Looking back: People who shaped the year

Year-ender special: Feats on every lip

(From left) Joseph Schooling, Jamie Vardy and Lydia Ko.
(From left) Joseph Schooling, Jamie Vardy and Lydia Ko. PHOTOS: ONG WEE JIN, REUTERS, AFP

From a local swimmer to an Australian female jockey, these are the sportspeople whose accomplishments in 2015 had sports fans talking as they ranked them against past feats

1. Flying fish makes mark, guns for Rio medal

JOSEPH SCHOOLING, SINGAPORE SWIMMER


Joseph Schooling celebrating back in June as the OCBC Aquatic Centre crowd roared after his 100m freestyle victory in a SEA Games record of 48.58sec. He won all nine of his events - six individual and three relays. PHOTO: ST FILE PHOTO

Buoyed by his Asian Games breakthrough last year, when he won the 100m butterfly gold in Incheon, Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling made 2015 an unforgettable year of success, as he made great strides in his ambition for eventual Olympic success.

Nowhere was this clearer than at the Fina World Swimming Championships in Russia, in August. With the Rio Olympics then barely a year away, the level of competition was particularly intense in Kazan.

Yet, he registered probably the most impressive feat of his fledgling career - clinching a bronze in the 100m fly, behind Olympic 200m fly gold medallist Chad le Clos and Hungary star Laszlo Cseh. Third best in the world. In an Asian-record 50.96 seconds, which was also the fifth-fastest time in a textile suit.

No doubt, the 20-year-old University of Texas student served notice that he will be a contender for an Olympic medal in Rio de Janeiro in August next year.

Schooling's exploits at the World Championships were not a one-off: They came after his explosive National Collegiate Athletic Association season, as he won two individual titles and was crowned the Big 12 Conference Newcomer of the Year (male).

In June, he returned to Singapore for the regional SEA Games. All eyes - and pressure - were on him, but he duly delivered, winning all nine of his events - a feat he promised on the eve of the Games.

At home, the butterfly specialist also broke Ang Peng Siong's 1982 national 50m freestyle record, which was the longest-standing local mark, having stood untouched for nearly 33 years.

The young swim king of Singapore has proven time and again this year that he belongs among the sport's elite.

Next year will be tougher - the level of competition he will face in Brazil and the nation's expectations of him will be immense. But, as 2015 showed, the bigger the occasion, the better his performance. The heat is on, but trust Schooling to make 2016 his biggest year yet.

2. Stirring display in a dismal year

IZWAN MAHBUD, SINGAPORE GOALKEEPER


IZWAN MAHBUD. ST FILE PHOTO

For the past four years, goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud has been a vital player for the LionsXII - a steady presence between the goal posts and among the defensive line.

Four seasons of learning to keep calm amid vociferous crowds in Malaysian Super League football games have probably prepared the 25-year-old for any sort of intimidation from fans in away matches.

Nevertheless, he faced probably the sternest examination of his composure in his young career in June, when he and the Singapore national team faced the roar of more than 57,000 fans in Saitama in a 2018 World Cup qualifier against mighty Japan.

No doubt, the fans were baying for goals. They were left massively disappointed, as Izwan put in a goalkeeping masterclass in a shock 0-0 draw.

Statisticians listed that he made 18 saves that night to keep the likes of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki at bay.

There are also YouTube videos documenting his sterling night, when he was called into action as early as the third minute, and he repelled everything the Japanese team threw at him for 90 minutes with his acrobatic tips and point-blank blocks .

He was rightfully hailed for a heroic, defiant performance - not just by the Singapore media, but also by their Japanese counterparts.

And that single performance caught the eye of the vice-president of Japanese club Matsumoto Yamaga, and they invited him for trials earlier this month.

Talks are ongoing, but Izwan could become the first Singapore footballer to ply his trade in the highly-rated Japanese leagues.

