I was hazily reminded of a sporting scene from the 90’s yesterday as I watched Shane Lowry’s homecoming celebrations in Clara, Co. Offaly on the RTE News. I seem to be on a 90’s roll the last two weeks. In the 48 hours after his British Open victory in Portrush, the phrase ” The People’s Champion” has been used to illuminate Lowry’s appeal and this most extraordinary of golfing feats. I have little quibble with the moniker, as it fits, but it left me pondering two questions.
Where had I heard that phrase “The People’s Champion” before?
Why does it fit Shane Lowry so snugly?
I’d first caught wind of this specific type of characterization, in an Irish context, many moons ago, but I was struggling to remember the where, when and who. Once I set aside the where and the when and addressed the who, a venue flashed in my mind.
Ah yes I smiled to myself…. as I recalled the vital fragment….
The who was a horse.
The original ‘People’s Champion’ of my mind was an equine talent called Danoli.
One of the redeeming features of the internet is that it can help crystallize the most cloudy of memories and so speedily enough I was able to nail down the where and the when.
The spectacle in question was a National Hunt hurdle race in Gowran Park, Kilkenny. It was a pretty unremarkable card on a cold afternoon in early 1996. Horse owners, trainers and jockeys didn’t get rich from the prize money on offer that January afternoon and yet the place was packed.
The Internet also revealed one of the reasons why my memory linked the event to the Clara homecoming. The Danoli memory was embedded in my mind from watching an RTE News clip. 23 years and a little change ago. It too was a homecoming of sorts, Danoli’s home in Tom Foley’s stables, was a short hop away in Carlow. It was an occasion marked with more than a little trepidation, people thronged to the racetrack to uncover the answer to a question. Race-goers that day while nervous about the question were probably terrified of the answer.
Could Danoli win again?
Danoli – Gowran Park, January 1996
In picture: Trainer – Tom Foley; Jockey – Tom Treacy ; Owner – Dan O’Neill
About year earlier, Danoli, was a free wheeling, equine superstar in the making, right up to the moment he fractured a bone in his right foreleg, fetlock joint, jumping the second last hurdle in a Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle. That Danoli still won the race, for the second year running, will tell you a little about his determination as well as his gifts. It nearly cost him his life though.
On the day, jockey Charlie Swan was barely over the line before he instinctively knew something was not right and looking down, immediately noticed the swelling of the joint. Most certainly being so close to one of the best Veterinary hospitals in the UK (Liverpool) had a huge part to play in saving his life. Even at that, the type of injury he picked up that day, well lets just say, at that time, 90% of horses didn’t make it out alive and the 10% that did, sure as hell, never entertained thoughts of racing again.
A life hung in the balance. But Danoli like his trainer and owner was a little bit different.
His career up to this point was marked by it’s outstanding achievement; in addition to his 2 Aintree hurdle successes, there was a 1994 win in the Sun Alliance Novices hurdle at Cheltenham. There was also a 3rd place finish, at his first attempt, in National Hunt’s blue ribband event the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1995.
Danoli didn’t die. Perhaps wouldn’t die is more accurate. He lived. Not only lived but miraculously raced again. Not only raced again but won again. And yes that run in Gowran park on a cold January in 1996 was a first win since that bone fracture in Aintree.
So the doubts were answered to the thrill of racefolk everywhere and akin to Shane Lowry last Sunday – to the thrill of non-racefolk everywhere.
But there was a catch to Danoli’s survival. The barter deal done with the equine gods for his life was an acceptance of vulnerability; prolonged periods of injury and inactivity. The peaks of his racing career thereafter were a lot more infrequent but, dare I say it, a lot more satisfying too.
Arguably his biggest ever win came post the leg injury, in the Hennessy Gold Cup, at Leopardstown, where he took on not one but two recent Cheltenham Gold Cup winners, Jodami and Imperial Call. As with Shane Lowry he won in style on that day of day’s. Even the grainy, 1997, video footage can’t hide the raptures of the crowd as he crossed the line or the swarms of people that flocked to greet him as he made his exit from the track.
The People’s Champion – Hennessy Gold Cup, Leopardstown – 1997
I suppose this brings me neatly to the second question I posed to myself at the top of this post.
Why Shane Lowry ?
