It was a summer to remember in Birmingham as Team England carried the hopes of a nation on their shoulders at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
There was a fair share of success for Kent athletes, too, including bowler Sian Honnor. She recalls the disappointment of being knocked out of the Women's Fours - before leading England to gold in the Triples.
A little over two weeks ago, I competed in my fourth Commonwealth Games and was lucky enough to come away with my fourth consecutive medal in the Women’s Triples lawn bowls event.
This alone is an incredible feat but the achievement of winning GOLD in front of a home crowd, which included my husband and two young sons, is something which will stay with me forever.
My two-year-old daughter even made her first fleeting bowls club appearance (she lasted a mere 20 minutes before being escorted, kicking and screaming from the stands) but looking up to see my three tiny tornadoes is a memory I will cherish.
The road to this home Games has felt challenging at times but for all the missed bedtimes, weekends away, times I have had to tell friends and family “sorry I can’t, I am bowling,” the many hours of practice and fitness training, to return with something tangible to show for the combined efforts of so many somehow makes it all worth it.
My Games experience was the epitome of the high and lows of sport at the highest level.
As lawn bowlers, we play in two disciplines, so my quest actually started off in the Women’s Fours.
We got off to the best possible start, defeating tough opposition, including India and Canada on the same day and finished at the top of the group. We then faced South Africa in the quarter-final and found ourselves chasing the game on a challenging green.
Our comeback was impressive and got us to the position of tying the match and therefore forcing an extra end - which we lost.
That gutting feeling of having all your hard work obliterated and finishing an event with nothing is something which doesn’t get any easier the more it happens.
The next day was very subdued, made worse because we went to support the England men’s teams but, by extension, had to watch the rest of the women’s fours play out.
You can’t help but go over each end in painstaking detail, wondering what you could and should have done differently, beating yourself up for every failed attempt, questioning your decisions and sometimes ability.
It’s a process I think you have to go through in order to be able to reset. The only saving grace was that we had another chance in the triples and, as someone pointed out, “you came with nothing.”
I had also been in this exact same position eight years previously, in Glasgow, 2014.
Like in Birmingham, I had skipped the fours and the triples and we had to dig deep after a disappointing end to the fours which saw us dip out of the medals, ironically also to South Africa.
It made us fight harder in the triples and, after an unprecedented 22-4 win against Australia, the gold medal was ours!
The feeling of standing on the podium with your friends singing Land of Hope and Glory is hard to describe and impossible to match. It was so special and incredibly emotional.
As bowls is not an Olympic sport, the Commonwealth Games is the pinnacle and it’s amazing to be regarded in the same way as all the other athletes.
The beauty of taking part in a multi-sport event is you are part of the wider Team England family. You’re all in the same kit and other sports are so encouraging and supportive.
For a sport that struggles with the stereotype it is just for older people, this is incredibly important.
But this was eight years ago, could I really do that again? I didn’t even let myself go there. I was determined to take one game at a time and I refused to even look at the playing schedule.
The next day, the start of the triples, we knew we were up against it in another strong group and we were also mindful not to put too much pressure on ourselves.
For me, it was at this point that playing in a home Games really came into its own, in a way that I could not have imagined.
I have never played bowls in front of so many people nor felt the support of so many people behind me and my team.
Having made the conscious decision to log out of all social media accounts straight after the fours, everything was coming from the crowd and they gave Jamie Lea, Natalie and I so much encouragement which allowed our momentum to build with every game.
We topped the group once again and were drawn to play Northern Ireland in the quarter-finals, a team we had played against before.
Our game plan was simple - draw upon our experience, use our knowledge of the greens we had spent many weekends training on and take it one end at a time. I remember telling the girls we did not have to win pretty, we just had to get ourselves over the line.
We put in a great performance in that quarter-final and I think psychologically it was important to us to play like we knew we could.
The next morning’s semi-final was against the Cook Islands, perhaps an unexpected contender in the final stages of the competition but not to be under-estimated. It’s fair to say the tactics between the two countries are quite different but we knew what we needed to do.
