Great Britons: Top of the world in 2006

The football World Cup was hugely disappointing and the Ashes have been lost, but it hasn't all been gloom and doom for British sportsmen and women in 2006. From Mervyn King to Robert Fulford, via Nicole Cooke and Beth Tweddle, Mike Rowbottom hails the real winners of the last 12 months
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The Independent Online

Beth Tweddle

A nightmare became a dream for the women's world gymnastics champion after her year began with a serious fall in Melbourne. Then a childhood investment in diving on to sofas finally paid off

Nine months ago, this year was shaping badly for Beth Tweddle. Soon after arriving in Melbourne for the Commonwealth Games, the 21-year-old gymnast from the City of Liverpool club - based in the Wayne Rooney territory of Toxteth - suffered a fall during practice which put her out of a competition which would probably have yielded her a flurry of medals and a high profile on BBC Television.

She left Australia with just one medal, a bronze, as a non-playing squad member of the women's team. All very frustrating.

But Tweddle has finished her year triumphantly. In May, she won her first big international gold medal in becoming European champion at asymmetric bars. Five months later, the girl who was persuaded to take up gymnastics after a hyperactive childhood of diving on to sofas, became Britain's first women's world champion in gymnastics, winning the gold in her specialist discipline at Aarhus, Denmark, defeating the defending champion, Nastia Liukin, of the United States.

Nicole Cooke

The world No 1 and World Cup champion is managing to combine one-day cycling and stage racing successfully as she rides towards glory at the 2012 London Olympics

There are accomplished one-day cyclists, and there are accomplished stage race riders. Few manage to combine the two disciplines contemporaneously - but Nicole Cooke is one of them.

This year has been the most successful so far for the 23-year-old Welsh rider, who now operates from her new home in Lugano. Cooke, a former world junior road race champion, finishes 2006 as the World Cup champion and No 1 in the world rankings. The girl who began cycling aged 11 with the Cardiff Ajax club has also won bronze medals in the Commonwealth Games and World Championship road races.

Her form in stage racing has been equally impressive this year as she has won two of the most prestigious events on the calendar as a member of the Univega-Raleigh team. In June she triumphed in La Grande Boucle Feminine Internationale in France, winning the famed and fearsome stage over Mont Ventoux by four minutes. A month later she won the six-day Thüringen Rundfahrt race in Germany, leading from start to finish.

"I'm on top and I want to stay there," said Cooke, who will join the British team training in Australia before the new season gets under way in February. "Perhaps this is the start of a Nicole Cooke era..."

Having learnt to speak fluent Italian while racing with teams from that country over the past four years, she has turned her attention to German, which is spoken by most of her new team-mates. "I'm watching German television and reading the German papers to get a grip on the language," she said. One-day and stage racing... Italian and German... Where will it end? Perhaps, gloriously, at the London 2012 Olympics. "I'll be in my late twenties then, which is when most riders reach their peak."

Zara Phillips

The 'Royal Rebel' has found the cause that fires her and is now European and world champion

Only three women have held European and world eventing titles at the same time, and Zara Phillips' steadfast performance on Toytown in the World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, this summer ensured that she was one of them.

Eight years ago, the daughter of the Princess Royal - herself European champion in 1971 - and Captain Mark Phillips - four times Badminton winner, Olympic team gold medallist - earned herself a different title: "Royal Rebel". The press provided it after reports that she had had studs put in her tongue and her navel and was enjoying a somewhat wild lifestyle in Australia.

But Phillips, who now lives with Mike Tindall, one of England's rugby union World Cup winners, was always likely to return to her equestrian pursuits. "For years she was an absolute brat," commented Mark Phillips after her world win. "Then she started to realise dad was not completely stupid."

Phillips tearfully dedicated her gold in Aachen, where Britain also took team silver, to her friend, fellow rider Sherelle Duke, who, a week earlier, had been crushed to death by her horse on a cross-country.

Mervyn King

The pest controller who dispatched the best in the world at indoor bowls

Nobody expected Mervyn King to become world indoor bowls champion in January - save perhaps himself, and perhaps also his mate Greg Harlow, whom he beat 12-8, 13-9 in the final at Potters Holiday Centre on the Norfolk coast.

King, who lives just down the road at Fakenham, was unseeded at the Championships but ended up giving his supporters one of the nights of their lives as he defeated Harlow, who had also done hugely well to reach the final, given his own seeding of No 14.

The amiable 40-year-old, who names the former multiple world champion David Bryant as his sporting hero, will seek to defend his title next month. In the mean time, he is coming to terms with the outburst of acclaim his exploits have earned. His local racecourse has adopted an annual event in his honour, and the council wants to name a road after the man who has preferred to supplement his bowls earnings in recent years by working as a pest controller. Mervyn King will soon be able to stroll down Mervyn King Close.

Charlotte Cornwallis

Real tennis's unreal women's world champion allies a squash player's fitness to the brain of a chess grandmaster in the pursuit of grand slam history

If there is a more dominant world champion on the planet than Charlotte Cornwallis, let he or she come forward. Having regained her title the last time the event was contested, 2005, this descendant of General Cornwallis - who commanded the British forces which lost the last battle in the American War of Independence - has proved utterly victorious in her own field. This year she put the finishing touches to a grand slam, before setting off in pursuit of unprecedented back-to-back slams by winning the French Open.

