IS THIS the greatest year in Illawarra sport?
It surely must be, at least since 2001, when the Hawks and Wolves made Wollongong title town.
For the past week the Mercury team has tossed around names for the Illawarra sportsperson of the year shortlist.
Emma McKeon – with the hard-earned bling of four Olympics medals and the 2014 award winner after her Glasgow Commonwealth Games haul – was first locked in as a finalist.
Tyler Wright, a Culburra surfer, but with a rich connection to the wider South Coast, after learning her craft on the region’s best breaks, was quickly added as a contender. There’s been a string of lay days at the final event in Hawaii, but it’s all just a victory lap for Wright, after claiming her first world title in France in October.
Wright’s transformation from the most laid back competitor on the tour, to battle-hardened champion has been remarkable.
In the four years since the Mercury launched the award after the collapse of the Illawarra sportstar dinner, our female athletes have dominated.
Sally Fitzgibbons (world surfing tour runner-up), McKeon and most recently Matildas Caitlin Foord and Michelle Heyman were joint winners for the World Cup exploits, as Australia made the quarter-finals for the first time. Their Olympics experience was bitter-sweet, making another quarter-finals exit after an epic penalty shoot-out against hosts Brazil.
But then on Friday, Foord was recognised as the Asian Confederation player of the year, five years after winning the ‘best young player’ prize at the previous World Cup in Germany. As the Matildas’ international rise continues, Foord stands alongside the Illawarra’s golden generation of Socceroos talent, Mile Sterjovski, Scott Chipperfield and Luke Wilkshire.
The achievements of Wright, McKeon and Foord are matched by Rugby Sevens stars Emma Tonegato and Nicole Beck winning gold in Rio.
Wollongong’s Tonegato is one of the greatest try-scoring weapons of any rugby code in the world, while super mum Beck provided one of the magic moments of the Olympics, kissing the gold medal with daughter Sophie.
Capping a remarkable year of Illawarra women’s sport, Paralympian Amanda Reid, won cycling silver in Brazil, just a year after switching to two wheels from swimming.
But this year, the blokes have certainly held their own when it comes to recognising the region’s best sportspeople. Corrimal’s Tyson Frizell was almost denied a State of Origin debut, only replacing Wade Graham through suspension.
He emerged as a NSW wrecking ball and making it into the Australian squad for the successful Four Nations tournament in England. Swimmer David McKeon, 1500m runner Ryan Gregson, Wollongong-based triathletes Aaron Royle and Ryan Bailie and Kookaburras talent Blake Govers can all take great pride in their efforts in Rio. But perhaps Jarrod Poort stands out for his remarkable 10km swim, where he captured the nation’s imagination by powering to the lead, only to be caught in the closing stages.
People across the nation were staying up to watch the Opals women’s basketball team, only to find themselves glued to the television watching Poort’s daring bid for gold. Berry’s Shane Rose won equestrian team eventing bronze, even though he watched on during the final day after being disqualified.
Then University of Wollongong student James Turner inspired the Illawarra with his 800m triumph at the Paraylmpics. But even in an Olympics dominated year, Alex Volkanovski broke through to make his UFC debut and Nic Maddinson wore the baggy green for the first time in the day-night Test in Adelaide.
While a duck left Maddinson’s place in the team vulnerable for the upcoming series, his explosive batting ability is unquestioned as Australia looks to the future.