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Sportspeople of the year

Sportsperson of the Year: Scott Dixon
Winner of the Indy 500 and a second IRL title

Time for a spot of word-association.

New Zealand motor racing and...Bruce McLaren? Denny Hulme? Chris Amon? Right now, depending on your age, and with all due respect to those three greats, Scott Dixon might well be top of your list.

Arguing the driving merits of Hulme in particular - New Zealand's only Formula One world champion - against Dixon is a guarantee to get enthusiasts revving their engines.

To compare them means putting vastly different eras, technologies and types of racing alongside each other and trying for a valid comparison.

So set that aside and reflect on a first for New Zealand motorsport.

Sports have funny traditions. Only one driver drinks milk at the famous Indy500: the champ.

For that, and his second Indy Racing League title - equalling the record number of six victories on the way - Dixon has won this year's Herald Sportsperson of the Year award.

The 28-year-old has come a long way from the chubby-cheeked teenager racing karts in the 1990s in Auckland. From an early age, he had his career mapped out in his still-developing mind and he's seen it through.

Whatever else happens in Dixon's life, this will be a year never to forget.

For starters, he married his Welsh girlfriend Emma in February; then winning arguably the world's most famous motor race and clinching the IRL championship rounded off 12 months to savour.

But if you think Dixon's emotions would have run rampant at arguably the world's most famous racetrack on May 25 this year, you'd be wrong. Sort of.

He won the pole position for the biggest race in the United States. And his win capped off a remarkable month in which everything fell into place.

After the race Dixon remarked that it had been "boring". But if that sounds a touch high-handed, clarification is required.

The leadup had gone exactly to plan; fastest laps had been put in by Dixon
and his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team; they'd won pole position; they'd won the race. No hiccups. Too smooth.

"It was a strange day. I made the comment in a way because we had no major problems," he said from his home in Indianapolis.

"In the race we were expecting something to go wrong because you can't have such a monotone month and have luck like that. The race itself was quite fun; there was a lot of action going on. No, boring as in uneventful, which is a nice way to have it."

At the time, and upon reflection, Dixon had one word to describe his state of mind: relief.

Relief that he had broken a barrier for a New Zealand driver, that he had given delight to his friends, backers, owners, everyone who had supported him over the years. It was payback.

And yet, even now, there's a gap between achievement and realisation.

"It still hasn't set in. It's odd. Now when they set the schedule there's a race the following week, so you're straight off the next day.

"I've spoken to Helio [Brazilian Castroneves, a former winner and his fiercest rival over the season] about it. When it really sinks in is when you go back the following year and your face is on the tickets for that race, and on the big marquees celebrating last year's win. For me, the accomplishment side is done; the realisation of actually doing it is still not there." So he'll mark down May 24 for that.

Dixon should have got a hint of what the rest of the year had in store for him that day. The three previous Indy500 winners had also won the league crown. Dixon calls that "crazy", but a satisfying crazy.

His season began perfectly with victory in Miami. By the time he got to Watkins Glen in New York on July 6, he'd had three wins. Things were falling into place.

There, with the yellow caution flag out Dixon lost control and spun, to be hit from behind by Australian Ryan Briscoe. It was a novice play.

"Definitely one of the stupidest moments I've had. But it just showed maybe things had come a little easy to that point and I noticed maybe I was losing focus a little and taking things for granted.

"I realised we had a lot of work ahead of us - plus Chip kept mentioning it every other weekend after that."

And when the boss is on your case, it has a way of focusing the mind.

Still, three more wins at Nashville, Edmonton and Kentucky and the job seemed all but done. Three races remained - at Sonoma, Detroit and finally Chicago.

But 12th at Sonoma, as Castroneves won and the gap closed by 35 points. Fifth in Detroit, with the Brazilian second and 13 more points shaved off.

And so it came to the showdown at Chicagoland speedway on September 7. A bad day and all would have been lost.

But it wasn't. Castroneves first, Dixon second, 0.181s apart on the track, a 13-point differential on the board and the job was done. Dixon 646 points, Castroneves 629, daylight third.

When Dixon won the 2003 title things were different. It was all new and they surprised themselves.

"It was quite odd and unexpected. I don't think we really knew what we'd done." Dixon is, ahem, a driven man, passionate about his profession and thoroughly single-minded.

He trains a couple of hours each day, and loves it even in quiet times off-season. Lots of running, cycling, swimming in summer; boxing, high repetition weights in winter.

He has lived in Indianapolis since 2000, has his pilot's licence. The couple have two small dogs, he wakeboards on the lake which backs on to their house. Life is pretty good.

