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Sports Awards: Game Changer award will recognise female impact on Northern Ireland sport

By Adam McKendry

Today begins the countdown to the 2017 Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards ceremony in Belfast Waterfront Hall on January 29.

One of the most hotly contested categories is a new one for this year - the Game Changer award sponsored by Electric Ireland, which aims to recognise an individual woman who has made a huge impact on the Northern Ireland sporting landscape in the past year, making it better and stronger for females.

In the running are Shirley McCay, international hockey player and Ireland's most capped sportsperson; Joanne Rock, the founder of Lagan Dragons boat club; Mary Robinson, head coach at SIKA Gymnastics; and Joanne Heasley, head coach at Portadown netball club.

Not only did McCay become Ireland's most capped sportsperson last year, she also had a stunning campaign with the Ireland women's team, who reached this year's World Cup for the first time in 16 years.

McCay, who is a talent coach for Ulster Hockey as well as player-coach for club Ulster Elks, credits her success to her PE teacher from Omagh Academy, Mary Swann.

"From a coaching perspective, I take a lot of pride in representing female coaches in a largely male dominated arena. The majority of female teams are coached by males," said McCay.

"I hope that my nomination for this award will encourage other women to consider coaching."

Lagan Dragons founder Joanne Rock established the club after she discovered that exercise helped her focus on a positive mindset after her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.

It was a great year for the club, set up for breast cancer survivors and their families, as they were named Charity of the Year as well as taking the Healthy Living category at the World Health Organisation Healthy City Awards.

"Paddling with Team Ireland in Sarasota in the International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission Participatory Festival in 2014, I joined over 3,000 men and women who were living with and beyond a breast cancer diagnosis. It was truly an incredible experience," said Joanne.

Gymnastics coach Mary Robinson works at Sika Gym in Coleraine and has represented Ireland at European Union training camps since transitioning from being an athlete to a coach at the age of just 14.

In 2017, Robinson coached dentist Ursula Goode to four gold medals at the British Championships after encouraging Goode to enter under her guidance.

"Work hard and never lose your passion," was Robinson's advice to young athletes. "Our number one saying in the gym is 'hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard'."

The final nominee, Joanne Heasley, had an outstanding year as she coached Portadown to finals in both the plate and shield, which led to them being named Club of the Year.

Heasley commented: "I've tried to give females the opportunity to get involved in the game I love coaching and playing, be that young girls, through the development of Portadown Ladies junior and mini sections, or adults who had previously played but given up the game."

Electric Ireland are delighted to be sponsoring the award, which follows on from their Game Changers campaign that they ran in association with the IFA.

“The female only category aims to recognise an individual who has made a positive impact on the Northern Ireland sporting landscape in the past year, making it better and stronger for females,” commented Clare McAllister, Sales and Marketing Manager for Electric Ireland.

“There is certainly no shortage of women doing just that and it’s true to say the four who have made the shortlist have done it in spades.”

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