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Newry triathletes including John Brown Tony Bagnall, Kookie O’Hagan and Brendan O’Hagan.
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The sport of triathlon has come a long way in recent years.

 

When the town of Newry staged the first race on June 1, 1983, there had only been four other triathlons held in Ireland … and amazingly none at all in England or Great Britain.

Also when the Newry Triathlon Club was founded in 1984 (with Brendan O’Hagan as the first chairman) there were only three other clubs in the nation, Craigavon (the first), Belfast and Dublin.

 

In those early eighties years no one had heard of triathlon. Women rarely competed then either. In that Newry race there were just three who took part … and none from the locality. The female winner of the Newry event was Bangor girl Diane Sloan who was to become the first lady superstar of the sport.

 

The overall winner was Newcastle’s Trevor Spiers with John O’Hanlon the first local to cross the line. Back then though the race started with a run, then a swim before finishing with the bike leg.

 

Last year double Olympic triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee competed in the Cork Ironman but undoubtedly the biggest series of triathlon events ever held in Ireland were the World Cup races at Portaferry in the early nineties when some of the best triathletes in the globe strutted their stuff on these fair shores.

 

These athletes, from 18 nations, also had to brave some of the coldest water in the World Series, the baltic 50-degree swim between Strangford and Portaferry, was at the time reputed to be the coldest triathlon swim in the world.

 

The races were organised superbly by Neil Grainger and Desi McHenry and it was a chance for the locals to rub shoulders with Kona champions such as Greg Welsh and Karen Smyers, plus world-class triathletes such as Brad Bevin, Spencer Smith, Glenn Cook, Robin Brew, Ben Van Zelst, Garret McCarthy, Richard Hobson, Wendy Ingraham etc – and even in a few cases beat them.
The events too were televised by Ulster Television with high profile men, such as Olympic gold medallists David Wilkie (swimming) and Steve Ovett (athletics), commentating on the action.

 

The first of these races took place on July 14, 1990. A ferry took the competitors across the Lough to Strangford for the one-kilometre swim back to Portaferry. It was a particularly dangerous swim with fast currents and millions of tons of cold, cold water surging into Strangford Lough daily.

 

A wee man in a boat decreed when the swimmers would start. He dropped bits of paper into the water and when those scraps stopped moving it was full tide and time to go. Immediately the signal to start was given. No swimmer was allowed to stay in the water for more than 30 minutes and anyone who didn’t make the cut-off time was taken out, docked 10 minutes, but permitted to continue.

 

The 40k bike course consisted of three laps that included the infamous Windmill Hill climb, nicknamed the Beast. The 10k run too was hilly.

 

As well as World Cup and European Series points up for grabs, there was also the added incentive of a prize fund of £11,000.

 

In the first race Irish/American Garrett McCarthy was the winner with Holland’s Ben Van Zelst second and England’s Richard Hobson third.

 

From an Irish prospective Belfast’s Noel Munnis had an amazing race, finishing sixth overall while Eamon McConvey, now a naturalised Newry man, was just one place adrift. From the south Dublin’s Liam Tilly made the top ten.

 

The first Irish lady was Bangor doctor Alison Hamilton who was just over a minute behind the overall winner, England’s Sarah Coope. The sadly deceased Ann Kearney was the second Irish woman while Portrush lady Anne Paul was third.

 

Incidentally Bessbrook’s Mickey Mallon almost took the winner down when he swerved as McCarthy lapped him on the bike leg.
 
Portaferry 1991

 

The next year (1991) the event took place on July 13 with yet another world-class field. Canada’s Andrew McNaughton was the winner, with the previous year’s victor Garrett McCarthy second while Greg Welsh, then currently the world champion, third. English duo Richard Hobson and Spencer Smith respectively placed fifth and tenth.

 

The first lady home was Hawaiian champion Karen Smyers with another American Melissa Mantak second and Canada’s Carol Montgomery third.

