Modest, brave and so inspiring, our Woman of the Year will leave you feeling on crest of a wave

Kate Richardson
Kate with her mum Marina.
Kate with her Belfast Telegraph Awards.

If rowing across the Atlantic proved a trial for Kate Richardson, from Portadown, so, too, is finding a job. Jane Hardy reports.

Seeing Kate Richardson pick up her beautiful Belleek trophy as Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year 2012 at a glitzy ceremony last Wednesday you felt this young superwoman could do anything she wanted.

As Belfast Telegraph Editor Mike Gilson put it, the first Irishwoman to row the Atlantic “represents the future of Northern Ireland”.

Kate herself, looking a million miles away from her nautical adventure in a gorgeous dress from Zara, sounded utterly overwhelmed, admitting that she had never expected to win this award.

And when compere Wendy Austin asked her what were the best and worst aspects of the trip, Kate just smiled broadly for a few moments, before finally gathering the words to reply. The worst was the machinery shutdown which meant they had to pump water manually. The best, naturally, was arriving in Barbados on January 21 and hugging her parents.

Kate had already won Inspirational Woman of the Year alongside Ann Travers, who has fought for justice for her sister Mary, shot dead by the IRA as she left Mass in Belfast in 1984. Ann, daughter of magistrate Tom Travers who was also injured in the attack, said that what motivated her was “the thought of how terrified Mary must have been that day”. And the fact that Mary McArdle, one of the murder gang, was appointed a Sinn Fein adviser last year.

Two inspiring women, two incredible stories. The story of this young Portadown woman’s gutsy fight to make it from the Canary Islands to Barbados, in a boat with four other oarswomen, makes you feel heroism isn’t dead. It took them 45 days, 15 hours and 16 minutes to cover the 3,000 miles, and on the way they overcame numerous obstacles. There was the seasickness, the 17-day wait to wash their hair, the physical discomforts, like chafed bottoms after sitting in one place for hours. And it did take hours, 12-hour rowing sessions a day.

After Kate came back home to Portadown, she’d assumed she could resume her work with special needs kids. But it didn’t work out like that. Although you’d imagine this bright, personable 23-year-old with a first in psychology from the University of Ulster would easily slot back into her role helping young people with autism and acting as a classroom special needs assistant, sadly that wasn’t the case. Alas, the economy beat her when the 40-foot waves of the Atlantic could not.

Clearly upset by her predicament, Kate reveals: “People will say to me ‘Oh, you must have your pick of jobs ...’ but it’s not true. And I think it is important for young people here who are struggling to find employment to know that they’re not the only ones. We are all in this together.”

So although Kate’s one of the brightest — and best — of her generation, she is currently putting into practice her Plan B.

“I’m now working as a personal trainer at a gym in Portadown, where I live. When I came back from my trip, I was looking to resume the same work but the job I had at a primary school in Portadown no longer exists.”

Working in the special needs field is where Kate’s enthusiasm really lies, partly because she’s a psychologist but also because she knows about behavioural problems as her family has fostered children for the last decade. And in the past some of them have had severe behavioural issues.

“This work is really where my heart is,” she says. “But when I returned home, the job simply wasn’t there anymore. I’d gained my fitness instructor qualification at university, and the people who run the gym where I train, Club Vo2, said they could offer me a job. So that’s what I’m doing.”

It is enjoyable, and Kate has moved from a part-time role to full-time work, but eventually she says she would like to do a doctorate in psychology, possibly on the effects of autism or special needs. “I have a real interest in the research side of psychology,” this bubbly young woman reveals. “I’d love to do my doctorate and add that to the experience I already have.”

Kate lives with mum Marina, dad Mark, who works for a baking firm, her younger sister Kerry (21), currently studying fashion at Sheffield Hallam, and two foster brothers. “They’ve been with us for a couple of years — the older guy is 17, the younger boy is 10 and I regard him as my little brother.”

While there are no issues with her current two foster brothers, previously the family has had to deal with challenging behaviour as young people from very different backgrounds have come through the front door of their comfortable home.

“Yes, you could say we’ve definitely dealt with challenging behaviour, unusually challenging behaviour, from kids who may hit or lash out. You have to know how to handle the situation.”

And this Christmas, as the Richardsons sit down to a large turkey, they’ll be welcoming cousins, Kate’s Northern Irish grandparents (“My mum’s parents come from Wales”), and the foster brothers at a positively Dickensian spread.

“That was the thing I missed most last year, when I was on the boat over Christmas. I just wanted to be at home with my family, and this year I will be which is great. I love our Christmases”

Like many families, the Richardsons have certain rituals come December 25. “Yes, we all race downstairs very early, it used to be about 6am, but now it’s around 7 o’clock. Dad will put on some music, maybe some Frank Sinatra but Christmassy of course, and we’ll open our presents and look at what everybody else has got.”