All because of one glorious night in Saitama - a rare beacon of light amid a bleak year for Singapore football, which saw familiar failures (no SEA Games gold or even medal), lacklustre home defeats and eventually the exit of the LionsXII from Malaysia.

Thanks to Izwan, hope still lingers for Singapore football to be revived.

3. Humble despite staggering feat

JAMIE VARDY, LEICESTER STRIKER


JAMIE VARDY. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

At the start of the year, Jamie Vardy was just a humble, decent striker plying his trade with a modest English Premier League (EPL) club.

He had toiled in the depths of non-league and conference-league football for five years, before Leicester City discovered his talents and signed him in 2012.

A decent 2014-15 season in the EPL with his newly-promoted club led some to recommend him as an England international striker.

Even so, the 28-year-old was at best thought to be a third-choice hit-man behind the likes of Wayne Rooney or Harry Kane.

Nothing prepared the football world for what happened in this new 2015-16 season.

On Aug 29, Vardy scored against Bournemouth. In the next league game, he scored against Aston Villa. Then came Stoke, Arsenal, Norwich, Southampton, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion, Watford, Newcastle and Manchester United. Eleven opponents, and he scored against all of them, breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy's 10-match mark in 2003.

Throughout the streak, Vardy remained down to earth, a little awed by his feat and deflecting all the praise to his team-mates and Italian manager Claudio Ranieri.

When the streak ended in the Foxes' 3-0 win against Swansea on Dec 5, he even passed up a chance to score to set up the goal for Riyad Mahrez's hat-trick.

With Leicester being the surprise package of the EPL - riding high in top spot into the crucial Christmas season - his feat was a refreshing change amid the usual drudge of whiny managers and thuggish players in the year of football.

With his team leading the way on 38 points, two ahead of Arsenal, hopefully he will be rewarded with a trophy or two come the end of the season.

4. A Major to add to her records

LYDIA KO, WOMEN'S GOLF WORLD NO. 1


LYDIA KO. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Walking onto the 18th green at the Evian Resort Golf Club, Lydia Ko could afford to six-putt the par-four hole and still win the Evian Championship.

Naturally, the South Korean-born New Zealander watched her 15-foot putt find the dead centre of the cup for birdie.

In a burgeoning, record-breaking career, it was perhaps fitting that two marks fell with that single stroke.

By winning the Evian Masters with an eight-under 63 round on Sunday - the lowest final round in a Major on the LPGA Tour - the 18-year-old became the youngest woman to win a Major.

That she had started to make history at age 15 before turning professional in 2013 only saw her surrounded by even more hype ahead of the fifth Major of the year.

The September event represented her last chance to eclipse Morgan Pressel's record to become the youngest woman to win one of golf's most prestigious titles. The American was 18 years, 10 months and nine days old when she won the 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Under pressure, Ko produced her career-best round at the age of 18 years, four months, 20 days.

It was the record that meant the most to her, simply because it meant that she had made her Major breakthrough.

"Everyone won't be asking me when I'll win my first Major, because it's done," said Ko, who was two shots off the pace heading into the final round.

Seven months earlier, she became the youngest golfer - male or female - to be ranked world No. 1.

On top of the world is also how her season ended. But not before rewriting the history books again: In November, she became the youngest winner of the LPGA Player of the Year in the 49-year history of the award.

5. Aussie win spark for great season

JORDAN SPIETH, MEN'S GOLF WORLD NO. 1


JORDAN SPIETH. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The blustery conditions flummoxed most in the field at Sydney's Australian Golf Club. But not Jordan Spieth, who began the final round of the Australian Open last year level with Australians Brett Rumford and Greg Chalmers.

The American played with an assurance and maturity that few previously believed were inherent in him. After all, he was just 21, and had only one tour victory on his scorecard, the John Deere Classic in 2013.

The Texan birdied four holes on the front nine to lead by three strokes, then made light of the windy conditions by adding four more on the back nine, never threatening to lose his lead.

