O’Hanlon in galaxy of sporting stars

January 12, 2015

Richard Bullick

Armagh gaelic captain Caroline O’Hanlon’s fairytale year has been recognised with the multi-talented international netballer’s inclusion alongside established superstars on the shortlist for Northern Ireland’s top sports awards ceremony later this month.

The Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards, now in their 20th year, are the closest local equivalent to the BBC or RTE Sports Personality shows at national level and O’Hanlon has made the cut in spite of 2014 being an exceptional 12 months of Northern Irish sporting success.

Golfer Rory McIlroy rightly won the RTE award after remarkably missing out on the BBC version in spite of winning two majors, helping Europe retain the Ryder Cup and establishing himself as the world No 1.

Boxer Carl Frampton who became world champion in September has had a very high profile while fellow pugilists Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan won Commonwealth Games gold medallists.

Visually-impaired skiier Kelly Gallagher became Team GB’s first ever Winter Olympics gold medallist, the greatest jockey of all-time Tony McCoy continued dominating the horse-racing scene and Graeme McDowell was also a key player in Europe’s Ryder Cup success.

Ulster’s Andrew Trimble won both of Irish rugby’s main Player of the Year awards after helping the national team to only a second Six Nations title since 1985 so O’Hanlon has exceptional company on the shortlist.

Although largely under the wider radar, O’Hanlon has in her own way had as successful and certainly remarkable a sporting year as global golfing giant and multi-millionaire McIlroy.

Playing gaelic football and netball to the highest level, the brilliant Bessbrook sportswoman has lined out for an incredible eight teams between the two sports, captaining three and lifting five trophies plus a further three winners’ medals and numerous prestigious personal awards.

She has combined those heavy sporting commitments with completing a Masters while on the new Elite Athlete Programme at Queen’s University before returning to full-time employment as a doctor at Newry’s Daisy Hill Hospital in August.

Each weekend throughout the spring, O’Hanlon juggled playing at least one British SuperLeague netball match for Team Northumbria with captaining Armagh in ladies gaelic’s National League.

Her headline achievements include playing a starring role for the Northern Ireland netball team at the Commonwealth Games and winning All-Ireland Player of the Year in ladies gaelic after captaining Armagh to a first Ulster Championship success since 2007.

The year saw her captain Northern Ireland’s top club in both of her respective sports while arguably being the best player on this island in netball as well as ladies gaelic.

In her first season as Armagh’s official county captain, O’Hanlon led a team which won 13 matches out of 14 and lifted two trophies after her side won NFL Division Three and the Ulster Senior Championship, the latter triumph following a hat-trick of victories over outfits which spent the spring playing two League levels above them.

She won Player of the Match both in the Ulster final and All-Ireland quarter-final rout of Laois and topped the Orchard scoring charts for 2014 with an aggregate of 15-38, from midfield and in spite of not being the main free-taker, in the 12 Armagh matches she played, hitting the net at least once in all but two of them.

The longest-serving player in the Ulster squad, O’Hanlon played a pivotal role as the northern province won their third consecutive interpro title.

She scored the opening goal of the game in helping her team win the TG4 Challenge at Hong Kong Football Stadium on the All Stars tour to the Far East, helped Queen’s win the higher education All-Ireland League for the first time and reach only their second ever O’Connor Cup final, receiving a Varsities All-Star award for her contribution.

Captaining Carrickcruppen for a 10th successive season, O’Hanlon’s holders disappointingly lost the Armagh Senior Championship final but won the all-county League title with their skipper picking up the Player of Division One award.

Caroline extended to six seasons her record of being the only player in Ireland to be named in the Team of the National League every year since its inception and won All-Ireland Player of the Month for July.  She was the only female from football or camogie to make the Gaelic Life Team of the Week on five occasions in 2014.

Having been honoured as Ulster Ladies Footballer of the Year and GAA Writers Ladies Footballer of the Year, she received her third All Star and was crowned All-Ireland Player of the Year – an award voted for by inter-county players across the country – at November’s Dublin banquet.

Northern Ireland legend O’Hanlon was a first choice in her country’s starting seven throughout her 12th season in international netball and began the year by helping the girls in green beat Barbados, ranked eighth in the world, in their Caribbean backyard.

She played in the European Championships, at which Northern Ireland came third, and starred as the team, seeded 11th, finished a fantastic seventh at the Commonwealth Games.  Of the six matches, O’Hanlon played all but the final 15 minutes against St Lucia in the pivotal position of centre.

It was the first time a female team from Northern Ireland or Ireland had qualified to compete at a Commonwealth or Olympic Games in any sport and O’Hanlon had the fitting distinction of getting the netball tournament underway with the first touch at Glasgow 2014.

She signed up for a first season in the Sky-televised British SuperLeague with Tyneside-based North East franchise Team Northumbria, starting all 11 matches for which she was available and helping the team improve from finishing bottom in 2013 to a solid sixth place.

At local club level, O’Hanlon captained Lisburn-based Larkfield to the NI Premier League and Senior Cup double, their first trophies since 2010.  In the new season, her eighth as club captain, Caroline’s table-toppers have reached Christmas with a 100 percent record with one of their 10 victories being an all-time record rout of Banbridge by 120-17.

Described by leading guru Mike McGurn as one of Northern Ireland’s fittest sportspeople, O’Hanlon has been head-hunted by the IRFU recently as a prospective convert for its professional rugby sevens Olympics programme.

Still improving at the age of 30 in spite of having so many miles on her sporting clock, O’Hanlon’s humility, modesty, dignity, integrity and leadership attributes along with exceptional talent and incredible dedication have not only led to outstanding success but make her a great role model and ambassador.

Caroline brought interesting insight as an RTE pundit for the All-Ireland final and recently had the honour of switching on the Christmas lights in her local village of Camlough.  As her club Carrickcruppen aptly pointed out, it wasn’t the only time in 2014 that this superb sportswoman had lit up the place!