The Cook Island players had charmed a lot of people with their bowling, zest for life and demeanour but, thankfully, ours shouted louder and really got behind us, propelling us to a good win to take us into the final.
We celebrated at the end of that match because whatever happened next, we had won at minimum, a silver medal which is an incredible achievement.
There was a gap between games so we went back to our digs at Warwick College and tried to switch off and prepare the best we could.
I foolishly thought I would have a nap but there was absolutely no chance, my mind was buzzing!
We faced Malaysia in the final, again a team that we had played before and we knew how they played. In some ways that is irrelevant, you just have to play to your strengths and “do you” as the cool kids say.
The final, in front of sold-out stands, was bitty. The scoreline was nip and tuck on a very quick green and I felt as if we were treading water rather than taking control.
Myself and the girls had met for a chat and we had vowed we needed to play more bravely. Fortunately the opportunity to do exactly that came the very next end when I played an attacking shot to make four, and bring the score to 12-9.
This gave us a massive lift, the crowd went wild and we carried the momentum into the next two ends, winning both and opening up a lead, something that didn’t feel possible until that point.
Then our tactics changed and we focused both on having the shot and covering so we didn’t drop a count. We let the ends tick by and, then all of a sudden, the Malaysian skip was bowling to stay in the match.
When we knew she had missed and the gold was ours, all three of us jumped in the air and the noise all around us was deafening. We made sure we really soaked it in, and there were tears from all three of us.
Amazingly, when I was selected for my first Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, Jamie Lea played in the triples with me and we won bronze and Nat played in the singles and won gold.
I was in my second year of university at the time and working as a sports coach in a school during the summer holidays, I had to hide in the equipment shed to take the call I’d made the team.
I couldn’t really believe it and probably nor could the rest of the bowls world because the management had taken a massive chance with an incredibly young women’s team.
It was one that paid off because we all returned with a medal and it was lovely we could replicate this together all these years later.
I had known after Delhi I wanted more, I wanted to improve on bronze and continue my bowls journey, competing at the highest level at every opportunity that came my way.
I’m immensely proud of what I’ve achieved in the sport that I love, especially as my life is so different now.
As a mother-of-three and a PR Officer for Middlesex University, selection for the top teams probably means even more now than it ever has because of what I have to juggle off the green.
The children have definitely helped with my sense of perspective...whatever has happened in a game is forgotten sooner when you get home to adoring faces who (so far) think you’re wonderful; however badly you’ve played.
But they've also made me more determined to prove that having a family does not have to be a barrier when it comes to high performance.
It is all a long way from the five-year-old me challenging my grandparents to a game of carpet bowls in their bumpy uphill garden, taking 50 pence off them every time I won a game.
My sister and I have many happy memories of spending Saturday mornings at the local bowls club with Nan and Grandad and eventually our pleas to let us on the pristine green to have a go were granted.
Naturally sporty, I was hooked straight away and relished the Saturday evening junior training sessions because it was a safe space away from the bullies at school.
I never looked back and I’d like to think that my wonderful grandparents were watching on when that gold medal was placed around my neck, knowing how much joy bowls has brought me for nearly 30 years and even leading me to my ultimate supporter, my husband Ian.
I had a particular lovely start to the Birmingham Games because I was chosen to be part of the Queen’s Baton Relay, running through the Westgate Towers in Canterbury.
It was a wonderful experience and I felt a strong sense of pride at representing the bowls community in a wider capacity on such a prestigious occasion.
It was emotional and overwhelming and there was a buzz of excitement and it really set me on the right path for the final preparations for the Games.
And now it is finally here after months of intense preparation - I can’t wait to get started.
Bowls is a fantastic, inclusive and accessible game that has afforded me with so many opportunities. I’ve made the most incredible friendships and life experiences and travelled all over the world doing something I love.
I was so impressed with the way that the Leamington greens and surrounds were transformed for Birmingham 2022 and I know that it was a great showcase for bowls.
One of the best things about the event was talking to people who had never stumbled across bowls before but had bought tickets and had their expectations surpassed.
There were so many families there and I truly hope that, whether people watched live or on TV, that they will be inspired to get on the green and have a go.