And the hankering to test himself in the motor racing mecca of Formula One has gone.

He did test driving in 2004, there have been discussions with McLaren and Williams, but the timing was wrong then, and now Dixon has moved on. Plus "I don't want to give up what I have here".

He also draws a distinction between the type of racing in F1 and the IRL.

"F1 would be nice to tick off the checklist, but for me to go out and compete not to win is not what I'm about. [I like] being competitive, proper racing as in passing cars, not just following them."

Dixon has come a long way from Manurewa and his karting, but New Zealand remains where the heart is. "Absolutely. I love going home, the only problem is I can only stay a short period. That's a pain in the arse."

He says they'll be back for good when the time is right. But for now there are more challenges to confront - and perhaps more milk to be drunk.

The following people were contenders for the Sportsperson of the Year:

Kiwis league team
Valerie Vili
Tom Ashley
Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell
Hayden Roulston
Richie McCaw
Nick Willis
Danny Lee
Sophie Pascoe

League World Champions

No one gave them a chance. No one. All that was sought was respect.

Instead, the Kiwis produced perhaps the most indelible sporting image of the year when they toppled the Kangaroos 34-20 to win league's World Cup in Brisbane last month.

Consider the situation. Australia had beaten all before them; they were poised to wear the mantle of finest of all Kangaroo teams.

All they had to do was turn up, run in a few tries, grab the giant trophy and bask in the glory.

Up 10-0 early on, the script seemed on track. Then it went wrong. They found a Kiwi side with spine and skill. By the end, the hop was gone from the Kangaroos. They had leaked six tries and their frailties had been exposed.

The work of coaches Stephen Kearney and Wayne Bennett was rewarded in the best possible way. The sight of the usually inscrutable Queenslander Bennett with the broadest of grins told its own story.

The denouement was ugly. The man of the match went to Kangaroo captain Darren Lockyer. Figure that out.

The sour-puss Kangaroos failed to attend the post-final function; players complained of a stitch-up involving English referee Ashley Klein, and coach Ricky Stuart revealed his seriously unsporting side, shoving and abusing Klein the following morning. The ugly Australian is alive and well. It was a black night for Australian sport; a wonderful night for New Zealand sport.

Valerie Vili:
Olympic gold medallist

One giant heave was all it took for the giant South Aucklander to clinch the Olympic shot put gold medal in Beijing. Simple as that. Yeah, right. Years of dedication and determination went into Vili's achievement in the spectacular Bird's Nest.

She arrived in Beijing as defending world champion, but she had a couple of large Belarusian shadows on her tail. When the final began, Vili, who towered over her rivals, made her decisive move, an emphatic statement to the rest: She hiffed the stone 20.56m. It was her personal best.

Immediately she recognised it for what it was - a huge challenge to her fellow throwers, notably Belarusians Nadzeya Ostapchuk, the world No 1, and Natallia Mikhnevich - letting out a whoop and a leap. It translated to: "Beat that if you can." They couldn't. Vili threw four other throws over 20m; Mikhnevich managed the only other one, a 20.28m to take silver.

She had to wait until the following night for her medal ceremony. And as the New Zealand flag was raised to the strains of God Defend New Zealand, Vili's face filled the huge screen in the stadium, big enough to see the tears trickling down her cheeks.

Later Vili reflected on what it came down to.

"You've put in the hours, lifted the weights, thrown the shots, done the drills and it's just getting out there and doing it," she said. "Last year, at the world championships I had my best series ever [in winning the title] and I was able to have my best series ever again."

Vili is 23. She has at least three more Olympics in her, if she fancies it. The athletics world is her oyster.

Tom Ashley:
Olympic gold medallist

You can't accuse Takapuna board sailor Tom Ashley of failing to achieve.

This year, he won the world title at Takapuna in January, then clinched the Olympic gold in the final race at Qingdao, in significantly

different conditions. That's the hallmark of a champion: being able to do your business in a mix of situations.

The meticulous Ashley, 24, also won the pre-Olympic regatta late last year, which gave him a solid insight into what he would need to do if he was to fulfil his ambition.

Something else: he did it his way, eschewing life in the Olympic yachting village to pursue his goal in almost solitary splendour.

Each day he'd head off for a coffee at a cafe and gather his thoughts: "It was really important to me. ... It's really quite easy to get sucked into the whole Olympic thing and get diverted from what you are trying to do."

