Royal Yachting Association volunteer Rachel Nixon has been named Sport NI’s SportMaker Volunteer of the Year.

The SportMaker Volunteer of the Year award is for a volunteer in a non-coaching or technical official role, who has made an outstanding contribution to the development of sport.

Rachel plays a key role in the Royal Yachting Association’s Women on Water programme which was established to help with gender parity across the sport.

As part of the working group, Rachel has helped organise several Women on Water festivals which provide women with the opportunity and a welcoming environment to get out on the water and try their hand at sailing.

Sport NI surprised Rachel with her award at Ballyholme Yacht Club when she thought was attending a coffee morning. She said: “I’m totally overwhelmed, very surprised and delighted.

“Women on Water was something I became involved with because I was a sailing mum as opposed to a mum that sailed. I was around Donaghadee and Ballyholme Sailing Clubs as the kids were sailing and the Women on Water programme was something that was being offered that I was able to do and I was able to get out on the water.

“I find such a great benefit from that course that I did when there became a chance to get involved with the RYA and the Women on Water programme I grabbed it with both hands. I’m a very small part of a wonderful team of battery hens, as we call them, who are responsible for doing results and more during competitions.”

Knot your average volunteer, Rachel goes above and beyond and is making a huge impact on her sport, inspiring many women and girls to volunteer, instruct, race or participate at their local club.

Pathway Officer for the Royal Yachting Association, Kate Broderick, said: “There’s a warmth about Rachel which is amazing, and because the Women on Water programme is specifically for Women and girls over the age of 18, trying to get into the sport, Rachel is the person that you’d want to come and speak to.

“She’s just so kind and she makes you feel comfortable. She does so much outside of that, she gives her time to her clubs, and she’s also heavily involved with her children in the sport as well. She’s such a good role model and deserves the recognition.”

Barbara Polley of Ballyholme Yacht Club added: “Rachel brings enthusiasm and smiles. Whenever you are volunteering, you are meeting all sorts of people from different walks of life. She’s so welcoming and willing to tackle anything that comes her way.”

In recent years, Rachel has continued to support the Women on Water festival despite undergoing treatment for cancer. Rachel was not able to attend the 2023 event, but her passion continues to encourage and inspire.

Rachel said: “I think it’s being part of the events that I really enjoy because it facilitates lots of other people to be in the water. It means that the competitions take place, whether it be for the kids or adults.

“The Women on Water has been particularly special because there’s a lot of ladies who have never been anywhere near the water deliberately because they don’t want to, and somebody has roped them into coming along to one day where they just get a little taster session of everything.”

Richard Archibald, Interim CEO, Sport NI congratulated Rachel on her award: “Our SportMaker Awards celebrate the coaches, officials, volunteers and projects who go that extra mile to make sport happen in their local communities.

“Rachel’s story of going from parent to volunteer and participant is a prime example of how sport can play such a vital role in our lives. Rachel has found a new interest, new friends, new experiences and is now playing a massive role in bringing others to the sport of sailing.”

“Congratulations Rachel – You are a SportMaker!”

The Sport NI SportMaker Awards give the sporting community the opportunity to showcase their achievements and give special thanks to coaches, officials and volunteers who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make sport happen. There are 12 award categories recognising achievement at all levels of sports participation, from grassroots through to high performance.