Saturday, 22 December 2012

"We just won the Olympics!" - My 2012 Top 10 Sporting Highlights

For such a sporting nut as myself, I have barely touched upon what has been an incredible year in sport.

The incredible Premier League finale, Chelsea's dramatic win in the Champions League, the astounding Olympics and Paralympics, the Tour de France, Andy Murray and the rise of British female tennis, Rory McIlroy and the Ryder Cup and even to end it all, a first England cricketing win in India in a generation.

I happened to miss the Sports Personality of the Year Award on Sunday as I was away in Manchester. Of all the years to miss, it's a shame that I had to miss this one.

But having said that, it could not have altered what for me were the defining moments in sport in 2012. These were not necessarily the moments chosen by the mass crowd, but those that I witnessed as they happened - searing seconds or minutes of brilliance that had me at the edge of my seat, literally screaming at the TV screen.

There are by definition therefore, moments that I did not see live and that, no matter how extraordinary or momentous they were in their own right, could not repeat themselves so vividly for me in replay when the result was already known. In particular and as a classic example, I missed 'Super Saturday' during the Olympics when the UK won a stunning 3 track and field Gold Medals within an hour of each other. I was out having a rare evening out with an old friend and so I could only relay in amazement the feats that were unfolding via the BBC Olympics internet text coverage via my mobile 'phone. I also missed the Tour de France but used the BBC website for regular updates to keep me up-to-date with Bradley Wiggins' historic first British win in the Tour.

So here are what for me, were the defining 10 moments of my sporting year...

No.10 - Team GB Showjumping Olympic Gold
I've always had a particular love of show jumping because compared to its dressage counterpart, it's actually quite easy to understand.

Here, we see the incredible jump-off between Team GB and Holland which was described by the BBC commentary as "...like a penalty shoot-out" I vividly recall watching and going mad as Peter Charles gave Team GB a 3rd clear round out of 4 to guarantee their first team showjumping Olympic Gold since 1952!

No.9 - Alan Oliveira Vs Oscar Pistorius (200m Paralympics Final)
It was an incredible sight to see the poster-boy of the Paralympics from South Africa who had wowed the world by qualifying for the semi-finals in the Olympics, be brought back down to size in such amazing fashion.

As Oscar Pistorius strode into the final straight, it looked as if Gold was once again his after his exploits in Beijing 2008. Then suddenly, Brazil's Alan Oliveira shot past in the final lengths for an incredible victory. It was one of the stand-out moments in a fabulous Paralympics and was made more so by the surprisingly unsportsmanlike response to the result by the previously imperious Pistorius.

No.8 - Usain Bolt (100m & 200m Olympics Gold Medals)
He had already made his mark in Beijing but it was in London that Usain Bolt made his mark in sporting history indelible and permanent.

No-one had ever retained the sprint double in Olympic history but I watched in awe as the Lightning Bolt strode away in the 100m in an Olympic best of 9.64 seconds and then did the same in the 200m. Despite the concerns that he was not fully fit going into the competition, there was a sense that the world wanted this man to do something that had never been done before and we cheered as he raced into the record books.

No.7 - David Weir (800m Paralympics Gold Final)
The Weirwolf took all before him in London 2012 which acted as a wonderful example of the human spirit when faced with adversary.

I hadn't seen his earlier 5000m and 1,500m victories but was on the edge of my seat as he prepared for the 800m. It was incredible to consider that he could compete in this sprint race having completed his earlier longer victories and with the Marathon to run days later.

So I yelled and yelled in encouragement as Weir went into the final lap placed second and with as tough a challenge as he had faced throughout the whole 2012 London Paralympics. He managed to take the lead around the outside and held on against a late challenge to complete a hat-trick of track Gold medal performances. His marathon victory that would followed crowned what must surely go down as one of the greatest feats in Olympic and Paralympic history.

No.6 - Andy Murray (Olympic Gold & US Open Success)
After reaching his first Wimbledon final, the sense of loss that I felt when he failed to fulfill his potential against a rejuvenated Federer made what was to follow the more remarkable.

Only weeks later, he showed the courage and determination required to reach the pinnacle of any sport when he returned to the same Wimbledon surroundings and beat that same man Federer for Gold.

It was a critical break-through for the man from Dunblane but it was not a Grand Slam triumph. But it was a critical confidence boost as he went into the year ending major at Flushing Meadows. I stayed up into the early hours as Murray once more showed his determination as he resisted a Djokovic comeback from 2 sets down to force a decider. Just when it seemed that momentum had swung against the Scot, he immediately broke the Serb and in the early British hours, finally ended a 76 year long wait for a male British major tennis winner.

No.5 - Team GB Team Gymnastics Olympic Bronze
Gymnastics was always a sport that I watched rather forlornly as a child. Those who competed were always wonderful proponents of their art, but none of them in the higher reaches ever seemed to be British.

