As we honour our 2019 Spirit of Youth winner, it’s time to nominate a new champion for 2021
Co Down schoolboy Conor Bannon was just 11 years old in 2018 when he became the youngest person from Northern Ireland to climb Kilimanjaro.
In a feat even some seasoned mountain climbers would shy away from, he battled altitude sickness and extreme weather to reach the summit of Africa’s highest mountain, scaling an incredible 19,340 feet in just seven days.
The amazing achievement, through which Conor raised £12,344 for the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice, won him our Spirit of Youth Award, sponsored this year by the social enterprise Better.
Making his feat all the more incredible was the fact that he has an immune deficiency disorder, making the climb even tougher.
Scaling mountains runs in Conor’s family, with dad Terence Bannon (52) becoming the second Irishman to conquer Mount Everest in 2003. But it was his mum Lauren O’Malley (41) who accompanied him on his bid to summit Kilimanjaro in what was also a first for her.
Climbing the mountain gave Conor, now 13 and a pupil at St Paul’s High in Newry, the confidence to believe he could overcome whatever life throws at him.
“When I was on the mountain, I wasn’t enjoying it so much, but afterwards it was great to be able to say I did it,” he says.
“Knowing I was 11 and could do that and I didn’t give up has changed my perspective on things. It encouraged me and has made me realise I am not a quitter.”
The climb also gave Conor a taste for adventure. He had planned to complete the Uganda Marathon this summer, only for the pandemic to delay that dream until next year.
The schoolboy also hopes to tackle the Alps with his father within the next couple of years.
“I train by doing a 5km run every couple of days and I would be up in the Mournes every other weekend with my friends for the craic,” he explains.
“I’m looking forward to when things get back to normal after Covid and I can go to the Alps with my dad and hopefully Uganda next year.
“When I do these things, I will be doing them for the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice.”
Conor’s condition has required years of antibody treatments. In preparation for his Kilimanjaro challenge, he had to have extra infusions to build up his immune system.
Training also meant sacrificing time with his friends, and it is only his mum Lauren, who completed the climb with him, who can truly appreciate how big an achievement it was.
“It is amazing what he has achieved. People were surprised by how much work went into it for him and what it took physically in the run-up to it,” she says. “When his friends were going off doing things, Conor was training
for seven months, running after school and climbing mountains at
the weekends. It was a big undertaking and he really deserved to be honoured for that.
“Even for an adult, climbing Kilimanjaro is a challenge. The high altitude is very tough.
“It hit Conor hard and he was vomiting his way up to the summit. To see him do it blew my mind. It totally humbled me.
“We started off with horrendous weather. We had torrential rain for three days. Everything was soaked and it was like walking up a river.
“It was really soul-destroying and tough going and it made it so much more difficult.
“Although Conor was feeling nauseous and vomiting during his final push to the summit, he was determined to do it. Nothing was going to stop him.
“He couldn’t be talked back. I did suggest it, but he said, ‘No chance,’ and pushed on through it.
“Conor is by no means unhealthy, but because of his immune condition, that made it that bit more of a challenge for him. I am just so, so proud of him.”
Conor was the youngest person ever to climb the mountain by the Lemosho Route, the longest way to the top but the one his mum believed would give him the best shot of getting there.
The icing on the cake was being able to hand over thousands of pounds to the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice, a charity that’s very close to Conor’s heart. “Because Conor has been so unwell, he wanted to do something for kids and he picked the Children’s Hospice,” Lauren explains.
“He went up to see it and he really understood what it’s about. It made him even more determined to do it to help the kids.
“The sheer generosity of people was fantastic. I think when he did it people couldn’t get over how small he was to do such a big thing. The donations seemed to pour in to the JustGiving page.”
Conor enjoyed a superb evening at our awards ceremony, meeting some of his sporting heroes and sharing his story with the stars.
His trophy now takes pride of place in his bedroom.
If you know a young person who has gone above and beyond and deserves recognition, don’t hesitate to nominate them today.
This year’s Spirit of Youth Award is sponsored by the social enterprise Better, which works with Belfast City Council to run its leisure centres and gyms.
Supporting young athletes is a crucial part of this not-for-profit company’s core aims.
Better head of service Jacqui Pope said: “We want to inspire the next generation of young people to achieve a better quality of life by getting active and finding a passion in sport.
“We want everyone to lead healthy and active lives. We are committed to supporting young people and communities to make healthy choices.
“The Spirit of Youth Award recognises the great potential and achievements of young people here.
“We are delighted to show our support for the special role young people play, for their achievements now, their potential in the future and the big difference they can make to our community”.