Today, we salute the best of the best of this tiny nation at the end of the Earth - from the brilliant, lifesaving work of a middle-aged medical professor to the best-selling CDs of a teenage singer; from Olympic gold medals to the musical theme played to billions on opening night at Athens; from a single act of heroism to a courageous campaign from the depths of family trauma.

These are the personal achievements this year of a group of outstanding individuals who made the final, and admittedly highly subjective, consideration for this newspaper's annual New Zealander of the Year award.

The judging criteria exclude previous winners and politicians, who tend to dominate public life. We look for singular achievements with the potential to benefit the country and its people.

In terms of pure excellence, the gold medallists Sarah Ulmer and Hamish Carter, one a searing hot favourite and the other a magnificent comeback, stood out in sport. Hayley Westenra's global success is phenomenal; the rich reward for composer John Psathas in winning a contest to compose music for the Athens Olympics was just one of his accomplishments for the year.

Anonymous artist et al, popularly associated with an installation of a toilet which brayed like a donkey, is more tellingly the figure who created a vigorous debate on New Zealand art which is unmatched in recent times. Winemaker George Fistonich, the man behind Villa Maria, is a businessman now synonymous with innovation and success.

Others whom we acknowledge today managed, through professional skill or personal bravery and charity, to save lives: the paediatric surgeon Askar Kukkady, who led a 40-strong team in separating two conjoined Waikato twins in a 22- hour operation; Grant Kereama, the radio host who gave one of his kidneys to Jonah Lomu; and Perry Bisman, father of the baby Charlotte ravaged by meningococcal disease, who rose above his personal tragedy to advocate for the national vaccination campaign.

In the end, the man whom we adjudged New Zealander of the Year, Professor Peter Gluckman, epitomised many of the characteristics of all the others and shared the scale, reach and depth of many of their achievements. His life's work and his particular successes of 2004 are outlined in detail on pages B1 and B3.

In summary, he is a world-leading researcher into the foetal origins of subsequent growth and health, he has helped to develop a "cooling cap" to prevent brain damage in premature babies which has saved lives and prevented disability internationally, and he has been a leader in commercialising New Zealand's "knowledge". The present and future gains for the country from his work are profound.

Sadly, in considering the outstanding New Zealanders of the year, there was one who was impossible to rank alongside the others.

She was 59-year-old Rosemary Hosie of Kumeu, who died after getting into difficulties while saving one of three children in the waters of Browns Bay, Auckland, in January.

A coroner later labelled Mrs Hosie's effort "superhuman" and said she deserved the nation's highest praise. She did and does. Her sacrifice has a special place among the tributes in our Review section today.