Archery, bobsleigh, mountain-biking, racing and rugby are the wide-ranging sports from which notable performances by our sportswomen came during September. The Mixed Zone writers Laura Winter, Eleanore Kelly and Will Moulton outline the nominations for the Action Women of the Month
MONTH’S ACTION WOMEN
Click on individual tabs to read more about each sportswoman.
Jockey Carberry wins the post-natal stakes
Article by Eleanore Kelly
Four months after childbirth, most mums are too consumed by nappy changes and sleepless nights to think about being competitive with anything other than a rival pushchair on the walk to the park. But that is not the case for new mum and jump jockey Nina Carberry. The Irish rider made a victorious return to the saddle after delivering a daughter by winning a two-mile Flat race in her first competitive ride since last November.
The 33-year-old tweeted: “I’ve had a wonderful nine months and little Rosie arrived. I wouldn’t swap that for any winner – but it’s good to be back.”
Carberry ran away with a seemingly effortless 12-length win at Ballinrobe on board Cask Mate for trainer Noel Meade. After the race, a modest Carberry said: “It’s great – Noel gave me a nice horse to ride and thank God I steered him in the right direction. I remembered the way to go around.”
Carberry is one of the most successful amateur jockeys on the National Hunt circuit having won the Irish Grand National in 2011 and the Cross-Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival on four occasions.
Noel Meade was as animated about the rider’s return as Carberry herself. “I’m absolutely thrilled for her. It’s great to have her back – she’s a magic person.” Then, just 24 hours later, Carberry rode her second winner in as many races. This time she had to work much harder to win aboard Roseriver Has, also for Meade.
It is fair to say women suffer discrimination in the work place during and after pregnancy. But Johnny Ward wrote recently in the Irish Independent: “Nina Carberry announced last November that her growing bump meant no more horses and racing wished her all the best. But the welcome back to the Ballinrobe winner’s enclosure four months after giving birth showed the place she has in the hearts of horsemen.”
Racing is one of the few sports where men and women compete in the same races and under the same conditions. While it is fair to say there are more men than women at the top end, Carberry is one of a number of women who are leading figures in the sport: Josephine Gordon is the current British champion apprentice; in Ireland the conditional jump racing champion is Rachael Blackmore; Ana O’Brien is leading the apprentices’ standings in Flat racing. Furthermore, Meta Osbourne became the first female head of an international racing regulatory body when she was appointed as the Senior Steward of the Turf Club.
Last fights her way through to the front
Article by Will Moulton
Annie Last proved there is nothing in a name when she became the first British female to win an elite cross-country mountain-bike medal at the UCI MTB World Championships. The 27-year-old produced a stunning performance, fighting her way into second place early on and not looking back as she completed the six laps of a tough 4.3-kilometre course in a time of 1:29.40 to take silver behind Switzerland’s Jolanda Neff.
While Britain’s form on the track and road over recent years has been well documented, there has also been plenty of success in mountain-biking where eleven downhill world titles have been won since 2008. Rachel Atherton has been at the forefront of that, picking up four of those gold medals, as well as winning numerous World Cup events, while her brother Gee was world champion in 2008 and 2014.
Success in the cross-country events has been much more sparse, though, with only two British men winning a World Championship medal – the last being David Baker in 1992 – and no one of either gender has won a World Cup series. But Last is striving to change all that and, prior to her historic medal, had already become the first British woman in 20 years to land a gold medal at a cross-country World Cup event.
Speaking after her success in Australia, the London 2012 Olympian said: “It feels amazing. I’ve had a tough couple of years. I’m just happy to be back racing at the front of the race instead of pushing just to get through it. I felt good going into this, I liked the track and made some good decisions on how I was going to ride the race. I don’t think it has sunk in yet. To be on the podium is so good.”
McNeill makes a stand to start her slide
Article by Will Moulton
Just five months before the 2018 Winter Olympics, Mica McNeill’s life was turned upside down when it was announced her funding had been cut by British Bobsleigh. With many of her contemporaries preparing to get their season underway, the County Durham athlete was suddenly left facing the stark prospect of no longer being able to participate in Pyeonchang in the biggest event of her career. But, rather than throw her toys out of the pram, McNeill showed impressive pragmatism by setting up a crowd-funding page; her story so touched the nation that she raised the £30,000 needed to transport her to the World Cup series in just six days.
British Bobsleigh’s rationale behind their decision did nothing to ease her anguish as the governing body said they would only focus on athletes with realistic medal chances in South Korea, thereby dismissing all of the women’s team. Yet it was only in January that McNeill and team-mate Mica Moore were crowned junior world champions and looked to be Britain’s best bet for a first Olympic bobsleigh medal since 1998.