 

The first Irish finisher was Eamon McConvey who was 16th overall. Other Irishmen to make the top 50 were: Gary Turner, Liam Tilley, Trevor Woods, Ger O’Sullivan, Martin Patterson, Philip Brines and David Morwood.
The top Irish lady was again Alison Hamilton with Belpark pair Helen Peelo and Margaret Burns, respectively second and third.

 

Incidentally competing in Portaferry that year (and in fact losing out to Hamilton) was Wendy Ingraham who gained immortality in the 1997 Hawaiian Ironman. Then she did a Julie Moss, that is crawling to the line on Ali’i Drive. Herself and Sian Welsh were out on their feet in Hawaii but both were determined to grab third place. In the end Ingraham beat Welsh but was passed on the run-in by Brazilian beauty Fernanda Keller.

 

On a personal note I did the Portaferry race on an old 1920 bike with a wee teddy bear on the back. I had to push the gearless machine up Windmill Hill but didn’t do too badly, as there were nearly 40 triathletes behind me at the finish.

 

In 1992 the crack Australian Brad Bevin was the winner with Andrew McMartin of Canada second. Garrett McCarthy dropped another place to third while Englishmen Robin Brew and Richard Hobson were seventh and eighth.

 

This time an Irishman Eugene Galbraith did make the top ten, while other home-based athletes to make the top 30 were: Mark Hudson, the consistent Eamon McConvey, Aidan O’Callaghan, John McLaughlin, Colm Quigley (RIP), Philip Brines and Gary Wilson.

 

But arguably the performance of the day came from Alison Hamilton who finished as second woman, narrowly behind winner Melissa Mantak. Alison even relegated American Janet Hatfield into third spot and in fact that day the Bangor doctor was over eight minutes quicker than the famous English triathlete Sarah Springman.

 

Other Irish women who impressed were: Rachel Hamilton, younger sister of Alison, Claire Mulholland and Ann Duffy, the latter who went on to marry Eamon McConvey.
The final year of Portaferry was 1993 and on July 3 Garrett McCarthy won the race for the second time. The American finished in front of Englishmen Glenn Cook and Richard Hobson.

 

Eugene Gilbraith was just one place off the podium and his fourth spot was the highest Irish-placed finisher of the series. Eugene was a fine all-round triathlete who excelled in all three disciplines.

 

Another Irishman, John Madden was sixth while Eamon McConvey again made the top ten. Other Irish athletes who finished in the top 20 were: Alistair Duffield, Gary Wilson, John McLaughlin and Philip Morrison.

 

At her fourth attempt in the Coca-Cola International race Alison Hamilton finally got her top podium spot, with Coleraine’s Anne Paul second and England’s Hannah Bean third.
 
That story is just one that can be found in Tony Bagnall’s book, The Irish Triathlete.

 

It’s the first book written about the Irish Triathlon scene and it takes the reader through the 36-year history of the sport –from the early eighties to 2019 when the book was published.

 

Tony is a semi-retired sports journalist and photographer, who participated in triathlons from 1983 until 2018.
The Irish Triathlete is vividly illustrated with lots of photographs, many from the early days of the sport in Ireland – old black and white photographs of Irish triathlon legends such as Ger Hartmann, Desi McHenry, Ann Kearney, Diane Sloan, Tom Heaney, Dave O’Connor etc.
But he also has included more up-to-date stars on the Irish scene such as World Cup triathlete Conor Murphy, Owen Martin, Ireland’s King of Kona, and Newry’s own top-notcher Finbar McGrady.

 

The Irish Triathlete is a unique history of triathlon in Ireland, informative and intriguing and a must-read for anyone with an interest in the sport.

 

The book, comprising 80 A4 pages, was originally on sale at £13 or 15 euros but it’s can be purchased now at the knockdown price of just £7.50.

 

Tony can be contacted by phone on 07815787874, or at tonybagnall@mac.com
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