In an 18 months like no other, where sports across the world slowly found their feet again after the outbreak of Covid-19, one thing that remained the same was the rise of women’s sport in Northern Ireland.
It was during the pandemic that Northern Ireland’s footballers broke their glass ceiling and qualified for their first major tournament, that Armagh ladies continued their domination of the Ulster GAA scene and a 16-year-old from Belfast became the youngest cricket player, male or female, to score an ODI century.
Now, to honour and celebrate our incredible women in sport, the Belfast Telegraph is today launching the Game Changers Awards in partnership with Electric Ireland.
There are two Awards up for grabs in the elite and grassroots sections.
The elite category is open to teams or individuals who have competed at a county, national or international level for Northern Ireland, Team Ireland or Team GB and NI.
Nominees must have made a significant impact since July 2020 and also helped grow the profile of their particular sport through their endeavours while acting as an excellent ambassador/s.
The Northern Ireland women’s football team have obviously had a sensational 18 months by reaching their first major tournament this summer, the European Championship finals, after qualifying second in their group.
In Gaelic Games, the Armagh ladies team stood out from the rest as they retained their Ulster title, defeating Donegal in a thrilling final at Healy Park, while the Antrim ladies made powerful progress by reaching an All-Ireland decider — losing out to Wicklow in the Junior Football final.
Cricketer Amy Hunter should be a major player in this category after she became the youngest person to score an international ODI century when she smashed 121 not out in Ireland’s win over Zimbabwe back in October aged just 16.
Or how about sensational MMA fighter Leah McCourt, who defeated both Janay Harding and Jessica Borga to set up what is tipped to be the biggest fight in Irish MMA history when she takes on Dublin’s Sinead Kavanagh next month?
While McCourt is a dominant force in MMA, the 29-year-old is also an inspiration, spending quality time with young fans as well as raising money for charities such as Christian Aid during lockdown.
On the team front, there was more success for the Ireland women’s hockey side, captained by Ballymoney’s Katie Mullan, who qualified for back-to-back World Cups by securing their place in this year’s finals.
In golf, rising star Beth Coulter was a shining light on the local scene, as Annabel Wilson represented Europe in the Curtis Cup: a tremendous achievement.
2021 was the year of the Olympics and Paralympics where Northern Ireland athletes dedicated five years of training to reach the pinnacle of their sport in Tokyo.
It may have been disappointing that the Olympics and Paralympics had to be held without spectators due to the pandemic, but it was still a remarkable achievement to qualify and take part in the greatest show on earth.
Ards swimmer Bethany Firth returned with two golds and two silvers to add to her record Paralympic haul over the years.
The awards, though, are not all about the elite athletes/teams and it is important those who contribute to grassroots women’s sport are equally recognised.
The number of women or girls taking part in sport in Northern Ireland has steadily increased each year since 2011 and that is down to the tireless work of volunteers, coaches and mentors encouraging the next generation of sporting heroes, or those simply giving women and girls the opportunity to play and enjoy sport.
We are looking for somebody within a club, or a club itself, who has dedicated countless hours to their sport by encouraging participation, putting on coaching sessions or developing individuals into serious athletes who will compete at the top level — someone or group who deserve major recognition for their work.
The Belfast Telegraph’s Head of Sport Paul Ferguson said: “We are proud to join forces with Electric Ireland to honour, celebrate, champion and recognise those women and girls who have excelled or made major contributions in Northern Ireland sport.”
Anne Smyth, sponsorship specialist at Electric Ireland, said: “We’re delighted to partner with Belfast Telegraph to run a special Game Changers Award.
“The Award serves as an opportunity to celebrate the game-changing work of individuals both on and off the field, recognising the positive impact they’ve had on their local communities and the wider sporting landscape and helping to support the advancement of women’s sport.”
In order to nominate an individual or team for either award and find further details including closing date, please log on to: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/gamechanger/