The next stage in her quest, the Australian Open, looms in the new year - by which time the former pupil of Cheltenham Ladies' College hopes to be fully recovered from the stress fracture to her foot which prevented her defending the Browning Cup - a mixed-sex competition, governed by careful handicapping, in which she had the audacity to become the first woman winner last December.

Cornwallis was pretty damn good at hockey - she was a member of the England Under-21 squad. But once she discovered the game which hooked Henry VIII there was no looking back for her. Real tennis, she maintains, requires the fitness of a squash player and the brain of a chess grandmaster.

Nathan Robertson & Gail Emms

Trauma turns to triumph for the badminton pair who have mastered the art of the dramatic

A year that began with their most traumatic defeat ended in triumph for Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms. The British pair had five match points to retain their All-England badminton title in January, but eventually lost to the Chinese pair who had beaten them in the 2004 Olympic final.

As far as the two Brits were concerned, it felt worse than Athens. But they gathered themselves to earn the gold in the Commonwealth Games mixed doubles, and in September they finally added to their world No 1 status by taking the world title - although not before spurning five match points in their semi-final.

Their opponents in the final in Madrid were their close friends Anthony Clark and Donna Kellogg. The Olympic silver medallists came through 21-15, 21-12 to offer huge encouragement for the sport domestically. "This is the best thing to happen to British badminton," Robertson said.

England Men's & Women's Squash Teams

Historic first achieved as Bailey wins decider after battle with Epstein-Barr virus

Tania Bailey got pretty cross earlier this year about a newspaper report decrying the dearth of British world champions. "I thought to myself, what about us?" the 27-year-old national squash champion from Stamford said. "I felt like writing in to correct them."

But Bailey, thankfully, did not need to put pen to paper - or finger to keyboard - in order to have her crucial part in helping England's women to win the world team title at Edmonton in October noted. She and her colleagues - Vicky Botwright, Jenny Duncalf and Alison Waters - defeated Egypt 2-0 in the final to reclaim a trophy the team last won in 2000.

Bailey won the deciding match against the Egyptian No 1 in straight sets - "winning the title was definitely one of the great moments of my life" - to confirm her recovery from the Epstein-Barr virus that had undermined her career for two years.

It meant that, for the first time, England were world team champions in the men's and women's game simultaneously following the victory last December of James Willstrop, Peter Nicol, Lee Beachill and Nick Matthew. The latter became the first home-grown British Open champion in 67 years.

Robert Fulford

The world's best player has jumped through a lot of hoops to lead his country to Ashes glory

Rejoice - England have already won the Ashes in Australia. That is, croquet's version of the competition, otherwise known as the MacRobertson Shield. And the man who led his country to a whitewash victory, which means they will retain the aforementioned Shield for the next three years, the man who has been generally acknowledged as the world's best player for the last 20 years, is England's Robert Fulford.

Although the amiable Fulford did not manage to add to his collection of five world titles when the event was last contested in 2005 - he finished runner-up to South Africa's Reg Bamford - his performances this year moved him up to world No 1 in the rankings for the best part of six months.

The solidly built former Colchester Grammar School boy scuffled around the world for a number of years, making less than £10,000 per annum from the sport despite being world champion at 20. Twice he won lawnmowers as prizes. "They weren't a lot of use to me, as I didn't have a garden," he said.

Next year he will qualify as a maths teacher. It will pay the bills, but it is unlikely to assist Fulford in his ambition to become an even better player.

Steve Curtis

Pressure race brings fifth consecutive world powerboating title victory

It has been a particularly good year for Steve Curtis. Earlier this month the 42-year-old Southampton millionaire, in tandem with his Norwegian crew-mate Bjorn Gjelsten, earned his fifth consecutive win in the UIM Class 1 World Powerboat Championships. His habitual triumph was preceded by a more unusual honour - an MBE in the New Year Honours List.

Curtis and Gjelsten's eighth overall world win was earned at the series-concluding Dubai Grand Prix in unfamiliar conditions of driving rain. Their powerboat, Spirit of Norway, went head-to-head with their main rival, the Dubai-based Victory 77, which had reduced their overall lead from 20 points to a single point after Curtis's boat had suffered engine failure in the penultimate race.

Curtis is not the only English world powerboating champion - Jackie Hunt became the first woman to win the world title in the Super Sports class. The 5ft 2in, 8st 7lb computer software saleswoman from Hampshire has put the cat among the high-octane alpha males in glorious style.

Anna Hemmings

From chronic fatigue syndrome to a fifth women's world marathon canoeing title

Anna Hemmings won her fifth world marathon canoeing title this year. A great achievement given that the 29-year-old economics graduate was told by medical experts three years ago that she would have to retire from her sport after being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.

It is a condition that has blighted the careers of other top sports people such as Peter Marshall, the former world No 2 in squash, and for a while Hemmings thought it had done for her too. "It was a condition that left me feeling exhausted, aching with pain all over my body," she says. "I was actually scared, really scared that I would be trapped by it for ever."

She escaped with the help of a new method called Reverse Therapy, which helped her to identify the triggers that were overstimulating the brain's hypothalamus gland, which controls the body's functions.

Hemmings, whose marathons involve 18 miles of river, seems to have cracked the fatigue problem good and proper these days. She celebrated her latest world title in France three months ago by partying in St Tropez before returning home for a big night in a bar in Wimbledon Village.

"Winning the title last year just seven months after returning to training was one thing, but retaining it presented another kind of pressure," she said. She will seek to do the same again next year - but after thatwill focus on her "next big goal", the 500-metre sprint at the 2008 Olympics.