Our Athletics correspondent James Sullivan uses the AAI awards as an opportunity to look back at some of our athletes achievements over the last year.

Irish 100m hurdles record holder Derval O’Rourke won the Athlete of the Year award at the 2010 Woodies DIY/Tipperary Crystal National Athletics Awards held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Dublin on Saturday November 13th 2010. The Leevale star beat off competition from David Gillick, Paul Hession and club mate Ailis McSweeney to claim the top award of the evening.

O’Rourke performed superbly to take the silver medal in the Women’s 100m hurdles at this year’s European Athletics Championships held in Barcelona in a time of 12.65 seconds bettering her previous national record (12.67) which she set last year at the World Championships in Berlin when finishing in fourth place. This is the fourth occasion in which O’Rourke has medalled at a major championship after her gold at the 2006 World Indoor Championships, silver at the European Championships the same year and bronze at the 2009 European Indoor Championships. Displaying her trademark championship grit and determination O’Rourke set back to back season’s bests in the heat and semi final before her sensational Irish record left her just two hundredths of a second behind the winner Nevin Yanit of Turkey. The Cork heroine must surely now be considered a genuine contender for a medal at the 2012 London Olympics and if she can knock a further one tenth of a second off her PB she will be right in the mix.

Robert Heffernan, one of the other big Irish stars of Barcelona, was the winner of the Race Walker of the Year award. The Togher AC athlete finished a heartbreaking fourth in the 20K Walk at the European Championships before claiming an identical position in the 50K Walk just three days later smashing the Irish record in the process with a time of 3:45:30. This was the Corkman’s debut championship race over the longer distance and the fact that he started out very conservatively and finished like an express train suggests that with more experience and tactical know-how over 50K he has the potential to not only challenge for a medal in London in two years time but that the Olympic gold medal is not beyond him. He certainly is a sportsperson to keep a keen eye on over the coming two years.

One of the rising stars of Irish athletics is Ciara Mageean who scooped the Junior Athlete of the Year award. The County Down teenager demonstrated her undoubted potential in winning silver over 1500m at the World Junior Championships in Canada, becoming the first ever Irish track athlete to medal at the championships since they began in 1988. Her performance was all the more impressive in that she was the only distance runner of non-African origin to claim a medal throughout the championships. She has long been touted as the next Sonia O’Sullivan and despite the huge burden such a title brings she appears to be taking it all in her stride. She has already broken the Cobh distance running legend’s Irish junior records for 800m (2:03.07 when winning silver at the World Youth Championships last year) and 1500m (4:09.51 on her way to silver in Canada). In addition she holds no fear towards her Ethiopian and Kenyan compatriots remarking “I don’t fear anyone, every country has as good a chance as the rest – we’re all runners with two legs and one heart; the Europeans can be just as good as the Africans”. That is the attitude that will bring this 18 year old star a long way in this sport.

Another young athlete with plenty of potential is Kelly Proper who was awarded the title of Field Athlete of the Year. The 22 year old Ferrybank long jumper overcame the frustration of an early exit in Barcelona to set a new long jump national record of 6.60m just two weeks later. While her three no jumps during the qualification rounds at the European Championships were no doubt seen as bitter disappointment it could in time prove to be a vital part of this young athlete’s development. It was her first major outdoor championship and there will no doubt be countless more opportunities over the coming years and she will surely learn from the experience.

One of the great stories in Irish athletics during 2010 was of the coming of age of Ailis McSweeney. The Leevale athlete and training partner of Derval O’Rourke made a name for herself by breaking Michelle Carroll’s long standing Irish 100m record (which had lasted for 32 years) with a time of 11.40 seconds in Liege, Belgium, a time which ensured qualification for the European Championships in Barcelona. What is more moving about this performance is that without any financial support she travelled to Belgium at her own expense in a last ditch effort to achieve the qualification time for Barcelona before the deadline. At the championships she performed superbly and was denied a berth in the final by just one place, running a very slightly wind-assisted time of 11.32 in the semi final. The 27 year old’s endeavors have resulted in her deservedly receiving the award for Inspirational Performance of the year.

Among the other winners was Mark Kenneally (Cross-Country/ Road Athlete of the Year) who finished a very creditable 8th place at the European Cross Country Championships held in Dublin last December. Unfortunately injury resulted in him being unable to compete in Barcelona.

However awards are not everything and there are many other athletes who have made their mark in 2010.

One athlete with a bright future is Waterford’s Niamh Whelan. The Ferrybank 200m runner significantly improved her personal best this year when running 23.30 in Budapest in June, one month before her 20th birthday. Whelan then went on to acquit herself very well at the European Championships, her first major outdoor competition. In Barcelona she progressed from her first round heat and then ran within just one hundredth of a second of her personal best in the semi final, narrowly missing out on a place in the final. It seems inevitable that Sarah Reilly’s Irish record of 23.02 will be broken sooner rather than later by this talented sprinter.

Double Paralympic champion Jason Smyth also made huge inroads into his personal best in 2010. The Derry sprinter who suffers from visual impairment moved up to second place on the Irish all time list for 100m with a time of 10.32 in June and went on to become the first ever paralympian to qualify for the European Championships where he reached the semi finals of the blue ribboned event. Smyth, who trains in Florida with Tyson Gay, the second fast man of all time, now has his sights on becoming the first paralympian to qualify for the World Championships.

And then there is David Gillick. While the Irish record holder for 400m will most definitely look back at 2010 as a missed opportunity to claim a major outdoor championship medal, finishing 5th in Barcelona in a relatively slow time, it is worth remembering that his season’s best of 44.79 ranked him the 8th fastest in the world this year. After his breakthrough year in 2009 where he ran a national record of 44.77 and finished an impressive 6th at the World Championships the Dublin athlete has solidified his position as one of the fastest quarter milers on the planet, running sub 45 seconds on a regular basis and with his recent move to Florida to join up with top sprint coach Lance Brauman there is no reason to believe that this supremely talented runner can’t medal in London in two years time.

Another top Irish athlete who had a year to forget was 20k race walker Olive Loughnane. After claiming a stunning silver medal at the World Championships in Berlin last year the 34 year old was struck down with a virus just days before Barcelona resulting in her being unable to finish the race. However a fully fit Loughnane would have been a good bet for a medal and she will no doubt be among the prime contenders for the top prizes at next year’s World Championships in Daegu and the London Olympics.

It certainly has been an eventful year. Bring on 2011.

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