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Meet the Northern Ireland women whose love of sport landed them their dream jobs

Ahead of the Belfast Telegraph Sports Award gala on Monday night, hosts Claire McCollum and Ruth Gorman talk to Leona O'Neill about their hectic year both in their personal lives and in their careers

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Claire and co-host Ruth Gorman at last year’s awards

Claire and co-host Ruth Gorman at last year’s awards

Claire with Noel Thompson at BBC NI Proms In The Park at the Titanic Slipways

Claire with Noel Thompson at BBC NI Proms In The Park at the Titanic Slipways

Claire with her mum Margaret

Claire with her mum Margaret

Claire and co-host Ruth Gorman at last year’s awards

They've both been sports mad since they were girls on the hockey pitches - and have harnessed that passion and honed their talents over the years to ensure they have both reached the top of their game in the world of sports presenting.

And later this month Ruth Gorman and Claire McCollum will join forces to celebrate the very best sporting talents Northern Ireland has to offer with the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards.

They say they cannot wait for the glittering ceremony as it combines two of their most favourite things - sport and talking about sport.

The gala ceremony attracts some of the province's most famous and successful sporting heroes and will take place at the newly extended Grand Ballroom suite at Belfast's Crowne Plaza Hotel on Monday.

One of the most recognisable faces on TV, Claire McCollum (45), who lives in Whiteabbey with husband Alastair Clarke (47), a financial advisor, and their two children Samuel (13) and 11-year-old Rosa, says hosting the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards is a night she always gets 'worked up' over.

She says that it comes after a rather 'bumpy year' for her family.

"2019 was a year of change for us," she says. "It started off a bit bumpy. My father Sam has Parkinson's, and he ended up in hospital for two months. It was a really rough time.

"He was very, very well looked after. He had been having a series of falls and it was time to get him checked out by medical professionals. We got him home after eight weeks and we are now in a place where we have a care package in place which is wonderful and he gets great care.

"But it has proven to be a very challenging year for my mum, dad and just in general as a family.

"It has been great in so many ways. We have all been surrounding mum and dad and helping as much as we can. But it has been a year of change.

"However, so many good things came out of it - the kindness of friends. We've had so much love and support, which has been great. And living close to mum and dad has been wonderful. My sister lives in England, she is a nurse. We are a very close family and Kelly comes home as much as she can, which is lovely. She is always there as a support as well."

Claire, who cites her dad putting her in front of the camera to interview relatives at family weddings as the inspiration behind her career, says that there has been many rays of light during dark days.

"Every family has something they have to deal with. But you just get through. It isn't all negative. And I have never wish it was any different, because it is the way it is and it has just demonstrated to me how much mum and dad love each other and what an amazing team they are. Wonderful things come out of challenging situations.

"So that has been a big thing for 2019. It has been a year of highs and lows, but that is life. And we feel very lucky and blessed as a family that we are so close and that dad is getting the best of care and that mum is getting the support also. She is going through it just as much as dad is.

"The charity Parkinson's UK have been wonderful and I've now become an ambassador for the charity. I'm a VIP Supporter, that's what they call it. So it's been wonderful to do my bit for the charity to help other people."

Last year Claire raised several thousand pounds for the charity, which obviously is very close to her heart.

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Claire with her mum Margaret

Claire with her mum Margaret

Claire with her mum Margaret

"I hosted their second Parkinson's Does Strictly in November," she says. "And I also put myself in the black chair for Mastermind. My chosen subject was '1980s Light Entertainment Television', because that was my era for TV.

"I grew up just glued to the television, loving all the Saturday night game shows. So I thought I would choose an entire decade to study up on and got eight points.

"I was waking up in cold sweats the week before thinking I was going to get zero, so it wasn't so bad.

"But the big carrot for me was raising £3,000 for Parkinson's, because everyone who did Celebrity Mastermind and took the black chair got that fee for their chosen charity. So that is what I held on to.

