From parent volunteer to one of the leading swimming officials in Ireland, Gary Stoops has been named Technical Official of the Year in Sport NI’s annual SportMaker awards.

The Technical Official of the Year award recognises the hard work and dedication of referees, umpires and officials and the contribution they make to their sport.

Sport NI surprised the worthy award winner as he was about to referee a swimming gala in Bangor. Gary is the most senior swimming official in Ireland, with over 12 years of experience at all levels of competitions. He is a member of the LEN (European Swimming League) European Technical Swimming Committee and has raised the standard of Swim Ulster competitions to world-class.

Gary has been instrumental in the training of swimming officials on the island of Ireland, designing a new Swim Ireland Officials Training Programme and playing a key role in the development of an Officials Development Pathway for Ulster.

On receiving his award Gary said,

“I’m absolutely astounded to be nominated, never mind eventually winning. It’s a fantastic honour. I’m shellshocked!”

Like many sporting volunteers, Gary first got involved in officiating 20 years ago when his son took up swimming,

“I was in the stands like many parents and was encouraged by my wife, why don’t you go and help out and it went from there. And the general encouragement of other officials saying why don’t you become involved and the path started, 20/21 years ago.”

Gary and his team of volunteers take great pride in ensuring that competitions run smoothly, and provide an enjoyable yet high-quality experience, giving young swimmers the best possible chance to perform at all levels.

Gary’s motivation comes from the people in the pool and being able to play a small role in their success,

“My motivation is seeing them achieve their goals, seeing them achieve their targets of getting better times, of qualifications for Europeans, qualifications for the Olympics. It’s having that little bit of involvement with an athlete in their journey.”

Stephen Cuddy, Swim Ulster Operations Manager, described Gary as an inspiration to others and the ideal candidate for the technical official award given the impact he has had on the sport and the role of officials,

“Gary has really put both Ulster and Ireland on the map. He sits on the European technical committee so he’s been able to encourage them to come and have their conference in Belfast. We’ve actually hosted that twice and Gary has been able to make that happen. But on top of that Gary has been instrumental in our education process of new and up and coming referees and officials. So he is a big part of it, right up from grassroots to senior level.”

Richard Archibald, Interim CEO Sport NI, congratulated Gary on his award:

“Our SportMaker Awards celebrate the unsung sporting heroes who help make sport happen in communities across Northern Ireland. Gary’s journey from volunteering as a parent, to becoming one of the top officials in his sport is a testament to his commitment and passion for his role. Week in week out he gives up his time to ensure the smooth running of competitions and supporting the development of officials.

“Thanks to officials and volunteers like Gary, more people have the opportunity to participate and excel in their chosen sports.

“Congratulations Gary- 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.