His incredible eight-under 63 on Nov 30, 2014 gave him a 271 total and the Stonehaven Cup. He lapped runner-up Rod Pampling by six strokes and left top stars Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy in his dust by nine and 15 shots respectively.

The popular view is that Spieth broke out as a dominant golfer at this year's Masters. While he was the master for four days at Augusta National in April, his surge to the top actually came after he produced one of the most impressive rounds of the entire season to claim the Australian Open. "In Australia, I putted incredibly well on Sunday and proved to myself that I could do that when I was in contention," he said.

He won the unofficial Hero World Challenge by 10 strokes the following week, the Valspar Championship in March, the Masters in April, the US Open in June, the John Deere Classic in July and the Tour Championship in September.

He had 15 top-10s in 25 starts, set a PGA Tour earnings record with more than US$12 million (S$16.9 million) and won the FedExCup and its US$10 million bonus.

Thanks to that Australian Open super effort, Spieth, in 2015, took his game from impressive to imposing.

6. Just falling short of perfection

NOVAK DJOKOVIC, MEN'S TENNIS WORLD NO. 1


NOVAK DJOKOVIC. PHOTO: REUTERS

Precise and unyielding - facing Novak Djokovic must feel like facing a concrete wall, only that the wall can also deflect the shot at exactly the spot to beat you.

When the Serb first appeared in 2003, many recognised his undeniable talent but far more were amused by his jokes and impressions of fellow tennis pros. He was the "Djoker" supreme.

Yet, could he ever have the cold-blooded dedication to dominate as a world No. 1? Years of being repeatedly beaten by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in Grand Slam events sowed doubts among his fiercest critics.

This year, however, he dispelled all uncertainty with as dominant a season as when Federer or Nadal ruled the world. He won three Grand Slam titles, six Masters 1000 Series tournaments and the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals.

It had come to a stage when Nadal - in one of his injury-afflicted seasons - was satisfied just to advance in any stage of a tournament before meeting Djokovic. The Spaniard knew that, with his creaky knees, he was in no condition to slug it out with the Serb.

In fact, the only blemish of a stellar year came on June 7 on the red clay of Roland Garros.

Widely expected to clinch his first French Open title, Djokovic found an inspired Stan Wawrinka across the net instead. The Swiss' thunderous forehand was in fine fettle and he clinched his second Grand Slam title in four sets.

A despondent Djokovic fought back tears as he congratulated Wawrinka and promised he would have another go next year. Few would doubt him eventually completing his Grand Slam collection.

7. Shock end to legend's reign

HOLLY HOLM, MMA FIGHTER


HOLLY HOLM. PHOTO: REUTERS

In a testosterone-filled world of mixed martial arts, the year was dominated by a female Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) champion instead.

Not only was Ronda Rousey undefeated since 2012, she also won her six official title defences in a combined time of 17min 57sec - lightning-quick victories either by knockouts or armbar submissions.

The 28-year-old holds the second-fastest (14 seconds against Cats Zingano on Feb 28) and third-fastest (16sec against Alexis Davis last year) finishes in UFC history.

So popular was the trash-talking Rousey that she appeared in mainstream chat shows and even films such as Furious 7 and The Expendables 3.

So where does American Holly Holm fit into all this? On Nov 15, she was the overwhelming underdog in Rousey's seventh UFC title defence in Melbourne.

A former boxing champion, the 34-year-old Holm had joined UFC last year after slogging it out in minor MMA events since 2011.

Even with her boxing background, few gave her a chance against Rousey - until she stayed a whole round against the champion.

Then the unthinkable happened in the second round: Holm connected on a kick to Rousey's head.

The reign was over. Instead of Rousey's name being synonymous with "dominant", it was Holm's name that became the by-word for "giant-killer".

8. Brave victory reflects desire

CAROLINA MARIN, WOMEN'S BADMINTON WORLD NO. 1


CAROLINA MARIN. PHOTO: AFP

India was at peak anticipation on March 9, as it awaited the crowning of its third All England champion since Prakash Padukone in 1980 and Pullela Gopichand in 2001.

