Active Communities Network (ACN) , the charity which uses sport to reach young people living in deprived communities, is delighted to announce mixed martial arts world champion Leah McCourt from Saintfield as its newest patron.
The news, which comes on International Women’s Day, represents a huge boost for the Belfast-based charity which empowers girls and young women across Northern Ireland through grassroots sports.
Twenty-four-year-old Leah, from Saintfield in County Down, was crowned International Mixed Martial Arts Federation featherweight world champion in Las Vegas last July, and hopes to turn professional later in 2017. She is currently the world’s top ranking amateur featherweight.
She first started training at a mixed martial arts (MMA) gym at the aged of 18, after giving birth to her daughter Isabella, now aged six. As a woman, she found breaking into the sport difficult. She said: “It is far from easy being a female in a male dominated environment.
“At the start, it was a lot harder. I felt I didn’t fit in and people didn’t respect me. But with the help of some of my team mates they gave me the confidence to believe in myself and take a fight. Without my team mates Joe Mcgolgan and Sean Crowe I would never have stepped foot in the cage for my first fight.”
Within two years Leah had won two world championships and travelled the world. She now believes sport has the power to transform lives and hopes to spread her message through the work she will do with Active Communities Network, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month. The charity delivers projects targeted in the heart of communities struggling with socio-economic deprivation across Northern Ireland, the UK and South Africa.
It has supported more than 150,000 young people access positive activities in their communities, more than 70,000 have progressed as volunteers, with 63,000 achieving qualifications and progressing onto further training, education or employment.
Leah said: “Active Communities Network is such a special organisation which tackles many social and economic problems through sport. It helps young people who don’t have a lot of opportunities develop and grow. If I can help a tiny bit by raising awareness about ACN or talking to young people that may need help it will be worth it.
“Sport is such an important factor in communities and even for mental health of young people. I have been lucky enough to coach a few sessions and meet with the great kids ACN supports.”
Leah, who was introduced to judo as a child by her father who wanted his daughters to know how to defend themselves, said MMA, which combines boxing, judo, wrestling, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, is the “most elite way to test yourself as a boxer”. She now has her sights set on turning professional later this year.
She added: “Having not seen much of the world and having had my daughter at such a young age I feel very blessed at the opportunities and things that have happened. It has been far from easy and I have sacrificed a lot but my short journey so far has been more than worth it.
“The measure of your success shouldn’t be on the amount of money or medals you have won, but the impact you have had on other people and how you can help people see their potential or inspire someone to believe in themselves.”