A Killygordon woman who has become one of the highest-ranking Karate officials in the world says she still feels humble despite her incredible achievements.

Mandy McNulty has been involved in Karate over several decades, and has taken a long road from where she started to becoming a member of the Referee’s Commission in the World Union of Karate-Do Federations (WUKF).

She became the first woman to ever be promoted to the commission, which has oversight of referees in international tournaments across the world – but this was never the plan, according to Mandy.

“I first got into karate for self-defence, I had been attacked before and I never wanted to feel powerless again, but I never thought any more of it.”

“There were no other women when I started, it was a very male-dominated sport back then… but I never paid any attention to that.”

After achieving her brown belt in karate, that is when her interaction with the sport started to become more focused on training people – starting off in Strabane, then working with the Finn Valley Shotokan Karate Club before setting up the North West Shotokan Karate Club in 2005.

As she says, self-defence is far more than just being able to defend oneself, it becomes a way of living, and structuring your life:

“I believe self-defence is a life skill, to learn to defend yourself, avoid situations, but also to help you have discipline. It teaches important life lessons, and gives you support and coping skills (when things don’t go right).”

But outside of her own achievements, and working her way up to get a brown belt – it is in coaching, and then refereeing where Mandy has found a purpose in karate past just defending herself, in the discipline she now loves.

It was when members of the club started to compete in regional, national and international competitions that Mandy began to get involved in officiating.

“For them to compete in these local and national competitions the club needed a referee to come along… and it didn’t matter where the competitors were from, to me, fair play was the most important quality, and you’re only as good as your last match.”

Family also played an important part in this new role Mandy was taking on: she had briefly stopped karate to raise her own family, but it was her children, as well as her extended family getting involved that she says drew her back to the sport once again.

However it was a long road of hard graft and quiet work for Mandy to earn her plaudits, as she worked up all the officiating ranks and positions on the international stage for the WUKF – and knew that for karate to change, that change had to come from the inside.

“I started first as a Kansa (match supervisor), then got promoted to Judge B, Judge A, Referee B and Referee A… I never asked for any of these promotions, I let my work speak for itself. I was happy to graft away behind the scenes.

Last year Mandy was also given a prestigious role as the first female member of the Referee Commission in the WUKF – as one of the top 8 referees in the sporting body, who also has responsibility for the training and monitoring of referees in international competitions.

But not only is she now one of the most influential female figures in the WUKF, her work on inclusion far from stops just there.

Mandy also has had a career as a care assistant for 30 years, and has been deeply involved with the Special Olympics for many years. This year, she was asked by the WUKF to head up the drafting of a brand-new inclusive ruleset for disabled competitors within the disciplines of karate.

She also makes sure to point out that her path was not one forged just by her as well – she greatly thanks her friends and support system throughout her career for being there for her:

“I met a lot of good friends through my career… it’s not a journey taken alone. I’m so proud of my students for everything they have achieved, it’s why I did refereeing in the first place, they needed a referee to compete.”

“I still find it hard to believe that a person from a wee small town in Donegal like myself could ever be in this position.”

However, despite her successes, she also acknowledges that there is a long way still to go for karate to achieve true equality: “I’m humbled at the respect I’ve got, but there’s still a long way for women to go in their journey (in the sport).

When speaking with Mandy, her humility is a quality that is obvious to see – for her, none of this was about recognition. It began with a want to defend herself, then to compete, and to then train the next generation while also ensuring they could compete on the biggest stages possible.

Her attitude towards working in the sport, as one of the few women in its top ranks who has climbed the ladder through her own hard work and dedication can be summed up simply in one quote:

“I always did like a challenge.”