And when Saina Nehwal took a 20-11 lead in the first game at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, she looked odds on to send her country into delirium.

That was when her opponent, Spain's Carolina Marin, decided to change her game dramatically.

She switched to an aggressive high-tempo game, using her overhead shots, where she strikes the shuttle very early and high.

It worked - the 21-year-old narrowed the gap to 16-20, before losing the first game 16-21.

Nehwal, 24, led 11-9 in the second game but Marin, with her wristy deceptive shots, gradually wore down the Indian with her quick reactions and delicate shuttle placements.

She soon took the second game 21-14 and upped her pace to claim the decider 21-7.

In a massive turnaround in 65 minutes, Marin, who had never beaten the Indian before, consigned history to the dustbin and hoisted herself, for the first time, to No. 1 in the Super Series standings.

Despite being ranked 15th a year ago, she became the world No. 1 this year and won a second world title. She also added the Malaysian and Australian Super Series titles to her kitty.

More importantly, she single-handedly showed that Spain is not just a country of footballers and tennis players.

What next?

"When I started playing badminton, one of my goals was to win the world title, Olympic gold and be world No. 1," Marin has said.

Few would doubt her ability to achieve her goal in Rio next year.

9. World title lost as fortunes turn

VALENTINO ROSSI, MOTOGP RIDER


VALENTINO ROSSI. PHOTO: REUTERS

Tension simmered between MotoGP superstars Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez after the former accused Marquez of favouring title rival and fellow Spaniard Jorge Lorenzo.

On race day at the Malaysian Grand Prix, the duo traded positions at almost every turn in a scintillating display of racing as they tussled for third place.

Then, at Turn 14, Rossi appeared to lose his cool and forced Marquez wide. With the edge of the track approaching, contact was made when Marquez tried to lean in and take the corner, leaving the Spaniard on the ground and out of the race.

Marquez subsequently claimed Rossi "kicked out at me, knocking my brake lever and I crashed".

Rossi said: "He touched with his right underarm on my leg and my foot slipped off the foot peg. It's clear that when my foot slipped off the foot peg, Marquez had already crashed. I didn't want to kick him."

Television footage proved inconclusive, but race director Mike Webb punished Rossi with three penalty points. That meant a disastrous back-of-the-grid start for the Italian at the season's final race in Valencia.

Rossi rode from last to fourth in Valencia but lost the championship by five points as Lorenzo won the race and sealed the title.

The Italian, at the age of 36, had been agonisingly close to winning a seventh MotoGP world title - but 10th overall - after several years out of contention.

Recriminations followed, but Rossi was left to rue his one moment of indiscretion at Sepang.

10. Payne relief in historic victory

MICHELLE PAYNE, MELBOURNE CUP WINNER


MICHELLE PAYNE. PHOTO: REUTERS

Sporting the green, white and purple colours of the Suffragettes - women who campaigned for equality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in its 154-year history.

If victory in the world's richest 3,200m handicap race - with a A$6.2 million (S$6.2 million) purse - did not fully capture the attention of the racing world, her speech did.

"It's a very male-dominated sport and people think (women) are not strong enough and all of the rest of it, but you know what, it's not all about strength," she said after powering the 100-1 outsider Prince of Penzance home.

"There is so much more involved, getting the horse into a rhythm, getting the horse to try for you, it's being patient.

"And I'm so glad to win the Melbourne Cup and hopefully, it will help female jockeys from now on to get more of a go."

Payne later elaborated on her struggles in the "chauvinistic sport", revealing that some of the owners wanted her replaced by a male jockey.

Those were not the only obstacles that the 30-year-old Australian has overcome.

She fell head-first from a horse when she was 18, fracturing her skull and bruising her brain.

A broken wrist and ankle followed but she persevered in the sport.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'Feats on every lips'. Print Edition | Subscribe