The decision immediately led to accusations of sexism against an already beleaguered British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association (BBSA), currently the subject of an independent review following accusations of racism, bullying and harassment. Their performance director and head coach have stood down, though neither has been directly implicated with any wrongdoing.
McNeill’s impressive form over the last year means that just appearing at World Cup events will all-but-guarantee her and Moore a place in South Korea. She is now determined to show her supporters just how grateful she is by doing everything in her power to end up on the podium.
“We need to make everyone who has supported us proud and make sure the money does not go to waste,” the 24-year-old said. “We are powered by the people and it is them who will be pushing us down the track. I truly believe we will win an Olympic medal, whether it is in this cycle or the next. Knowing we have so much support behind us makes it all the more special.”
Following the departure of chief executive Richard Parker, the BBSA have subsequently announced they can now partially support the women’s teams. That will have further increased McNeill’s chances of success come February. And if she can exhibit such inspiring levels of determination and maturity on the track, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that she and Moore will have the Union Flag draped around their shoulders before the winter is out.
Neville opens door for women’s rugby referees
Article by Laura Winter
Joy Neville has become one of two ground-making female rugby referees to be appointed to take charge of men’s international matches . Spanish referee Alhambra Nievas will referee Finland versus Norway in the Conference Two division of Rugby Europe on October 14. And, two weeks later, Joy Neville will be in the middle for Norway against Denmark.
Just last month the former Ireland captain refereed the Women’s World Cup final between New Zealand and England after picking up a whistle following her retirement in 2013. Her first match? A schoolboys’ game in Limerick. Neville is no stranger to blazing a trail in the world of refereeing. The 2013 Grand Slam winner became the first woman to be an assistant referee in a European rugby match when Bath took on Bristol in the Challenge Cup. Later, the IRFU selected her as the first woman to officiate in an Ulster Bank League Division 1a game.
There is no denying her rugby nous and talent after winning 70 caps for Ireland. But even she “didn’t see it coming” when she was asked to run the line at the Rec, and admitted it was “wonderful, such an exciting opportunity”.
Neville is adamant that her experience to date has been nothing but positive in relation to fans, players and management. She says: “Spectator-wise I had a few older characters come up and make a few comments, and you’d have to be sharp coming back at them to put them back in their place. But they’re of an older generation who aren’t used to female officials and that’s fair enough. The way I look at it is: go out there, show them what I can do, then let them make up their own minds.”
David McHugh, IRFU referee performance manager, said: “Joy has proven time and again her ability as a referee. She has an astute rugby brain and great empathy for the players and this combination, coupled with a strong work ethic, has enabled her to continue to reach new heights as a referee.”
Rugby Europe are proud to be giving talented female referees the platform and hope this may lead to more women officiating. Patrick Robin, project lead and Rugby Europe referee manager, said: “Rugby Europe is the first region to allow female referees to run international games of men’s rugby. This might open the door to the other international bodies and boost female referee’s development.”
Stretton shoots to the top
Article by Laura Winter
Jess Stretton claimed two gold medals at the World Para-Archery Championships in Beijing. At the tender age of seventeen, and already with a Paralympic gold medal to her name, Stretton claimed the W1 pairs title alongside fellow Paralympic champion John Cavanagh as well as the individual crown.
In the singles competition, the fierce rivalry between Stretton and British team-mate Jo Firth continued. In a rematch of the Paralympic gold-medal match, Stretton won 141-133. With Victoria Rumary taking bronze in her international debut, it meant there was a British 1-2-3 on the podium.
On her way to the final, Stretton also broke her own world record by a single point, scoring 657 out of a possible 720 points over the 50-metre ranking round. She said: “This is just one of the best feelings. It’s phenomenal. I didn’t expect to shoot this well at all. We’re doing so well because of all the hard work and dedication we put into training. We are a formidable team. We put a lot of hours into our training, making sure we’re at the top of our game.”
Cavanagh, who is 44 years Stretton’s senior, was very impressed with the teenager’s form. “Jess shot phenomenally,” he said. “Shooting back to back has its pros and cons. She had a psychological advantage and knew how the finals field feels. She knew what to expect.”
Stretton, who has cerebral palsy, has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the archery ranks. Just weeks after taking her GCSEs, the teenager from Hemel Hempstead was in Rio, battling for the Paralympic title. With the gold under her belt, she returned to school.
She first discovered archery at a junior camp in 2012, aged just 12, and immediately fell in love with the sport. She trains every night after school at Lilleshall Nationals Sports Centre in Shropshire – a four-hour round-trip from her home. Her parents, she says, are “phenomenally supportive”.
But it wasn’t until 2015 that Paralympics GB fully realised her true potential. At the 2015 para world ranking tournament in Holland she won individual gold despite being selected “for experience”. Just months later, she set her first world record in the W1 compound category at an international competition before backing that up with Paralympic glory. Not a bad haul in just 18 months.