Ashley was in good form through the regatta, yet only won one of the 10 round robin races. But he was steady and consistent, having only one poor day when he was left to chastise himself as a 30-degree wind shift left him 32nd in the 10th and final race.

That put Ashley, Briton Nick Dempsey and Julien Bontemps of France within a point of each other. By grabbing third in the double points medal race, Ashley snared his gold.

Ashley was a finalist in the International Sailing Federation's sailor of the year award, won by Briton Ben Ainslie.

Next month Ashley, who speaks four languages, will marry his Brazilian fiance, Mariana. Then there's the small matter of London 2012 to ponder.

Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell:
Olympic gold medallists

If you're going to quit, best go out on top, and no one could accuse the Hawkes Bay twins of doing any less.

They arrived in Beijing as defending Olympic double scull rowing champions but this was different from Athens in 2004. There, they were warm favourites and justified that with a strong performance for gold.

Their buildup to China had been ordinary, including failing to even make the A final at a World Cup regatta in Poland in June.

They briefly contemplated retirement. Instead, they got back to their
home away from home, Lake Karapiro, and knuckled down.

They won their heat impressively and, as Caroline remarked at the time, knew straight away they were back in business.

The final was a scrap right to the line. The twins had to dig deeper than ever as they trailed Germany and Britain down the 2000m Shunyi course. At the line it was too close to call. Then, New Zealand 1, Germany 2, Britain 3. The time: 7m 7.32s. The winning margin? .01s. It gets no closer. They had been in front for less than a second of the race, but it was the only second which mattered.

Then came the announcement: they were putting their oars away after being the dominant crew in their discipline throughout the decade. Two Olympic golds, three world championships, a host of World Cup titles. Their coach Dick Tonks reckoned they had another couple of Olympics in them.

They are 28. They have sat with each other, facing backwards, for about half their lives. Now it's time to look forwards. They have other things to achieve in life. There is nothing left to prove. Their timing, as it was on the waters of Shunyi, was spot on.

Hayden Roulston:
Double olympic medallist

In his quiet moments, Hayden Roulston must reflect on life's fates.

Two years ago, he briefly retired from competitive cycling after being diagnosed with a heart defect. Keep riding, the medics said, and it could kill you.

Before that, there had been a couple of brushes with the law for fighting. His route to winning two Olympic medals in Beijing was interesting to put it mildly.

Roulston attributed a Japanese healing technique called reiki as the main reason for his life and health turning in a positive direction.

The outcome? He's the only New Zealand cyclist to leave an Olympics with more than one medal.

First up was the individual pursuit final in which he made sure of at least a silver with a cracking ride in the first round. That put him head to head with Briton Bradley Wiggins and while he led by 0.3s after the first 1000m, the world champion took charge, crossing just under 3s ahead of the Ashburton 27-year-old.

But there was no time to celebrate, being back on the Laoshan velodrome 24 hours later to help drive New Zealand to a bronze in the team pursuit, putting up a national record to make the rideoff. The quartet of Roulston, Jesse Sergent, Sam Bewley and Marc Ryan beat Australia to third spot by 1.230s.

Roulston deflected the praise on to the others. "On any given day we've got six riders who are world class," said Roulston.

The future of New Zealand's track riders is undoubtedly glowing and the former firebrand is a big reason for that.

Richie McCaw:
All Black Captain

Rugby's a team game right? So why is it that the All Blacks function so much more effectively and successfully, when Richie McCaw leads them out?

This year, the national team played 15 tests. They won 13.

The two losses were against South Africa in Dunedin, 30-28, and against the Wallabies in Sydney, 34-19, a fortnight later. A common denominator? McCaw was missing.

The mighty openside flanker tore ligaments in his left ankle early in the second win over England in Christchurch on June 21.

It's too simplistic to say McCaw's absence was the only factor in those defeats.

Equally there's no question the All Blacks would have been better with their captain and - perhaps more importantly - first choice No 7 on the park, doing his highly specialised job better than anyone else.

McCaw is 28 at the end of this month. He's played 70 tests, 33 as captain. "Fluffy" to his mates, he is at the peak of his powers.

When sporting honours are being chewed over, individuals in teams tend to get overlooked.

McCaw is prime evidence that this thinking is wrong-headed.

He's a special sportsman, a modest man who brings dignity to the job.

Nick Willis:
Olympic bronze medallist

Lining up for the Olympic 1500m final at Beijing's Bird's Nest on August 19, Willis was the latest to attempt to carry on a proud tradition.

