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Fitness and competitiveness are in the blood for GLL's Jacqui Pope in growing Belfast leisure sector

Jacqui Pope, the strategic operating officer for GLL, which is behind the city’s leisure centres, talks to Emma Deighan about its ambitions for the future


Jacqui Pope looks after the running of Belfast City Council’s leisure centres

Jacqui Pope looks after the running of Belfast City Council’s leisure centres

Jacqui Pope looks after the running of Belfast City Council’s leisure centres

Jacqui Pope, strategic operating officer for GLL, the social enterprise that runs Belfast City Council leisure centres, has a reputation for transforming some of the UK's largest private gyms.

A fitness enthusiast and a champion powerlifter, today the Newtownards woman is the driving force behind the council's 14 leisure centres in the city, as well as three brand new gyms due to open in the coming months.

Jacqui is the daughter of an award-winning table tennis player and a nurse, and says fitness and competitiveness is in the blood.

"My mum was a nurse in Ards and was diagnosed with bowel cancer but despite that and a heart attack and Lupus she could out-walk most people," she says.

"My father - who in his later years worked at the front of house at the BBC - represented Ireland in table tennis. He competed at a really high level."

Jacqui's father was diagnosed with dementia and will turn 70 this year but still plays his beloved table tennis.

Jacqui is the eldest of three. Her sister previously worked in the fitness sector while her brother, a science lecturer, is a keen footballer.

But despite sport being in the genes, Jacqui initially started her career in the civil service.

The former Regent House Grammar student said she "went straight into the workforce from school", serving six years at Dundonald House before moving to England where she worked for Zurich Insurance.

"They were always quite demanding roles and I was very ambitious with a clear direction on where I wanted to go," adds Jacqui.

"Then I decided I was going to travel and see part of the world so I applied to Airtours, which is now Thomas Cook, and went overseas. I was a qualified fitness instructor so ran classes out there. Fitness was always a passion."

Various posts in Cyprus, Menorca, Lanzarote, Tunisia and Crete followed after which Jacqui was appointed sales development manager at one of the group's largest resorts.

She met her Derbyshire husband, Gary, while working in Crete, returning home and marrying on Christmas Eve 2001 at Belfast Castle.

Today the couple live in Belfast with their dog Hunter. Jacqui's first role after moving back home was for gym chain LA Fitness.

Her goal was to transform the company's underperforming Shaw's Bridge venue in south Belfast.

"It was one of their newer clubs but I was fortunate enough to get that club the title of Club of the Year," Jacqui says.

But it wasn't an easy feat, she confesses.

"I had to understand where we were at and got that team and set our sights on winning. I remember going to England for a regional manager meeting when I started and I asked the question at that meeting about the criteria for the Club of the Year award and they all laughed."

After much work, LA Fitness at Shaws Bridge became a star performer in the group, with the highest member retention, ensuring it earned that award.

"I was always very driven and wanted to know what I needed to do and then executed that," Jacqui says. "There was a standing ovation at the event in England and I remember that moment, I always will. I still have the speech the director read out at the time and I have the recording on VHS in my house."

Following the successful transformation of LA Fitness, challenging troubleshooting job offers flowed in. She moved to England where she spent six years with DW Fitness (Dave Whelan). She returned home when her mother took ill and worked on the group's five Northern Ireland sites.

"Then I opened my own gym in 2013."

That gym specialises in the Crossfit movement as well as training children in fitness.

"I still coach the kids. I don't need to do it and my focus now is on GLL but it's a passion and I love coaching them," Jacqui says.

A consultancy role for Fitness First also made its way on to Jacqui's CV and then followed a position at Pure Gym which saw her behind the opening of almost all of its Northern Ireland sites.

Today Jacqui's big career focus is looking after Belfast City Council's leisure centres. It was announced as the operator of Belfast City Council's leisure facilities in 2015.

She will be part of the team that launches three new centres in west and east Belfast.

"The whole Belfast transformation programme represents a total investment of £105m since GLL began working with the council," she says. And that cash injection is paying off. GLL is extremely focused on getting people more active and more often.

"The teams are really focused on that goal and we set very clear key performance indicators," adds Jacqui.

"We have strong frameworks in place and so far we have seen our membership base increase from 8,452 to 21,074 with income increasing by £1m by the third year of GLL's partnership with the council.

"The uptake in our swimming lessons has also grown too, by 24%."

And that figure is set to rise following the launch of a new "aquatic strategy".

"What GLL is doing in the city is something I love being part of. GLL is a social enterprise and it's one of the leading service providers in the UK. It's also the largest provider of publicly owned gyms.

"We have big plans including Avoniel and the reopening of Templemore Baths."

Jacqui says the launch of Twinbrook, Andersonstown and Lisnasharragh centres will bring different specialities to the Belfast leisure offering.

"Lisnasharragh will be a centre of excellence for aquatics, Brook will focus on sports including soccer and GAA, and Andersonstown will be largely based around family fun.

"It will have the only drop slide in Northern Ireland with all the flumes and the first surf simulator here."

The first of the gyms is due to open from early 2020 with the others due for a spring launch.

As well as working towards those openings and performance targets, Jacqui has a more personal goal to achieve.

A champion powerlifter, a mentoring role in the sport which saw Jacqui boost the popularity of power lifting among females led to her participating in competitions.

"A lot of my time was invested in driving the sport forward and one time I was watching competitions I thought 'I could do that' and when I was 42 when I won Best Lifter and I liked it so I got a powerlifting coach," says Jacqui.

Since making the decision to compete Jacqui has won many awards including a silver in the British Championships and the Commonwealth Powerlifting Championship, which she will take another shot at four weeks from now.

And like her career, she says she is focused and dedicated to her goal.

"My life is meticulous with training. I have a coach who does my programming and my nutrition, making sure I get the right amount of carbohydrates, protein and fats, and I plan my week ahead looking at my work calendar to see what my commitments are there. I have to tick all those boxes and make sure I fit in rest."

Another side role as a Reiki master keeps Jacqui "completely balanced" during the chaos of juggling work with competitive sports. On the subject of the upcoming competition she adds: "It's a stressful competition because it's for your country and that matters but I always aim to do the best I can."

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