Go­ing into bat­tle with­out fear or favour

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - PAUL KIMMAGE

IT’S fair to say my mind was else­where that Fri­day. I’d spent the day push­ing hard to get a story across the line, and the evening hav­ing din­ner with a woman so hot I didn’t think of look­ing at my phone. So it was the late train from Pearse be­fore I pulled it from my pocket and cranked up the Twit­ter ma­chine.

At the top of my feed was a tweet from John Kroll, a jour­nal­ism spe­cial­ist who en­gages me with stuff that keeps me on my toes. His lat­est was a quote from Dwight Emer­son Mitchell in 1939: “The reader does not care to be told that some in­ter­est­ing facts were brought out; he wants to know what the facts were, then he will judge for him­self whether or not they are in­ter­est­ing.” Hm­mmm

I scrolled down. There was a tweet from the athletics writer Cathal Den­nehy about some com­ments So­nia O’Sullivan had made about what it’s like for fe­male ath­letes who don’t have hy­per­an­dro­genism to com­pete. A tweet from the cricket writer Ger Sig­gins with “great news” that RTE had com­mit­ted to one-hour high­lights pro­grammes of the Test against Pak­istan and the Twenty20 in­ter­na­tion­als against In­dia. If it stops rain­ing for that long.

The rower, Sanita Pus­pure, had posted a short but de­light­ful video of her friend Aifric Keogh danc­ing in the gym. The busi­ness jour­nal­ist Dearb­hail McDon­ald was tweet­ing about Brexit and an All-Is­land Civil Fo­rum event in Dun­dalk. The broad­caster Nathan Murphy seemed in­trigued that the chron­i­cally asth­matic Chris Froome — pro cy­cling’s cur­rent Lazarus — was in­tend­ing to ride the Giro: “Team Sky are at­tempt­ing the sport­ing equiv­a­lent of kick­ing Bishop Bren­nan up the arse.” Ahh go on, go on.

Just be­low Nathan, his em­ploy­ers, Off the Ball, had in­vited for­mer Kerry foot­baller Ai­dan O’Ma­hony to ex­plain why pun­ditry didn’t ap­peal to him. And just be­low that, there was a tweet from Horse Rac­ing Ire­land that al­most felt like a slap: “Emo­tional scenes af­ter the novice hur­dle at Punchestown as Katie Walsh an­nounces her re­tire­ment from the sad­dle.” Oh!

In the spring of 1987, I was hav­ing cof­fee one morn­ing with a copy of

L’Equipe when I hap­pened upon a story about a big stage race I was sched­uled to ride called the Cri­terium

du Dauphine. The race would start in Greno­ble with a three-kilo­me­tre time trial along the banks of the River Isere, and the or­gan­is­ers had ex­tended an in­vi­ta­tion to lo­cal hero Jean­nie Longo to set a time. Oh!

A mul­ti­ple world cham­pion and time-trial spe­cial­ist, Longo was one of the great­est women rac­ers of all time and for the month that fol­lowed she was the talk of the pelo­ton:

“How many guys do you think she’ll beat?” “Nom de Dieu!” “What if it’s you!” “Nom de Dieu!”

It was a dif­fer­ent time, of course, and a state of mind best cap­tured by the late Frank De­ford in his mem­oir,

Over Time: “Although it is now so com­mon, even nat­u­ral, for girls to grow up as ath­letes, for a long time it was cus­tom­ary to view women ath­letes as odd­balls. To psy­cho­anal­yse my own gen­der, I would say that much of it has been sheer envy. Or fear. What is the worst thing you can say about a man? That he got beaten by a girl.”

Longo’s per­for­mance that day (she took quite a few scalps!) re­minds me of one of the things I ad­mired most about Katie Walsh. There were no con­ces­sions. She was com­pet­ing on equal terms. Press the rewind but­ton on her fi­nal win in Punchestown and she’s toe to toe with Barry Ger­aghty. Watch her crash­ing fall in her fi­nal ride at Ain­tree and she’s tram­pled into the ground. Same re­wards, same risks and yet . . .

Bike rac­ing wasn’t a sport for girls when I was grow­ing up . . . which is not to say that girls didn’t race. Deb­bie Kane from Belfast was one of the all-time best. Her fa­ther Dave was a for­mer in­ter­na­tional and win­ning was in her genes: five Irish road ti­tles, three time-trial cham­pi­onships and the first Irish woman ever to beat the hour for 25 miles.

In 1988, she trav­elled to an in­ter­na­tional in Har­low and was ly­ing third over­all go­ing into the fi­nal stage. It was a wet and windy morn­ing and she was lead­ing the field down a twist­ing de­cent when her front tyre blew and she over­shot a cor­ner where a truck was parked. She crushed the ra­di­a­tor with her head and broke her shoul­der, col­lar­bone and arm. When Dave got to the hos­pi­tal they told him she would never walk again. He had two sons, both of them raced, but the wound is deeper when it’s your daugh­ter. “It al­most broke me,” he said.

I never met Katie Walsh, but of­ten watched her race with my fin­gers over my eyes and that same sense of dread. It’s a dad’s thing, I guess, but I can’t imag­ine how it felt for Ted. Be­cause you can say that he knows the sport but this is not ten­nis or cricket or golf. There are no sep­a­rate lanes or ladies’ tees.

So it was a re­lief that night, sit­ting on the train and read­ing that she was done. And on the 30th an­niver­sary of her ac­ci­dent in Har­low, it was a joy to learn that Deb­bie was do­ing fine.

She had been out on ‘Black Betty’, her hand-cy­cle, that morn­ing and had posted a note on her Twit­ter feed: “The sun in my face . . .the wind (partly) on my back . . . the cherry blossom fall­ing like con­fetti around me to­day . . . days I’m thank­ful for what I can do.”

Way to go, girls.

He had two sons who both raced, but the wound is deeper when it’s your daugh­ter

Re­cently re­tired jockey Katie Walsh and (in­set) record-break­ing for­mer cy­clist Deb­bie Kane with her fa­ther Dave

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