Kitted out in her Blackjacks shorts and shirt, Val Smith is sitting in the Gold Coast “team room” days out from contesting her 5th world bowls championships. Beside her is teammate Katelyn Inch – aged 28 – 30 years younger than Smith. But the age difference seems immaterial.
It’s a far cry from Smith’s first world championships, in 2004, a time when the women’s team still competed in skirts. Back then Smith was one of the younger members of the team. “We were considered freaks to be playing bowls so young,” she recalls.
In the ensuing 19 years, Smith has seen a lot of change – in herself, in women’s bowls, and in their team culture.
“The interesting thing, looking back, is seeing yourself evolve,” she says. “When I first joined the side, I soaked up everything from the older, more experienced bowlers. But then you start finding out what works for you, and you have to be strong enough to speak up.”
During Smith’s early days playing bowls, her youthful energy and passion for the game was perceived as “a bit over the top,” she says. “If you weren’t careful, your enthusiasm could have been squashed.”
Now as the wise, experienced member of the women’s team, Smith is proud of the culture they’ve created, where age is largely irrelevant.
“We embrace everybody’s different personalities and strengths and don’t try to change anyone,” she says. “It’s such a privilege to see the young ones develop and be their own person.”
Inch certainly values the team dynamic Smith has helped foster.
“I’ve seen myself grow in this team,” she says. “It gives me goose bumps talking about it. Everyone is on the same page. I’ve played lots of different sports, but never had this feeling of just knowing everyone has got each other’s back.”
Smith is quick to agree. “It’s an incredibly powerful feeling,” she says. “Our mantra is: the sum of the whole is stronger than the sum of the individual parts.”
It’s not just the connection within the team that has flourished in recent years; Smith and Inch also acknowledge the growing stature women have within the sport of bowls.
“It’s almost like a coming of age in women’s sport, with women taking more responsibility and ownership, and having a greater voice,” Smith says.
While Smith acknowledges it hasn’t all been plain sailing, she appreciates today’s environment where she can speak up and feel respected – a value she clearly demonstrates to others.
To Inch, it all seems like a no-brainer. “Val’s had over 600 caps for New Zealand, so why wouldn’t management turn to her and ask about what has and hasn’t worked over the years. We’re always trying to get better, trying to win a world title, so anything that can help us on that journey matters.”
It’s a journey that has enabled the women’s team to be completely open with each other, Inch says. “We let ourselves be emotional, have feelings, be in the moment. We cry together and laugh together. It’s pretty cool to be able to be that vulnerable with each other.”
Inch and her pairs partner Selina Goddard – with whom she won a Commonwealth Games bronze medal in Birmingham last year – were part of an earlier influx of much younger players into the sport. Most, like Inch, initially accompanied family members to their local bowling green and were spurred on by opportunities such as secondary school bowls events.
While Inch discovered lawn bowls around the age of 10, joining Oxford Club Bowls in her Canterbury home town – “there wasn’t much else to do in a little country town”– Smith only happened on the sport “by fluke” in her late twenties.
“I did a lot of sport while growing up, never thinking in my wildest dreams I would end up playing lawn bowls,” Smith says. “But when I had the opportunity to have a go, I got hooked.”
Having played football for the New Zealand Under-21 team, it was only natural to approach bowls training with the same rigour she’d applied to other sports.
“I’d like to think I helped pioneer a change in mindset – taking bowls from a hobby to a competitive sport,” Smith says. “I didn’t just play. I did specific training to become a better player.”
A better player she did indeed become, going on to win the world championships in singles and pairs in 2008, and amassing four Commonwealth Games and five world championships medals to date.
Smith, Inch and their fellow Blackjacks have had to wait a long time to contest these world championships, which kick off on August 29. The 2020 event was cancelled due to the pandemic, making these the first world outdoor bowls championships to take place since 2016.
However, the hiatus provided an unforeseen upside, Smith says.
“When we restarted after Covid we were refreshed, recharged and excited. It was like we’d been reset,” she says. “The other neat thing about Covid times was staying connected via technology.”
Normally spread over numerous regions (Smith is based in Nelson while Inch now lives on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast), the team were able to connect like never before.
“We got to know each other on a more personal level, not just as lawn bowlers,” Smith explains. “And we’ve become individual people, building friendships and respect. Now when we come together we are very comfortable in each other’s company.”
While Smith and Inch made it to the other side of the pandemic better than ever, they haven’t forgotten their less fortunate former teammates.
“Some players were terribly affected,” Smith says, recalling the athletes selected for the original 2020 team who weren’t selected this year. “That’s really tough. It makes us want to play even harder.”
Inch wholeheartedly agrees. “We are not just playing for ourselves, we are playing for the Blackjacks, for what that stands for, for the whole country, the legacy.”
Contemplating the days ahead, Smith (who will contest the triples and fours) and Inch (pairs and fours) couldn’t be more ready to test themselves at these belated world championships.
Inch, who is studying to become a paramedic at University of the Sunshine Coast, says her ultimate dream has always been to be a world champion. “That’s something I’ve written down when asked what my big, hairy, audacious goal is,” she says, though adds playing bowls has become more than just a game to her. “I want to push the boundaries, take risks, be courageous, be a leader, show my sportsmanship, use all the things I’ve learned in sport and life.”
It’s a description that could well be applied to Smith. Over the course of her extensive bowling career she’s shown leadership through a period of great change. From skirts to shorts, to the rise of much younger players, and the advent of online teambuilding, Smith has embraced the opportunity to grow and adapt.
It’s something her sport may well have prepared her for.
“Every green is different. And every rink can be different as well,” Smith explains. “Anything can change in a game of bowls.”
New Zealand women’s team for the 2023 World Bowls Championships, Gold Coast, from August 29 to September 10:
Singles: Tayla Bruce
Pairs: Katelyn Inch (S), Selina Goddard
Triples: Val Smith (S), Tayla Bruce, Leeane Poulson
Fours: Katelyn Inch (S), Val Smith, Selina Goddard, Leeane Poulson
B6 – B8 Pairs: Teri Blackbourn (S), Julie O’Connell.