It is time to honour and celebrate women’s sport in Northern Ireland.
Today at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, the Belfast Telegraph and Electric Ireland will announce their Game Changer winners.
After hundreds of nominations were made, the shortlist was whittled down to six in each category — grassroots and elite — before the judges deliberated and agonised over who should come out on top in each section.
With a pandemic raging for the last two years, sporting triumph and even simply training and competing hasn’t been easy.
But sport has a magical way of wonderful release — physically, mentally and socially.
And today those women shortlisted for the Game Changer Awards deserve immense praise for their contribution to Northern Ireland sport.
With gold medals secured, qualification achieved, tournaments won, records broken and Northern Ireland women becoming global successes, it was an incredibly difficult judging process.
Swimming, football, GAA, cricket, MMA and Crossfit are all represented in the elite category.
Equally, closer to home, those shortlisted in the grassroots section are dedicated, caring and inspirational.
They are volunteers who give up their time to improve others, whether it is through coaching, being a mentor or simply helping to co-ordinate things to give girls the opportunity to play a fun sport.
Sacrifices are constantly made and all of them are worthy winners for making an impact at amateur level, but only one will come out on top.
It promises to be a special day of celebrating women’s sport in Northern Ireland.
In 2021 alone, Emma forged a reputation as one of the greatest Crossfit athletes in the world, starting with a 12th-placed finish at the CrossFit Games in Wisconsin in August.
A ninth-placed finish at an exclusive event in Austin, Texas followed, before she picked up her best result of the year 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.
Bethany is Northern Ireland’s most successful Paralympian and the greatest Paralympic swimmer from Great Britain and NI, having won six golds and three silvers.
In Tokyo last year, she won two gold medals and two silver medals.
However, the last 18 months have proven tough for the Seaforde woman, 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.
Through all of it, Firth has 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.
NI Football Team
What an incredible season for the Northern Ireland Women, who qualified for their first major tournament last year and are now preparing for this year’s European Championships.
Led by captain Marissa Callaghan, the team recorded seven straight wins and defeated Ukraine in a fantastic play-off performance to seal their place at the Euro finals, 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
The pandemic looked to halt some good momentum that McCourt had gathered, but she put all that aside to shine in the octagon since her return to MMA competitive action.
Wins over Janay Harding and Jessica Borga improved her record to 6-1 and set up a big all-Ireland fight with Sinead Kavanagh last month, which she narrowly lost after a brave and exhausting battle.
Outside of her competitive fights, McCourt has also done work for the charity Christian Aid during the pandemic, which saw her go through some gruelling endurance challenges to raise money and awareness.
It was a busy 18 months for Kelly, who wasn’t content with just becoming an Ulster county champion and Armagh club champion in GAA, but she also, once again, became an All-Ireland champion in road bowls.
On the GAA field, she captained Armagh to the defence of their Ulster Senior Football title, losing to Meath in the All-Ireland quarters, before taking club Armagh Harps to their county title with a player-of-the-match performance in the final.
Not done there, Mallon then added a record ninth All-Ireland senior road bowls title to her trophy cabinet to sign off an incredible year.
Amy became the youngest player in cricket, either male or female, to score a century in a one-day international match — and she did so against Zimbabwe in Harare on her 16th birthday.
With a batting average of 42.66 in four ODI matches, Hunter has established herself as one of the leading lights in the Ireland team over the last 18 months beyond just that impressive century.
Now that she has experience under her belt, 2022 could be a big year for the Methodist College student - who recently led them to Schools' Cup glory on the hockey pitch - with Ireland looking to graduate to the top table of world cricket, having qualified to play in the expanded 10-team Women’s (one-day) Championship.
Mollie has been an inspiration to many young girls while dealing with her own personal heartache during the pandemic.
The Linfield Academy coach somehow managed to continue her incredible volunteering work as Head of Girls in an Academy which has over 120 members.
As well as taking great pride in developing the girls into fine footballers, Molly also emphasises the need to become better people and organises their schedules and fixtures, while away from football she has championed charity work for the NI Children’s Hospice and Tiny Life, which has funded much-needed equipment for the NHS.
A volunteer at Lisburn BMX club, Sorcha has taken steps to try and get more women and girls involved in the sport by introducing a new plan called ‘Intro2BMX’.
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.
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.
With the pandemic having an impact on mental health, Crusaders Strikers 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 does not turn 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.
Claire Johnston and Kirstie Beggs
Claire and Kirstie have both been at the forefront of the Bangor Bulls’ bid to increase participation in wheelchair basketball through their roles as financial treasurer and Covid officer.
While there is a desire to grow girls into elite athletes, the club also places a premium on giving disabled athletes a chance to join and have a place to express themselves.
Claire has been praised for her work with the players, encouraging them and providing guidance, while Kirstie keeps things Covid safe so they can meet, which helps with physical and mental health.
Paul Brown and Matt Lindsay
Paul and Matt have worked tirelessly for women’s rugby at Cooke over many years, but it was during the pandemic that they established the Women’s 27 Touch Team to provide another avenue for involvement.
Head coach Paul and assistant Matt have entirely self-funded the Ireland team which encourages women to give the game a go and reach the next level on the pitch.
They will compete at the European Championships this year, while closer to home the coaches continue to push for more women to get involved in the sport.
James established the first ever Banbridge Women’s rugby team and it has now progressed to the level where there are up to 35 women turning up for training each week.
He also went above and beyond to secure the services of former Ulster coach Charlie Farrell and Ulster player Jemma Farrell to help with the team, which has helped take their performances to the next level.
Beyond that, James has also set up a parents’ group for those who bring their kids to training each week, which has improved the social aspect of the club during the pandemic, too.