A CARE worker, who will become the first female to represent Wales in a prestigious mixed martial arts (MMA) competition, has had a big sponsorship boost from a fast-growing independent travel firm.

Talented amateur fighter Hayley Barraclough, from Gwersyllt, Wrexham, has been selected to compete for her country in the unified International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) and World Mixed Martial Arts Association (WMMAA) European Championships in Rome from June 18-24.

This is all the more remarkable because it will be her first competitive competition but coaches have been so impressed with her talents, she has made it through selection.

The 28-year-old, who has just received a £500 boost from Hays Travel North West to help cover her travel costs, was called up to the first ever devolved Welsh MMA team after impressing during regional trials.

Hayley, who is a full time carer supporting young people in North Wales, has been sparring with Polish Extreme Fighting Championship star Karolina Wojcik as she prepares for her first taste of competitive action.

She said: “I started MMA three and a half years ago but Rome will be my debut because I’ve struggled getting matches and I had 18 months out after I ruptured my anterior cruciate ligament and needed full reconstructive surgery.

“I spar regularly so I wouldn’t say I was nervous. Relaxed is probably the wrong word, but I’m just incredibly excited. I’ve waited a long time for this.

“I haven’t set any aims I’ve just concentrated on my training. I’ve been sparring with a girl called Karolina who is an EFC world champion known as the ‘Polish Assassin’ and a professional fighter.

“My gym in Gwersyllt has contacts and they set it up for me to go and spar with her at her base in Preston. At first it was a little bit daunting sparring with this woman I massively respect.

“She is my weight so the work I’ve done with her has been brilliant and a bit surreal too!”

Hayley, who lived on Anglesey before moving to Wrexham when she was five, added: “It’s unreal that the Welsh team have the confidence in me to pick me when I haven’t had a match yet. It’s a dream come true.

“The north Wales trials were at my gym so I thought I’d go along and do it. I do well against the boys when we spar so thought why not have a go.

“It was a skills test looking at all the different aspects of MMA – ground work, take downs and striking.

“It’s the first year of the devolved Welsh team so I’m the only female competitor representing Wales which is a big honour.”

With travel and accommodation costs, as well as medical and entry fees, Hayley needs to pay a lot out of her own pocket to compete in Rome, which is why she was over the moon to receive support from Hays Travel North West which has branches across North Wales including Colwyn Bay, Rhyl, Flint, Connah’s Quay and Mold.

She said: “I’ve emailed a lot of businesses and I asked Hays Travel if they would be able to help me. Honestly, when they emailed me back it felt like a dream!

“They’ve given me £500 which is amazing as it will go towards my travel and accommodation costs. I can’t thank them enough.

“I have also set up a GoFundMe page and that has raised more than £500. I just want to go there and do myself proud. I’m doing everything I can because I want to do the best for everyone who has helped and supported me.”

Hays Travel North West managing director Don Bircham established his firm in 2000 and it has a proven track record for supporting sporting causes in the community.

For example his firm has donated close to £150,000 over the last couple of decades to Wrexham AFC and is the current sponsor of the club’s Mold Road stand.

Don said: “When Hayley got in touch with us and explained how she needed help to fulfil her dream of competing in this prestigious MMA competition in Rome, we had no hesitation in supporting her.

“Our regional head office is in Wrexham and with Hayley being the first female to represent Wales on the international stage we’re more than delighted to be able to provide her with some financial help towards her travel and accommodation costs.

“To be called up despite not having had a competitive match shows just how talented Hayley is and I’m sure she’s going to do herself proud in Rome.

“Everyone here at Hays Travel North West will be rooting for her and we wish her the best of luck.”

Hayley, who will be competing in the strawweight division, trains at the Inspire Performance Centre in Gwersyllt and said owners Jon and Aaron Aby have been very supportive.

“When I came home after finishing university in Durham I found the gym and thought I’d give it a go and I’ve never left!

“I guess my journey started as a teenager when I started doing karate with my brother and dad. But then I quit for a while and had that normal teenage phase of not being interested in sport.

“When I went to uni I realised how much I missed it. I started doing rugby as I love contact sport – It’s right up my street. I then did boxing in the summer to keep my fitness up and I loved it.

“I tried to box competitively but found it hard to find a fight. Most girls had a bit more muscle than I could carry so at my size it was impossible.

“Then I tried MMA and it was brilliant so I thought I’d see if I could get some matches that way. Obviously it’s taken a while but I’ve got there now.

“You can fight any style although there are certain things you can’t do in the amateurs, no elbows for instance. But it’s any kind of martial arts as long as it’s within the rules.

“I do wrestling, boxing Jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. IMMAF hold a few competitions with people competing from all over the world so I’m hoping the European Championships is the first of many.”

To help Hayley cover the costs of competing at the European Championships in Rome you can make a donation at gofundme.com/f/mma-cymru-2019-european-championships