Bowls England are determined to make the most of a home Commonwealth Games this summer as they look to grow the sport.
Kent has often been well represented at the highest level and one of the county’s top venues - Swale Indoor Bowls Club - have been playing their part in making the sport available for all.
Twelve children from a local primary school have spent the last six weeks playing bowls with expert tuition from club member and 2010 Commonwealth Games medallist Sandy Hazell, along with a handful of other willing members.
The club welcomed the children from Milton Court Primary Academy for a final session last week and were able to meet another Swale member, Michelle White, who will be representing England’s para squad at this summer’s Games.
Hazell remains a top player in the country but will be on the coaching staff for the Games as an assistant manager of Team England’s bowls squad.
She recognises the importance of making the most of the sport being in the spotlight.
Taking a breather from helping the children at the superbly-maintained Swale club, she said: “It’s great to be able to introduce the children to the sport, you have to start somewhere. Bowling can be perceived to be an old man’s game but it certainly isn’t that.
“This is a way of getting the children involved and maybe even their parents as well. It’s a sport for all, you can play any age, from nine to 99, it’s so inclusive.
“We’ve been so successful as a club at Swale and it’s amazing. There is a wide range of ages and abilities and we can all come together here where there is a great atmosphere.”
Looking on was 47-year-old Dartford-based White, who plays for both Swale and home club VCD.
You don’t need to look much further for inspiration.
Born with spina bifida, she will be representing England in the para women’s pairs alongside Surrey’s Gill Platt. She only started playing five years ago and has been forced to change bowling hands as well only recently after suffering a freak accident in November.
She fell down her stairs at home and landed on a bowl, leaving a deep cut and major nerve damage. It wasn’t one for the squeamish and she’ll willingly show you the picture - if you’re brave enough!
Surgeons operated on her tendons and nerves to ensure she could still use her hand but she was sidelined for months.
She’s had to swap from bowling left-handed indoor to using her right side and said: “I did worry at first about whether I would be able to make the Commonwealth Games as the doctor said there was a chance I would lose all feeling, but by February I could pick the bowls up again.
“It’s not been easy, my stance is different and I have had to learn again.”
Thankfully she’s a quick learner. She only joined the disability team two years ago and will now be representing England at the Games. Such was her speed of progress she won her first international cap around the same time as her county badge.
Bowling of some kind has always been in her family, having grown up with parents who were keen tenpin bowling players.
“I had to choose between the two,” she said. “I really enjoyed tenpin bowling but was never good enough to compete. But with bowls I just took to it straight away.”
Bowls England will be hoping others take the opportunity to give the sport a go.
“Birmingham 2022 represents an unparalleled opportunity for the sport of lawn bowls to grow in this country,” said the game’s governing body. “A home edition [of the Commonwealth Games] constitutes a fantastic chance for our sport to be in the spotlight.
“This year’s Games are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase participation in bowls in this country, using the profile and endeavours of our fantastic Team England bowlers.”
The members at Swale IBC are an enthusiastic bunch, keen to chat about the sport they love and make the most of this summer’s opportunity.
Jean Hackers is among them, a director of the club responsible for running the junior section.
“It would be nice for our club to have an influx of junior members,” she said. “The school kids have enjoyed it so much and getting children involved is so important.
“It’s been lovely to have them with us and they have been able to learn other skills as well, including social skills, hand-eye co-ordination and an element of discipline.”
Parents and siblings were invited for tea on the final day.
The club are hosting an open week between July 4-8 where anyone is welcome to give the game a go. Bowling equipment is available to use and there is no charge for a taster.
The club and school have made plans to maintain their links for the benefit of both. The children made a flag that will be taken to the opening ceremony of the Games while all 12 youngsters left with personalised bowls towels thanks to embroidery-whizz Hackers.
The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games bowls programme will be played on the greens at Victoria Park in Royal Leamington Spa from July 29 to August 6.
The squad includes Kent’s Sian Honnor, who was a bronze medalist at the Gold Coast 2018 and won gold at Glasgow 2014.
She met her husband through bowls and helped promote May’s recent Bowls’ Big Weekend.
“There are a lot of opportunities this summer
for people to see bowls and for them to see how great it is,” she said.
“People who went along to clubs will have been surprised to see people of all ages, from all backgrounds. We’re very welcoming to people with disabilities and it’s so inclusive.”
The Big Weekend has been and gone but there’s plenty of opportunities to give the sport a go ahead of the Games where bowls will take centre stage and once again Kent will be having a big involvement.