Paralympic swimmer Bethany Firth and Lisburn BMX Club volunteer Sorcha McConnell were the big winners at the Belfast Telegraph’s Game Changer Awards in association with Electric Ireland.
The pair were given their awards at an awards ceremony at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, where Northern Ireland’s leading women’s athletes and grassroots workers were rewarded for their work over the last 18 months during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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 into sport to help their physical and mental well-being.
In the Grassroots section, McConnell was the big winner for her work done at Lisburn BMX Club in helping grow the membership and get more women involved in the sport.
A volunteer, McConnell steps to try and get more women and girls involved in the sport by introducing a new plan called ‘Intro2BMX’ which saw over 70 new riders took part in the scheme, which incorporated learning the basics with training, and eventually led to them learning how to race and, most importantly, have fun.
As well as that, she began doing women’s only sessions to align with International Women’s Day which were also a massive success, and it is no surprise to see that off the back of that, the female membership of Lisburn BMX club has increased and it has led to widespread praise from within the local community and the BMX community as a whole.
Football club Crusaders Strikers were also recognised at the event with the Highly Commended prize for their work keeping their players motivated and engaged throughout lockdown for the Covid-19 pandemic.
Coach Heather Mearns took it upon herself to keep the young girls occupied with 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 and help them grow as people, and there are over 170 girls participating up to Under-19 level.
As well as having fun, the club aims to keep the girls involved in football through many roles, by encouragement and a reminder that there is always a place for them.
In the Elite section, Northern Ireland’s most successful Paralympian Firth walked away with the prize after another outstanding year in the pool at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
The Seaforde woman is the greatest Paralympic swimmer from Great Britain and NI, having won six golds and three silvers, with two golds and two silvers coming in Tokyo last year.
But that came after a tough 18 months for Firth, who has had to train in a swimming pool in her back garden due to the pandemic as well as deal with a broken foot that seriously curtailed her preparations.
Through all of it, the 26-year-old remained close to her roots by helping out with disability sport organisations in Northern Ireland, making visits to schools and being a visible para-athlete role model for young kids.
The Highly Commended award went to crossfit athlete Emma McQuaid, who had a fantastic year both in her sport and at home where she works to train other women.
McQuaid started with a 12th-placed finish at the CrossFit Games in Wisconsin in August before adding a ninth-placed finish at an exclusive event in Austin, Texas, but her best result of the year came in December when she won the Wodapalooza event in Miami, and the $100,000 prize on offer.
She is currently training for this year’s CrossFit Games, again in Wisconsin, alongside her work at home, training women both in gyms and online, bringing through the next generation of talent.
And there was also a Special Recognition Award handed out to reward the exploits of the Northern Ireland Women’s football team, who had a life-changing year when they qualified for their first ever major tournament.
Led by captain Marissa Callaghan and manager Kenny Shiels, the team recorded seven straight wins and defeated Ukraine in a fantastic play-off performance to seal their place at the European Championship finals this summer, and they are currently right in the mix for World Cup qualification, too.
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.
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 Bowls), Amy Hunter (Ireland Cricket and MCB Hockey)