'd also beaten South Africa, Turkey, Spain, the US and Italy in their preliminary rounds.

7 END OF AN ERA

Premiership heroes in 2010, St George Illawarra captain Ben Hornby and tough-tackling forward Dean Young retired at the end of this season.

Hornby lifted the Dragons' first NRL trophy as a merged entity and it was also the Illawarra's first elite title.

The Corrimal junior played 273 games since making his debut in 2000.

Young, who was in the form of his career when the Dragons beat the Roosters in the NRL decider two years ago, played 209 games, despite being plagued by knee injuries throughout his career.

"It was pretty emotional last week before we ran out, or it was for me anyway, because my knee was battling and I thought that was going to be my last game," Young said after the Dragons' final game in Wollongong.

"Me and Benny had our farewell the other night and that meant so much to us. That was really good - at Wollongong, where we grew up, at our home ground."

8 BUTCHERS SLICE WESTS' SUCCESS

The Wests empire was brought to an end by Thirroul in September's Illawarra rugby league grand final.

The Red Devils had claimed the past three titles and led by 10 points at half-time, but the Butchers came storming back to win 20-16, thanks to a late try.

Centre Daniel Perkins sparked a dominant Thirroul second-half performance, scoring twice, including the premiership-deciding try with 15 minutes remaining, sending the crowd into ruptures.

Experienced fullback Brent Grose declared, "I said to the boys the other day it's the best team I've seen Thirroul have in a long time" after the final siren sounded.

The win continued a tradition of ending dominant runs of rivals.

Thirroul beat Wests in 1973 after the Red Devils won the previous four titles, downed Collegians in 1999 after the Dogs claimed the three beforehand and Dapto in 2003, when the Canaries were chasing a fourth consecutive success.

9 RING THE BELL

Gerroa's Sally Fitzgibbons was again a world surfing tour bridesmaid, but she would not be denied back-to-back victories at the iconic Bells Beach event.

In a nail-biting finale, Fitzgibbons passed up the last wave of the event despite having priority, handing her rival Steph Gilmore one last chance as time expired.

But the wave failed to produce a score Gilmore needed to snatch victory, allowing Fitzgibbons to ring the bell for a second year.

"I thought 'oh, crap - I think I just let this go'," Fitzgibbons said.

"But I thought it was flat. That was the mindset I had and thankfully, that's how it turned out."

Fitzgibbons went on to finish second behind Gilmore in the overall standings.

10 WORLD TITLE HOLDER

"I knew he had the making of a world champion," speedway motorcycle grand prix team boss Matt Ford said of Appin's Chris Holder.

In October, Holder became the youngest international motorcycle grand prix champion when he clinched the crown during a fiery meeting in Poland.

Based in England, Appin rides for the Poole Pirates in the speedway championship, which attracts a massive global following, particularly in Europe.

Holder is Australia's fifth world speedway champion and was immediately congratulated by another former Aussie champion Jason Crump.

"Here is a rider who is the youngest ever world champion in the sport's Grand Prix era and it took him just three seasons to rise to the very top."

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