By George Lucas, Chair, Sport Northern Ireland

At a strategic level, Sport Northern Ireland is committed to delivering a vision of Northern Ireland as  a place where people enjoy, engage and excel in sport. That vision is one which encompasses the entire breadth of the sporting pathway.

From the playground right through to the podium, Sport NI programmes, engagement and staff expertise are making a tremendous impact in helping people get active, stay active and pursue their ambitions. This was brought home when I attended a recent celebratory event at to mark the Belfast City International Tennis Federation Junior Tournament 2018.

The tournament, organised by Ulster Tennis and Belfast City Council, brought together 200 junior players, their families and guests and focused on the theme of breaking down traditional barriers to tennis through partnerships. The celebratory event was a great opportunity to not only hear about the achievements of Ulster Tennis, but to see how Sport Northern Ireland’s partnership working with the sport and other delivery partners is making an impact, from grassroots right through to high performance.

During the event, we heard about the great work being led by Sumeet Kapur (Ulster Branch Tennis Ireland) through our National Lottery-funded Every Body Active programme delivered in partnership with Belfast City Council. Summet is an EBA Coach and has been delivering sessions and activities aimed at getting more people, and particularly underrepresented groups, active through tennis. Over the last year, the programme has introduced 3,000 people from all sections of the community to sport, which is a terrific achievement. It’s vital that, if we want people to experience all the benefits of an active lifestyle, from physical health to mental wellbeing, to provide opportunities for people to try different sports and the work being led by Sumeet is a key part of that engagement.

While creating more opportunities for people to get active is important, it’s equally important to ensure that these opportunities are inclusive; that we’re reaching out to people of all abilities and experience levels. Windsor Tennis Club, which was playing host to the 2018 ITF Junior Tournament, has done inspiring work reaching out to new participants through its Blind Tennis initiative, which is supported through Sport NI’s Active Clubs programme.  The project was the first of its kind in Northern Ireland,  is now in its second year and is working with a really engaged group of blind and partially sighted participants. The great success of the project was reflected during the celebratory event, with a discussion about coach Simon McFarlane’s recent trip to India where he shared learning and best practice with the organisers there. On behalf of the Sport NI Board, I would also like to congratulate Blind Tennis at Windsor Tennis Club on being shortlisted for a National Lottery Award in recognition of their great work. I wish them the very best of luck for the ceremony in September.

One of the great successes of the Blind Tennis project is the way in which participants have recently begun to compete at international competitions, and in looking at sporting pathways it is important to look at how we provide structured support to help people develop and pursue their sporting goals. For our young sporting talents, the annual UK School Games provide a brilliant gateway between junior and international level competition. I really enjoyed hearing from 2017 School Games Wheelchair medallists Ross Gourley and Nathan McCabe during the celebratory event. Ross returned home with a gold in the singles event and, together with Nathan, a silver in the doubles. The pair were interviewed along with their coach Ivor Jess. The experience of competing in a unique event like the School Games, which provides many young athletes with their first experience of a major multisport event, was something which both athletes embraced and benefitted from, and both paid tribute to the great support of coach Ivor during the interview. Sport Northern Ireland continues to support Team NI at the School Games, and I look forward to more success for local athletes in September.

The ITF tournament itself is an excellent opportunity for top Irish players to compete in an international tournament and gain experience and European ranking points. The City Hall event provides an opportunity to welcome people to Belfast, with players from 15 countries were in attendance. Ulster championship winner Jessica Leeman, who will soon be taking up a player scholarship in USA ,was interviewed by Irish No.1 under 14 player Rachel McCrum and Irish No.1 under 12 Isabella O’Connor who asked astute questions into how Jessica had achieved her success. It is great to see such valuable competitive experiences such as the ITF tournament coming to Northern Ireland – these offer important development opportunities for young athletes, helping to build performance and keep the next generation of sportspeople inspired and engaged.

Overall, the event was greatly insightful and enjoyable, and reaffirmed for me the value of considering the entire sporting pathway as we look at providing leadership and expertise on the development of sport in Northern Ireland.