Unsung heroes honoured at awards ceremony


VOLUNTEERS IN SPORT:High profile, low profile, no profile, it didn’t matter yesterday in the Aviva Stadium. As the awards season kicks off, the unsung heroes of the sporting world were honoured. The back room foot soldiers, the people who ensure the referee turns up, the grass on the pitch is cut, the lights come on and that the clubs and federations do not fall into chaos lined up to be told perhaps for the only time that their efforts have not gone unnoticed.

From women’s hockey and Special Olympics to martial arts, boxing and hurling, largely unknown men and women stepped forward to accept awards for their challenging and generally unrewarded work in sport across 10 national bodies. In the Irish context there are over 500,000 volunteers in Ireland and Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Michael Ring presented awards across the 10 sports.

A collaboration between the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Irish Sports Council (ISC) and the Federation of Irish Sports (FIS), the Adult Manager of the Year award went to Sally Ann Fanagan, manager of the Irish women’s hockey team for the past six years. The women’s team almost qualified for the Olympic Games this year but Fanagan’s long-time input reaches way back to her Loreto days as a player and manager.

Somewhat closer to the Olympics was Oliver O’Neill, father of the Irish boxing team captain Darren. A lifelong supporter and coach in Paulstown BC, Oliver won the Youth Coach of the Year award.

Other winners came from the Special Olympics, swimming, soccer, athletics, basketball, martial arts, gymnastics and the GAA. Shelagh and Colm Leech, who have been volunteers with the Special Olympics for 15 years, won the Disabilities Sports Award.

The winners were selected by a committee chaired by 1956 1,500m Olympic gold medal winner Ronnie Delany with representatives of FIS, ISC, The Irish Times, RTÉ and the Department of Transport Tourism and Sport.

“Irish Sport would not exist without the efforts of the 500,000 people who volunteer so freely with their time every year. This voluntary investment has been estimated to have an economic value equivalent to somewhere between €350 to €580 million each year,” said Sarah O’Connor, chief executive of the FIS.

There were several top sporting names at the ceremony including Darren O’Neill, who captained Ireland’s most successful boxing team to a gold, silver and two bronze medals at London 2012, swimmer Melanie Nocher, international hockey players Lisa Jacob and Alex Speers, as well as Tipperary hurling star Pádraic Maher.

As a top intercounty player, Maher has had close-at-hand knowledge of Liam Sheedy, who was given a Special Recognition award for his energy in coaching under age players in his home club Portroe.

“His record over the last 10 years speaks for itself,” said Maher. “What he’s done for Tipperary hurling is fantastic. For my career he brought us all into the minor team in 2006 and we managed to win the All-Ireland. Then he brought us all into the Tipperary senior panel in 2009 and had a bit of success there too.”

“It’s an effort we should not take for granted,” added O’Connor. “Without these volunteers, not only would we cease to enjoy the successes achieved on the international stage but there should also be serious implications for public health at a time when obesity and other lifestyle induced diseases are on the rise.”

National Volunteers in Sport 2012 Award winners

Adult Coach of the Year: Maria Fenton (Swimming) – Involved in the sport for 40 years, her sister Anne was the first woman to beak 60 seconds in the 100m freestyle and her brother David competed in the Moscow Olympics.

Adult Manager of the Year: Sally Ann Fanagan (Hockey) – Manager of the Irish Ladies Hockey Squad for six years and a constant figure in the sport, as a player with Loreto and as an administrator for over 30 years.

Youth Coach of the Year: Oliver O’Neill (Boxing) – Father of Irish boxing team captain Darren, Oliver has been the heart beat of the Paulstown Boxing Club in Co Kilkenny. Under his guidance the club has produced 25 Irish champions , including Darren.

Youth Manager of the Year: Stephen Leigh (Basketball) – Has ensured basketball has survived in Co Clare and has worked tirelessly to establish under age basketball leagues at under 13 and under 15 levels.

Community Administrator:Rose Devine (Soccer) – Has worked as a volunteer since the 1970s, when she played and helped found the county board in London. Returning to Kildare in 1996, she continued to found clubs in GAA and soccer.

National Administrator: Brendan Dowling (Martial Arts) – One of the pioneers of Martial Arts, he took much of the responsibility for the administration and record keeping. An activist in the promotion of “inclusion in sports”.

Disability Sports Volunteer: Colm and Shelagh Leech (Special Olympics) – Volunteers for 15 years and have worked at club, regional and national level. Shelagh managed the 2003 Special Olympics World Games in Dublin.

Sporting Official:Mary Murray (Gymnastics) – 20 years a volunteer, largely as coach and judge. An energetic worker for the sport, she has organised and co-ordinated all of the women’s National Championships for the past three years.

Lifetime Award: Ronnie Long (Athletics) – Served athletics in every role from grassroots up to president of the association. A one time Olympic Games manager, his passion for the sport remains undimmed as he enters his 78th year.

Special Recognition: Liam Sheedy (Hurling) – Nominated by his club Portroe for his “tireless commitment to coaching the club’s underage hurling teams.” Has coached the Tipperary minor and senior All-Ireland hurlers.

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