I’m not sure I know all of the reasons but in one facet of the answer I am going to need to trouble Danoli for some assistance in the explaining.
While invincibility in a thoroughbred ( or a sportsperson) bestows awe it never guarantees the other thing. Danoli’s vulnerability brought the other thing. Love and affection. Love for an indomitable spirit and affection for a maverick talent now blighted with an Achilles heel located in his foreleg.
Shane Lowry inadvertently revealed his Achilles Heel in two things he admitted to in the champion’s press conference about his Major Sunday mindset.
“I suppose I woke up this morning not sure if I had what it takes to win a major.” –
” All I kept thinking about in early in the round was walking up the 18th with a 4 or 5 shot lead. I kept telling him (his caddy) how nervous I was, How scared I was…….” – Shane Lowry.
Now imagine these words or similiar slipping out of the mouth of a Roger Federer, Tiger Woods or Lionel Messi.
However this is exactly the type of thinking most of us can relate to. Doubt about ourselves.
Am I enough?
Is my best good enough?
Do I want to find out?
We are often led to believe that high achievers don’t doubt themselves. That the above questions do not trouble the supremely confident, and most certainly not in the heat of a battle. Whatever the battle. I often wonder is this merely an innate selective amnesia in certain individuals or if it’s something they actually can train their minds to do. Sports psychologists would say the latter of course.
You know the drill. Concentrate on the process not the outcome. Focus on the positives and take a dump on the negatives,
As an aside, I did smile, as I read the tweet of one noted Irish sports psychologist on Sunday referring to how mentally rock solid Mr Lowry was all week. A cynic might say the subliminal message in the tweet was to draw attention to his own services rather than the golfer’s mentality. Leaving that aside though, the point was Shane Lowry wasn’t rock solid mentally all week. At some crucial moments on Sunday, as can be seen above he was anything but.
The crucial, crucial lesson is what he did in the moments of crisis. He didn’t focus on the positives or get jiggy with the process. He spoke aloud his fears and apprehensions. Admitted to dreaming about the outcome. He spat out all this to his caddy. He gave words to the rising and swirling torment in his head. By opening his mouth he emptied his brain.
Think about that for a second. You need to have a fair amount of courage to share your innermost demons aloud with another human being. To do it with the whole world watching and looking at you for strength takes a fundamental setting aside of ego.
Most of us in Shane Lowry’s shoe’s on Sunday may have thought the same thoughts he did but very few of us would have instinctively done what he did.
Most of us luxuriate in an internalising of the negatives like they’re an expensive massage oil that needs to be rubbed liberally and lingeringly deep into our skin tissue.
Where Danoli didn’t allow a fractured bone to cripple him, similarly Lowry didn’t allow his rising doubts and fears to cripple him.
The Saturday of the 2019 British Open will live long in the memory for the unblemished radiance of a Lowry 63 shot in near perfect weather conditions. The crowds and player as one, rolling and roaring in the putts.
Sunday arrived like the second half of Danoli’s track career, all dark, menacing storm clouds, thundering into an unprepared landscape.
As I recollect now, the gusting 30 miles an hour winds and rain of the most recent British Open Sunday, and the indomitable spirit of Shane Lowry to grind out a score, I am reminded of the fact that great achievement predicated on near infallibility is difficult for the ordinary person to reach out and touch. To relate to in their everyday existence. It is a small percentage of the population that wake up and absolutely kill it everyday in their chosen or not chosen walk of life. Obstacles are not mere trifles.
Fortunately there is another type of greatness, one we in Ireland are particularly prone to falling in love with, Greatness predicated on fallibility. Vulnerability even. Shane Lowry had been here before and failed. Would he find a way to fail again?
The question seems silly in hindsight like many a good question has a wont to do.
Like Danoli, when the artistry from a gorgeous summer Saturday was not available in the wild winds and upturned brollys of last Sunday, regardless of mind or body his spirit was not found wanting.
By day’s end, a thoroughly examined ‘People’s Champion’ stepped out from the shadows and joined another.
The crowds in Gowran Park and Royal Portrush, a generation apart, found a common wonder. One that still resonates with people in Ireland.
It is not how uninterrupted and repeatedly the light shone for Danoli, or shines today for Shane Lowry, that is important.
It is that the foulest tempest wasn’t able to cloud the brilliance of their sunshine.
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