A fantastic 18 months for women’s sport in Northern Ireland was celebrated at the Lyric Theatre yesterday as the Belfast Telegraph handed out Game Changer Awards in association with Electric Ireland to recognise the incredible achievements of our local athletes.
Paralympic swimmer Bethany Firth and Lisburn BMX Club volunteer Sorcha McConnell were the big winners at the awards ceremony, the pair taking home the prizes in the Elite and Grassroots categories respectively.
The awards were designed to highlight the work being done not just on a global level, but also at a local level where countless volunteers give up time to help women and girls get into sport to help their physical and mental wellbeing.
Firth, who lifted the Elite prize for her incredible achievements in the pool, which saw her win two gold and two silver medals at the Tokyo Paralympics last year, as well as for her work with disability charities in Northern Ireland, says sport can play an important role in the development of young girls.
“Sport is amazing for young girls. If you look at the people we have on that shortlist, we’re so fortunate we have the people we have shining on the stage. It changed my life and it’ll change so many other lives too,” she said.
“I think the secret to success is your support system and the people who encourage you. Growing up, my family and my friends said it might take me a little bit longer but there’s always a way around it. They teach me so much.
“It’s really important for me to show that we all have challenges but the way you fight back and get over them shows the kind of person you are.”
The Highly Commended award went to Cossfit athlete Emma McQuaid, who had a fantastic year as she won the Wodapalooza event in Miami in December and has been described as one of the fittest women’s athletes in Ireland.
When she is home in Northern Ireland, she also works to train other women in local gyms, and unfortunately she could not be there in person to collect her award as she is training for another event.
There was also a Special Recognition Award handed out to the Northern Ireland Women’s football team, who had a life-changing year when they qualified for their first ever major tournament by reaching this summer’s European Championship finals.
Women’s football in Northern Ireland has never been in such a strong place, and that bleeds down from the top and the success of the senior team, who are superb role models for aspiring young players.
Northern Ireland player Joely Andrews said: “We don’t see ourselves as role models, we just go and play.
“I do a bit of coaching myself and it’s class to see girls coming up to you and asking about your game last night, they really look up to us. We’re just trying to do the best to show the potential they have and to encourage them that they can do the same.”
In the Grassroots section, McConnell was the big winner for her marvellous work at Lisburn BMX Club in helping grow the membership and get more women involved in the sport through a new plan called ‘Intro2BMX’ which saw over 70 new riders take part in the scheme, while she also began doing women’s only sessions to align with International Women’s Day.
“The club has started with so few girls, and so few people as a whole, and it’s become so successful where we have new equipment, we have an amazing committee and week on week we’re just trying to make it even better,” said McConnell.
“I don’t think many people would look at me and think she would be doing something like that, so if I can inspire somebody to take sport up then that’s amazing.
“We’ve created a family at the club and even across Ireland, and so many people are so excited about the sport.”
Football club Crusaders Strikers were also recognised at the event with the Highly Commended prize for their work keeping girls from the north Belfast area motivated and engaged throughout lockdown amid the Covid-19 pandemic through the likes of quizzes, football skills and even FIFA competitions.
The club has a policy of not turning away any girl, regardless of skill level, instead opting to help them with their abilities both on and off the pitch and help them grow as people, and there are over 170 girls participating up to Under-19 level.
Coach Danielle Tuffey said: “For us as a community club, to win this is something that we’re delighted with. We have a great family environment and hopefully we can keep developing from this.
“We made sure we did mental health checks with the girls as well, getting on their wavelength and knowing what they needed to get through lockdown. That was really important to us and making sure they were okay.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re one of the most talented players or you’re just there for fun, we want everyone to come along and enjoy their football, and even if it’s not at Crusaders we try and keep girls in the game and we’ve now got several girls who have come through the Academy who are coaching or on our committee.”
Winner: Sorcha McConnell (Lisburn BMX Club)
Highly Commended: Crusaders Strikers
Nominees: Mollie Gilmore (Linfield Ladies FC), Claire Johnston and Kirstie Beggs (Bangor Bulls wheelchair basketball), Paul Brown and Matt Lindsay (Cooke Warriors), James Cromie (Banbridge RFC)
Winner: Bethany Firth (Team GB Paralympic Swimmer)
Highly Commended: Emma McQuaid (Crossfit)
Special Recognition: Northern Ireland Women’s Football Team
Nominees: Leah McCourt (MMA), Kelly Mallon (Ulster GAA and Road Bowls), Amy Hunter (Cricket Ireland)