"Dad loves seeing it all. Dad has Parkinson's and was recently diagnosed with a bit of Vascular Dementia. There are days that are better than others. And dad is very proud and is delighted that I'm doing that sort of thing, which is great. He still has all his faculties; there are just some days the messages find it harder to get out. He is still very much dad and has the same sense of humour, it's just his mobility is very compromised and thought processes are sometimes compromised."

Claire says she has also had a very busy year in terms of her career.

"Work has been very busy for me this year," she says. "I have been freelancing now for 11 years and it has been wonderful. I've had lots of Songs of Praise and trips with them all over. One of the highlights was a programme from Beamish, which was like an open-air museum and we looked into an Edwardian Christmas. I got to dress up in an Edwardian outfit. I met wonderful people from all walks of life, and shared their stories of inspiration and obviously faith also.

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Claire with Noel Thompson at BBC NI Proms In The Park at the Titanic Slipways

Claire with Noel Thompson at BBC NI Proms In The Park at the Titanic Slipways

Claire with Noel Thompson at BBC NI Proms In The Park at the Titanic Slipways

"I have had a great variety in terms of events that I was working on.

"I hosted the New Year Big Sing from Assembly Buildings in Belfast for Songs of Praise," she says. "Aled Jones presented the Christmas episode followed by me for New Year. This is the first time they've brought their Christmas and New Year musical spectacular to Belfast.

"It was traditionally filmed in the Albert Hall in London so this is a great way to share it around. The first outing away from the Albert Hall was Edinburgh last year.

"It was a great year and I started 2020 with the Ulster Orchestra at the Waterfront Hall and Millennium Forum in Derry. It was lovely to host those and they were packed houses both nights."

She says she cannot wait to get back on the stage for this years sports awards on Monday.

"I always look forward to the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards," she says.

"It is always a highlight. I worked in sport for so long with UTV as a presenter/reporter and made so many friends and colleagues through my work there.

"It's like going back to meet all these people that I have worked with over the years, even though I'm not working in mainstream sport, I still get to do sporting events like the North West 200 launch and the sports awards for the Belfast Telegraph, which is so special," Claire adds.

"This is my 10th year now doing it. It has just gone by in a blink. But it is a very special night of celebrations which we all need. We have had lots of chat about, I can't even say it - the B word (Brexit) - and the political world is a little bit upside down, but sport just brings everybody together and that is what I love about it.

"And what better way to start the year than celebrating the incredible talent that we have here in this country. It's just brilliant.

"I'm really looking forward to working with Ruth again. It was her first time hosting last year and she is a complete star. I've known her since I worked in UTV and she is such a bright, great and keen girl who is very, very good at what she does and that was reflected in the reception she got last year.

"It was a joy to work alongside her and it was great that there were two females co-hosting the awards. A bit of girl power."

UTV sports correspondent Ruth Gorman will host the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards alongside Claire again. The Co Down native, who's nicknamed Ayrton Senna by her colleagues due to her 'life in the fast lane', says sport has been her passion since she was a child and that she is 'honoured' to host one of the most prestigious sporting celebrations in the UK. She says it is the icing on the cake of a very hectic but rewarding year for her. "I had a really busy year in 2019," she says. "It was one of the busiest years I've ever had with regards to my career because there were just so many big things on.

UTV's Ruth Gorman

“I started off the year with the Six Nations — obviously Ireland were building up for the World Cup so I was covering all the Six Nations games and build-ups. I was in Dublin for a lot of that and at their away games also.

“Then the Northern Ireland football team were in the Euro campaign and had a really good start to that. We had boxer Michael Conlan’s success and The Open golf championship came to Portrush in July.

“That was a really exciting time because it hadn’t been in Portrush, or even on the island of Ireland in so long. And to get an Irish winner was just like a fairytale. I have covered lots of Opens before but that was my favourite one — it was such a success from start to finish and the crowds were amazing.

“I felt sorry for Rory McIlroy, I think everyone got behind him and he showed his emotional side as well. It was a real shame but I think he learnt a lot about himself and went on to have a great year.

