Coaches, volunteers and officials, the unsung heroes who make sport happen across Northern Ireland, were celebrated earlier this week at Sport NI’s annual SportMaker Awards Celebration Evening.

SportMaker recognises the outstanding contribution of coaches, officials, volunteers and projects over the last 12 months and the vital role they play in supporting, developing, and encouraging people to benefit from the power of sport.

The event celebrated 15 SportMakers, narrowed down from 150 nominees, who have selflessly given their time to provide opportunities for people of all levels and abilities to participate and excel in sport, from local clubs to the world stage.

Each winner has a story to tell, from Volunteer of the Year Rachel Nixon who is currently undergoing cancer treatment, Futsal For All who won Project of the Year offering free coaching sessions to over 850 participants for all demographics, to Orla Donnelly who was named Young Technical Official providing inspiration to women and young people to get involved in sport.

Sport NI Interim CEO Richard Archibald said: “We are honoured to celebrate our SportMakers who make an incredible impact on their sports and join us in our journey to maximise the power of sport.

“Our SportMakers have taken on new challenges, become role models and overcome personal challenges to inspire others that they coach, officiate or volunteer alongside.

“Sport is so much more than what happens on the pitch, in the water, on the court and more. It has an impact on our emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. It brings people together to form friendships and helps bring a community of people together under a common bond.

“Sport transcends so many of life’s barriers and creates an inclusive environment where we can all be united. Our SportMakers embody how sport changes lives.”

This year SportMaker recognised four outstanding high performance coaches for their achievements in putting Northern Irish athletes amongst the best in the world.

BBC Sport NI presenter and host for the evening Nicola McCarthy spoke with Damian Kennedy (IABA), Colin Campbell (Irish Bowls Federation), Nelson Lindsay (Swim Ulster) who is the coach of Paralympian swimmer Bethany Firth and Luke Carson (Gymnastics Ireland) who has coached Rhys McClenaghan to two World Champion titles in the pommel horse.

Rhys highlighted the importance of having Luke in his corner, he said: “It’s an individual sport but every sport has the team behind the athlete. From the very start that has been Luke. We have grown together since I was 14 and Luke was 26 and that is how we laid those strong foundations.

“Coaches don’t get enough recognition and it’s something you grow to realise. Luke travels the world with me and has given up his life, like I have, but he has his family to worry about to and it is something I’m incredibly grateful for.”

Bethany also shared her appreciation for her coach and the impact he has had on her life. She said: “Nelson started coaching me when I was 13 and when you have a disability you are told what you can’t do but he saw something in me.

“He literally changed me as an athlete to not be scared and to show the world that I can do it. In sport there are so many highs and lows but he has never left me.”

Sport NI Interim CEO Richard Archibald (left), Department for Communities representative Katie McClements (centre) and Sport NI Chair George Lucas (right) at the 2023 SportMaker Awards Celebration Evening

Sport NI Interim CEO Richard Archibald (left), Department for Communities representative Kate McClements (centre) and Sport NI Chair George Lucas (right) at the 2023 SportMaker Awards Celebration Evening

Sport NI Chair George Lucas said: “The beauty of SportMaker is that we are celebrating the unsung heroes of sport, those working tirelessly behind the scenes as coaches, volunteers and officials. They are the ones who give of their time to encourage and lift others but at SportMaker they take centre stage.

“Each one goes above and beyond for their sports and clubs like so many people do across the country every week. The stories every year continue to highlight the importance of sport in our local communities.

“At Sport NI we are passionate about the power of sport to change lives and we want to see more people join their local clubs and participate in sport and our winners are inspiring people to do just that.”

2023 SportMaker Award winners

Club Performance Coach of the Year: Derek Hollands (Enniskillen Royal Boat Club)

Project of the Year: Futsal For All (Omagh Futsal Club)

Children’s Coach of the Year: Sabrina Higgins (Carrickfergus Rugby Club)

Community Coach of the Year: Jahswill Emmanuel BEM (Multi-Ethnic Sports and Cultures NI)

Disability Coach of the Year: Ged Irwin (Lisburn Distillery FC)

Performance Pathway Coach of the Year: David Carleton (Salto Gymnastics Club)

Volunteer of the Year: Rachel Nixon (Royal Yachting Association NI)

Technical Official of the Year: Gary Stoops (Swim Ulster)

Young Coach of the Year: Jenny Bell (Limavady CRFHC)

Young Technical Official of the Year: Orla Donnelly (Ulster Camogie)

Young Volunteer of the Year: Tom Kearney (Phoenix Basketball Club)

High Performance Coaching Award: Damian Kennedy (IABA) Neil Booth (Irish Bowls Federation) Nelson Lindsay (Swim Ulster) and Luke Carson (Gymnastics Ireland)

To find out more about our winners, please visit:

Caption: The 2023 SportMaker Award winners celebrate their success at the Titanic Hotel in Belfast with Sport NI Chair George Lucas (front centre)