So what has Kate requested from St Nicholas, the guy we know best in his Santa incarnation?

“I’ve asked my parents for a nice watch.”

Kate loves Christmas so much that she says she’s even happy to help her mother cook. “Mum’s a great cook and I’d like her to pass on her skills to me, but although I’ve been practising, the results aren’t quite the same!”

Quite often, she’ll end up peeling spuds or even doing an extra bit of housework before the onslaught of guests. “We do whatever mum tells us, and she might just say ‘Oh, put the Hoover over the sitting room again’.”

One Christmas routine Kate doesn’t share with the rest of the family is going to the Celebration Church service in Portadown. “I’m the only one who goes to church — none of the rest of the family are churchgoers. “The Church I attend started in America in someone’s house and our pastor went over to Florida a while ago, learnt about this new approach and felt he had to bring it over. It’s about making Christianity and churchgoing something relevant, helping young people to experience God, not regard church as a duty.”

Kate adds that although she was tempted to give up the Atlantic ordeal “all the time”, what kept her going was her faith: “It’s very important to me.” Plus, the A21 Campaign, the charity she was raising money for, also proved hugely inspiring in her lowest moments. It highlights — and fights — human trafficking in the sex trade. Indeed, it does such good work that she’d even consider working for it in the future.

Though she is evidently a young woman who thinks deeply about those less fortunate than herself, Kate is also a typical twentysomething, who enjoys life and parties. Mind you, she also quickly points out the Christmas season isn’t a Bridget Jones booze-up, as she’s the sort of girl who finds more than one glass of Sauvignon Blanc tipsy-making. She laughs: “It’s not that I mind drinking, I’ll have a glass but only one as it affects me ...”

She is currently single, but has a large social circle and enjoys inviting friends back home for meals. When quizzed on the kind of man she likes, she giggles: “Ryan Gosling. Tall, dark and handsome, but looks don’t matter really as it’s all about personality.”

Kate’s journey to her battle with the 30 to 40-foot waves in the Atlantic probably began in the classroom. Always sporty, after Clounagh High School, she did her A-levels at Portadown College — “I did English, Art and PE and got two Bs and a C” — and even at the University of Ulster, she worked on her fitness levels.

So, when at a church event in February 2011, she was introduced to Julia Immonen, who within 20 minutes asked her if she would like to join her latest venture, crossing the Atlantic in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, one of the most demanding races in the world, she barely hesitated before saying yes. “It depends on what kind of person you are,” she says. “One kind of person will think the idea is impossible and say no immediately. The other kind is me, who is looking for a challenge and will say yes.”

Memories of the privations of the trip make being back in the normal run-up to the festive season all the more enjoyable. “We had seasickness, storms, chafed backsides from all the sitting down and sometimes couldn’t even wash our hair for 17 days which wasn’t fun. But arriving at Barbados was amazing.”

Like all girls, Kate enjoys getting glammed up. “The dress I wore for the Woman of the Year event was from Zara, as was my bag. She adds: “Because I was doing the row, I was on a fashion-fast for about a year. I didn’t buy any clothes at all, but that was cool. But now I’m off the fast, I’m a big fan of everything gold, so I’m hoping the watch mum and dad get me is gold.”

It should be — the girl herself is pure gold.

Why she wowed the judges

Deputy editor Gail Walker on Kate’s courage, energy and concern for others

When Kate Richardson stepped onto the stage to accept her Woman of the Year title, it was clear that she was completely over-awed and astonished to have won the award.

As the 300-strong audience burst into wild applause and confetti rained down upon her head, the 23-year-old shook her head and gasped “Me?” before breaking into a mega-watt smile.

Which is, of course, all part of the charm of this remarkable young woman from Portadown. Modest, self-effacing and unassuming she may be, but Kate is also fired by quiet confidence, steely resolve and an indefatigable optimism.

Her story is truly astonishing. At a church event she agreed on a whim to join a team of women rowing across the Atlantic to raise awareness of the victims of human trafficking.

The physical challenge and sheer minute by minute hardships they faced were truly epic. On stage Kate revealed they were probably at their lowest ebb when all the equipment on the boat failed at once and “here we were, a group of women with a toolbox and no idea what to do”. It won’t surprise you to hear that, somehow, these intrepid adventurers managed to soon have all systems go again.

In often gloomy times, young women like Kate Richardson really do lift the spirits with their infectious energy and enthusiasm for life and helping others — no matter what it takes.

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