Gareth Mahood with his Unsung Hero award
Ballymena man Gareth Mahood has been announced as this year's BBC Sport Northern Ireland's Unsung Hero.
The honour celebrates the best volunteers in sport, whose work is making a real difference in communities across the UK every day.
Gareth was nominated for the award by Conall Kelly and BBC Sport NI notes:
"Gareth runs the Ulster Canoe Club with infectious enthusiasm and passion, looking after everyone on and off the water and catering to individual needs, determined make the club as diverse and inclusive as possible.
"Having overcome personal adversity in recent years, the local man also volunteers with various youth groups, getting young people involved in paddle sports who would otherwise not have the opportunity."
Gareth enjoying time in the canoe
For 43-year-old Gareth, canoeing was an interest that began when he much younger and a member of the Boy's Brigade. Ever-up for an adventure he went on to participate in the Camp America programme when he was 18 and spent the summer helping out with the water sports team.
"I was always involved with the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme as part of Boy's Brigade, and I was asked if I could organise a Gold expedition," says Gareth. "This pushed me into action to try and get myself qualified so that we could make it accessible to all the boys without costing them very much.
"From there, my passion grew and I started to get the 'urge' to get out more often and develop. There were loads of kayak clubs in Northern Ireland but not many that took too much to do with canoeing. After a few chats, and back and fourths with folks, we established the Ulster Canoe Club in 2016 which was founded to exclusively offer canoeing in Northern Ireland.
"We then quickly discovered that the facilities available to us were first class and the envy of all other regions of the United Kingdom."
The club began to rapidly grow, and after a number of sessions, soon had a very strong core of people who were keen to get out. It also has offered the opportunity to several youth groups to enjoy the sport, that they may not otherwise have had access to.
Emily, Gareth's partner, who also serves as club secretary and one of the leaders
The club now has around 80 members - all who are very regular paddlers.
Initially Gareth was the Chairperson of The Ulster Canoe Club, serving in that role for five years. He now serves as the club development officer, a role Gareth says that "is probably better suited to my skills, and this gives me the opportunity to work alongside others on the committee to drive forward skills and the club on whole."
It is evident that Gareth feels passionate about the many benefits that paddle sports have to offer communities in Northern Ireland and especially young people. Committed to the cause, Gareth has also been a director on the board of The Canoe Association of NI for the last nine years. This year he was also appointed to the British Canoeing Board.
"These roles ensure that we are pushing paddle sport on whole in Northern Ireland in a diverse and safe way," he says.
Gareth, son Sam, and partner Emily!
Daughter Eva, and son Peter
On a personal level Gareth is a family man and says, "I have always found that canoeing is a family thing for us, and we all enjoy getting out together on a regular basis. It is a great way to get our kids interested in the outdoors; giving them opportunities to explore is a huge factor in that."
Reflecting on the prestigious award and recognition, he said:
"I was very shocked to discover that I even had a nomination in the first place, but the fact that I won the award felt very special. It is great to get recognition for canoeing in Northern Ireland.
"We have a very good network in Northern Ireland and we have a very active bunch of folks that go out on a regular basis. I don't really see what I do as going above and beyond as I really enjoy getting involved. I love to see people being able to get out and see what our wee country has to offer."
In winning the Northern Ireland award, Gareth will now go forward as a nominee, along with 14 others from England, Scotland and Wales, for the UK-wide award, and will be a guest at the BBC Sport Personality of the Year awards night, which is being held on December 19th at Media City in Salford.
The Ballymena man says he is looking forward to the main awards ceremony and seeing some of the icons from the sporting world.
Gareth canoeing at Carrick-a-Rede, County Antrim
"I hope that this recognition gives us a spotlight for a while and people will maybe look at the opportunities that they have to get out and experience canoeing. If anyone is keen they can get information on www.ulstercanoe.club or find us on Facebook."
The overall winner will be announced at the Sports Personality show, which takes place on Tuesday, 19th December from 7:00pm on BBC One, live from Salford.