“And then I ended up in Japan for the rugby World Cup for six weeks. That was an amazing experience. When would you ever go to Japan for work? For me, personally, that was a real highlight. It was a completely different culture, a different place and it was so exciting to follow Ireland’s World Cup journey. Obviously it was a big anti-climax at the end when they went out in the quarter finals. It was a shame how it ended, but it was such an amazing experience and one that will live with me forever.

“I was in Las Vegas for Carl Frampton’s fight and it was great to see him get back to winning ways, and was in Germany for Northern Ireland’s game there, so it was a really busy year. A lot of travel and being all over the place, but very exciting at the same time.”

Ruth acknowledges that she needs to strike a better balance between work and home life.

“I work a lot, it’s a little bit crazy,” she says. “I work my life around what’s happening in the world of sport and what we need to cover, so I take my time off when it’s more quiet. My work-life balance wasn’t great in 2019 and that is probably something that I want to improve on this year.

“But in saying that, I am a massive sports fan so I love being at all these events, and I don’t take it lightly that I get to go to them. I would pay to go to these things as a fan, so I feel very privileged that I get to go to them for work.

“I love what I do, despite the pressures and the high intensity of it. I couldn’t do what I did if I didn’t love it.”

Ruth, who still plays hockey and took up golf this year, admits that she’s very competitive.

“I love playing hockey and would have always taken part in any sports that I could,” she says. “I have always been quite competitive, even if it’s a board game over Christmas, I always want to win.”

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Rory Best interviewed after receiving his Special Recognition Award at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards by host Ruth Gorman

Rory Best interviewed after receiving his Special Recognition Award at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards by host Ruth Gorman

Rory Best interviewed after receiving his Special Recognition Award at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards by host Ruth Gorman

She says highlights during the last year included interviewing some of the biggest sports stars in the world and indeed some Northern Irish legends.

“I interviewed Rory Best at his house before he went to Japan for the Rugby World Cup,” she says. “It was on the back of Ireland’s record defeat to England, which was a warm-up game before they went. After I heard the result and heard that he was coming under a lot of criticism I didn’t think the interview would happen, but he said he didn’t want to let me down.

“I thought that was very magnanimous of him. They had just gone through one of their worst moments in 2019 at that stage and he still allowed me to come down the next day with the cameras and interview him. I think it said a lot about the man and the person he is.

“Rory McIlroy got very emotional when I interviewed him, and it just showed the person that he is, rather than just the golfer Rory McIlroy. I think that was a revelation to a lot of people, he showed his human side and he gained a lot of fans from that.

“I also interviewed Tiger Woods at The Open, so that was quite a highlight because obviously he has been the best golfer of this generation. To get the opportunity to ask him a couple of questions was brilliant. He was very receptive and very nice to talk to.”

Ruth says that she is greatly heartened by the changing face of sport — no longer solely a man’s world — and the fact that so many women from here flew the flag for females in 2019.

“The Ireland women’s hockey team qualified for their first ever Olympics,” she says. “It was pretty special to interview them about that, obviously having played hockey my whole life. I hope that their journey continues, because they are history-makers.

“And then you look at Katie Taylor in the boxing, Ciara Mageean has done very well in athletics, and Leah McCourt in MMA — they’re all flying the flag for females. I think it really is becoming less of a man’s world. There is a lot of progression being made in that regard. It’s going to take a while before it is equal.”

Ruth says, like Claire, she is very much looking forward to celebrating Northern Ireland’s sporting heroes at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards on Monday.

“It is the only night locally that we recognise our sports stars and celebrate the year of sport that has just been,” she says.

“It is a really big night. I have been going to it for years — but last year was really different being up on stage and joining Claire for the first time. I enjoyed every minute of it. The crowd was brilliant, the sports stars were brilliant, everyone was in great form and Claire was an absolute pro to work with.

“She put me at ease and we ended up having so much fun. It was a great night and I’m sure it will be the same this year. It epitomises what sport is all about — enjoyment and celebration.”

The Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards will be held at the Crowne Plaza, Belfast, on Monday, January 20, and the event’s title sponsor is The Boulevard, Banbridge

Belfast Telegraph