Whenever a New Zealander appears in that event, the memory flits back to the three great Olympic middle distance achievements by an athlete in a black singlet - Jack Lovelock (gold, 1936), Peter Snell (gold, 1964) and John Walker (gold, 1976) - not to forget bronzes by John Davies in Snell's final, and Rod Dixon in 1972.

Willis had built a reputation as a solid performer in elite company, if far from a hot tip to win a medal in Beijing. He was Commonwealth Games champion in Melbourne two years ago, but this was different.

Certain things needed to happen for him. He liked a good pace to remove the edge off those in the field possessing a sharp finishing kick. And he was determined not to get blocked or stuck on the inside when he needed to make his move.

The speed was just right and with around 150m left Willis struck. He found some room and pipped fast-finishing Frenchman Mehdi Baala by a mere five-hundredths of a second to win the bronze in 3m 34.16s.

Moroccan Rashid Ramzi, running under the Bahrain flag, won gold from Kenyan Asbel Kiprop. But for Willis, it was the race of his life, perfectly timed for the biggest stage.

His brother Stephen, their father Richard - his mother died of cancer when he was 4 - were in the crowd with Willis' wife Sierra and about 15 old mates from Hutt Valley.

A devout Christian who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the 25-year-old from Lower Hutt embarked on a series of stops round New Zealand to spread a different sort of word. He is proud of his background and holds his success as an example of what can be achieved.

"I came from a high school of 2000 kids and I was only one of two people who ran track. So to come from that to get a chance to stand on the medal podium it really means a huge amount," he said.

Danny Lee:
World no 1 Amateur golfer

Step forward No 1.

When the Rotorua 18-year-old won the 36-hole US amateur final in North Carolina in August, beating American Drew Kittleson 5 and 4, it was a life-changing moment. He became the world's top-ranked amateur, the first New Zealander to win the title, and ninth non-American since it began in 1895.

He is the youngest winner after 108 editions of the championship, six months younger than Tiger Woods when he won the first of three successive amateur crowns in 1994. And Lee won at the Pinehurst No 2 course, where Michael Campbell won his US Open in 2005.

Doors immediately opened. Agents came flocking. Woods got in touch. He became a New Zealand citizen. Whatever else he does in life, Lee will always have that tag beside his name.

But what followed should ensure his feet remain planted. En route to Adelaide for the Eisenhower Trophy in October, Lee drew the wrath of the Customs with an injudicious remark about the contents of his golf bag. That showed a couple of things: he remains a young 18-year-old; and you don't fool around when it comes to airport security. It may have put Lee off his game in Adelaide. New Zealand began the final day fourth, but slumped to a share of 11th,partly, but not exclusively because Lee had a final-day shocker, an 11-over 84.

Criticism of his attitude followed from NZ Golf board member and broadcaster Peter Williams, who in turn was told to pull his head in by Lee's old headmaster, Chris Grinter of Rotorua Boys' High School.

The professional world beckons. Lee is expected to hand in his amateur card after April's Masters. He has invitations to next year's US and British Opens as long as he stayed amateur.

He is expected to sacrifice those, but will get invitations to compete in the US PGA Tour, giving him the chance to collect sufficient prizemoney to get his tour card for 2010. The big time beckons.

Sophie Pascoe:
Paralympic gold edallist

New Zealand's most-medalled athlete in Beijing this year had her left leg amputated below the knee after a lawn mowing accident at two.

Sophie Pascoe was New Zealand's youngest Paralympian in the group which went to Beijing immediately after the Olympics ended.

When the 15-year-old arrived home in Christchurch, bedecked with four medals, it was to a heroine's welcome. She won three gold and a silver from five races in the Olympic pool..

Pascoe's is an inspiring story of courage and to make it sweeter her mother, father and sister were at poolside to celebrate.

Her wondrous week began with a silver medal in the 100m butterfly.

Then followed gold in the 100m breaststroke in a personal best 1m 22.58s; gold in the 200m individual medley and to round it off a world record in the 100m backstroke. In that race, she eclipsed her own world mark set in the morning's heats by clocking 1:10.57.

A student at Lincoln High School on the outskirts of Christchurch, Pascoe became New Zealand's pin-up girl of the Paralympics.

"I was treated as a normal person," she said of her upbringing after losing part of her leg.

"And I can't ask for much more than that. I'm having the most wonderful time of my life," she said after winning her fourth medal.

The seeds of success were planted at primary school where she outswam her able-bodied best friend. She thought maybe she had something special.

And the support of her family in Beijing gave her a massive jolt of pride.

"You walk up to them and see them crying... and you know they are proud of you."

- NZ Herald

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