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By GreaterSport | 16 November 2020 | TAGS: #GMSportsAwards, Tennis, Long term health conditions, Case studies, Inequalities, Stories, Bolton, Children and young people

No matter what life has thrown at her, Helena Flanagan has used her passion for sport to help others.

The fifteen-year-old from Bolton has been playing tennis since she was 5 years old. Her introduction to the sport started when she wandered onto the courts, following her big brother, wanting to be just like him. Over time the coaches at Bolton Arena gave Helena a ball to play with, then a racquet – and that’s when they realised there was something special about her.

Tennis was life to Helena. Quickly she started playing at local tournaments, then for the county and by the age of 10 she was competing nationally, representing her region. But tennis isn’t a cheap sport and unfortunately the family couldn’t leave their other children without to further Helena’s tennis career.

This set back didn’t stop Helena. Rather than stopping, Helena turned her aptitude to netball. Within the first week at Tyldesley Netball Club the coaches noticed her talent and quickly moved Helena into playing with those older than her. At 12 she was competing against 16-year-olds – and had to quickly learn to play at the same boisterous pace!

But this isn’t a story about Helena’s incredible talent as a sportswoman. This is the story about how much Helena uses her talent to give back to others, whilst also finding the time to support her sister through her battle with Crohn’s disease.

Helena says, “I decided I really wanted to help others when I got to high school. My teachers at St Joseph’s RC High School saw how much I liked playing sports and that I could play tennis and netball extremely well, and that I am also able to umpire. Mrs Harris, the Head of PE asked me if I wouldn’t mind helping others sometimes in lessons, I was happy to help and pass on my knowledge to others.”

Helena now dedicates one lunchtime and one evening a week to help other pupils at her school. In the past year she has volunteered over 50 hours. Helena says, “I really enjoy helping other pupils in my school and making lots of friends who have a passion for sport. I spend time giving them coaching sessions so that I can help them enjoy netball and getting active as much as I do”.

“After starting to help at school I became more confident, my leadership skills improved and I was given the opportunity to accompany different year groups from school to different netball tournaments. I’ve also been very privileged to umpire at the Bolton Schools Netball Tournament, which was held at Bolton school. I also volunteer at Bolton Arena on Saturdays and Sundays, helping on the mini tennis squads. I really enjoy it”.

“The main reason I volunteer my time is to help others to learn, to inspire them to be the best they can be and to encourage them to move more – and make sure they’re having fun while they’re doing it.

“I’m so thankful to Mrs Harris for the opportunities she’s given me to help others. I’ve really enjoyed running coaching sessions at school. More than that, she’s an amazing teacher who has inspired me to follow my dreams and encouraged me to use my leadership skills. It’s all thanks to her that I felt confident to go forward for my netball umpiring C award.”

Covid-19 hasn’t stopped Helena from keeping active, or making sure her peers keep active too. Over lockdown Helena has kept up her own training by playing on her driveway and getting her siblings involved in different sporting activities to encourage positive mental health. She’s also been using Zoom to take part in fitness and coaching classes.

“Keeping moving is really important to me as it gives me a chance to express my emotions. I will always be there to support my sister through her health struggles, but a little time away coaching or playing sports allows me to make time for myself and take my mind off things. This gives me the time to refocus and stay positive so that I am able to be totally supportive towards my sister and help guide her through whatever health challenge she’s going through.

“During lockdown sport gave me the mental strength to carry on through the difficult days. Days when I wasn’t able to see my friends and felt quite lonely and anxious about what would come next. It’s also been months since I’ve been able to see my grandma, who is now alone after my papa died in January. Getting moving in the garden and having support from the Merseyside Netball Performance Academy via Zoom made me happy.”

Helena’s headteacher at St Joseph’s, Tony McCabe, says, “We are delighted to see that our Year 11 student Helena has been recognized by GM Moving. Helena is an inspiration to our young people and epitomises our mission ‘to dream the impossible and achieve beyond our wildest imagination’.

“Even during lockdown when in the absence of team sports, most people found it hard to be motivated to keep moving and stay fit, Helena was a great example to us all. She showed grit and determination in persisting with online Zoom training sessions to stay ahead of the game in her tennis and netball, and also completed a successive daily running challenge. As one of our student senior leaders she has been a brilliant role model and shown us all that when we can’t do what we want to do, we have to do what we can!”

This isn’t the end of Helena’s story. Next year she’ll turn 16, which means she can take her Level 1 tennis coaching award, something she’s wanted to gain for a long time.

Helena says, “My experiences in coaching and umpiring have made me think about what I want to do when I leave school. I’d initially thought I’d become a pharmacist, so I could help support my sister, who has Crohn’s disease, but since lockdown I’ve reflected on that and want to pursue coaching more. Sport makes me happy, but helping others find their passion for activity makes me even happier. And I think it’s really important to do what makes you happy. If you’re happy, you’ll keep at it.”

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