Suddenly I was transfixed as 100 years of waiting for a British Gymnastic team medal came to a glorious though controversial conclusion.

It was deeply ironic that in Team GB's dual with the Ukrainians, it was one of the apparatus that I had always least enjoyed watching, 'The Floor' that was to prove pivotal. Suddenly I was mesmorised as Dan Purvis and Kristian Thomas nailed their performances for a sensational team medal. Then there came the Japanese controversy which temporarily had Team GB placed in Silver position.

It mattered not one jot to me that Japan were re-instated. I was just delighted to have watched live as Team GB did something I thought I would never see in my lifetime. I did however feel pretty sorry for the Ukrainians!

No.4 - Justin Rose' putt on the 17th Vs Phil Mickelson (Ryder Cup)
I had finally given in and purchased Sky TV at the start of the year and I can not think of a time when it was better justified than when I watched in incredulity as Europe came back from the dead to defeat America on the final day in historic fashion.

As Alyson tried to sleep upstairs, I was bellowing out from time to time as Europe made a putt here and there to claw their rivals back.

There were particular moments in the whole of that weekend which were critical but I'd pinpoint one putt that stood out above all others. Having salvaged a half on the 16th, Justin Rose went onto the 17th green a shot behind Phil Mickelson and saw his rival go within an inch of chipping in for a critical match point for the team in red. As it turned out, Rose had a lightning quick put from great distance for the hole or a more likely two-putt for a half which would've meant he'd had to have won the 18th to gain a half point for Team Europe.

It was a sensational putt and the look of sheer confidence on Rose's face spoke for a team that was on the march. It became clear how critical the putt would become as Rose went on to win the 18th to record an incredible and absolutely vital 1 hole victory over Mickelson.

As it turns out, a number of other critical putts went Europe's way as they not only held onto the trophy with a match tie but won it outright.

It was pure sporting drama of the highest level and Justin Rose and Team Europe rose to the occasion.

No.3 - Welsh Rugby Union 6 Nations Grand Slam
As a child, the likelihood of Wales winning a Grand Slam was little more than that of Team GB winning an Olympic gymnastic team medal.

Then came 2005 and 2008. But after the heartbreak of a World Cup semi-final defeat to France last autumn, there were nerves about how the team would fare. They were dispelled when a last minute Leigh Halfpenny penalty beat the Irish in the opening match in Dublin. I remember punching the wooden table in Aberystwyth's Llew Du in delight when the ball went through the posts. Said hand was in much pain afterwards!

Then came a fast-improving England at Twickenham. Only once since 1988 had Wales won at 'HQ' and that was in 2008. I was in Thailand at the time and didn't know the result until a day later after a long-distance call home from the banks of the River Kwai.

So I had NEVER seen Wales beat England at Twickenham - NEVER. So it was with utter joy and amongst many English supporting fans in Aberystwyth's Pier Snooker Club that I saw this hoodoo ended when Scott Williams broke a 12-12 deadlock with a sensational rip, kick through, run and score under the posts with just minutes to go.

The Grand Slam decider against France oddly does not register in my memory as vividly. It was the encounters against Ireland and England that stand out as Wales equalled the record of their heroes from the 1970s of a 3rd Grand Slam in 8 years.

No.2 - Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking (Women's Lightweight Double Sculls Gold)
This for me was pure magic.

There were greater rowing performances during the 2012 London Olympics and who can argue against Katherine Grainger's Golden performance after 4 consecutive Olympic Silver medals?

But for me, the sheer joy and amazement that was etched on Katherine Copeland's face as she and Hosking crossed the line gave me one of the images of the Olympics.

But it didn't end there! The wonderfully joyful and childlike response by Copeland afterwards where she exclaimed "we just won the Olympics!" was brilliant! Then there was the emotion of the medal ceremony when they both fought back the tears - demonstrating just how much it meant to them.

This one race epitomised in a team context everything that London 2012 and the Olympic spirit was all about.

No.1 - Jade Jones (Taekwondo Olympic Gold)
A surprise for most I'm sure, but if there was one moment in a wonderful Olympic year that stood head and shoulders above all else for this proud Welshman then it was this one.

What made Jade Jones' progress to her Taekwondo Olympic final extraordinary for me was that as she did so, I quickly came to be an expert and fan of a sport that I had hardly ever watched beforehand and of which I certainly had no knowledge.

It was late evening when the final came to pass and I went absolutely barmy as the seconds elapsed and at every scoring point made by the Welsh wonder.

When the Gold medal was won, our Jade gave that wonderful look of elation as she took off her protection head guard and flung it in the air. The commentary also added to my sense of utter jubilation - "You little beauty! And the teenage kicking superstar from North Wales is the Olympic Champion!"

Really, what could top that?!

What a year it has been. I don't think it could ever be topped but for whilst it lasted, I lapped it all up!

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