“A true full circle moment,” is how Tayla Bruce described the surprise celebration that was put on for her at her bowls club in Christchurch.
When she arrived at the Burnside Bowling Club, and fellow members were lined up either side of the entrance in her honour, she couldn’t help but feel nostalgic.
“It was a sentimental moment, walking through the same gates I’d entered in 2008, but this time entering with the world championships singles gold medal around my neck.”
Her bowls career had been set in motion at this very club, watching Val Smith win the singles at the 2008 world championships – even obtaining her autograph after the game.
“If someone had told me, ‘Hey Tayla, you’re going to be the next New Zealander to win the world bowls singles after Val,’ I would have gone, ‘What?’ That just seems so crazy.”
Crazy – perhaps – because the then 13-year-old hadn’t even started playing bowls. However, the event catalysed Bruce’s love of the game and a successful international career, which culminated in her winning three medals at the world bowls championships on the Gold Coast earlier this month.
Bruce well remembers making the fateful decision to attend the 2008 world champs at Burnside, not far from her family home, and being inspired to take up the sport.
She’d previously been to the club a couple of times to watch her father play, but didn’t find bowls quite as interesting as the chips and Sprite she got to consume there. However, when the world champs were held during the summer holidays, her parents suggested she might like to tag along.
Having “nothing else to do”, she remembers walking towards the club the next day and being amazed by how many cars were parked outside. Then, inside, being even more amazed that some of the players were only a few years older than her.
“Immediately I just thought, wow – there are young players playing bowls. And everyone is wearing such amazing, colourful outfits, in national colours, not just the whites I was used to seeing. It was a cool environment. There was a buzz in the air.”
Impressed, she returned to watch the championships each day, and closely followed the New Zealand women’s team, amazed by the elite side of the sport she hadn’t known existed.
“I ended up being a bit of a groupie the whole time,” she says. “Someone kindly gifted me an old Bowls New Zealand shirt, which I wore throughout the event. And I pinned a fern on my head to show I was supporting New Zealand.”
Another “vivid memory”, she says, was when her father picked up a seed that had dropped into the stands from an overhanging tree. As it happens, it was a seed that was about to sow a seed.
“Dad threw the seed to me and I caught it and threw it back. Then he said: ‘That’s how easy bowls is’,” she remembers.
“Of course the game is a lot more complicated, but I understood that it was about hand-eye coordination, and it stuck with me that he was so positive and kept it so simple. It made me think actually I could try bowls and I might be okay.”
Bruce took up the sport the following season, asking for a set of bowls for Christmas – Taylor bowls, of course – “How could I not get a brand that’s pretty much my name.”
After playing for several years, Bruce became a regular member of the New Zealand BlackJacks and soon began winning medals. Last year she won two bronze medals at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, in the triples and fours, and won a gold medal at the World Singles Champion of Champions.
“All my years of experience and my consistent results over the last 12 months gave me a belief in myself that just allowed me to go for gold at worlds,” says the 28-year-old Bowls New Zealand Female Player of the Year.
However Bruce had to dig deep to maintain her self-belief during the recent world championships singles final against Canadian Kelly McKerihen.
“I was feeling nervy to start with,” Bruce says. “My arm felt like jelly. Normally I settle down after about four ends, but I wasn’t settling. I said to my rink coach: ‘I think this is just what we’re working with today’.”
The surplus adrenaline made it harder to control the bowl, but Bruce says she knew she just needed to be patient with her nerves. Eventually her confidence returned, even though her rival had taken the lead.
“I felt less nervous in the last couple of ends because I sensed I could turn it,” she says.
Turn it she did – and sooner than she’d anticipated. During what turned out to be the final end (Bruce now narrowly ahead 19-18), the Canadian attempted to dislodge Bruce’s bowls with weighted shots.
“I didn’t expect her to miss,” Bruce says. “The whole time I was mentally preparing myself to have to keep playing.”
But the Canadian narrowly missed her target, allowing Bruce to earn the two shots required to secure victory. It took her a few moments to realise she’d actually won.
“I was quite delayed in my response,” she says. “I was too nervous to watch, only looking up halfway when the ball was coming down. Then I had that moment of, ‘Oh my goodness. This is actually done’. I just couldn’t believe it.”
It wasn’t long before Bruce had to regain her composure for her next event, this time the triples alongside teammates Leeane Poulson and Val Smith.
The Blackjacks progressed unbeaten through to the final, where they claimed the silver medal. Bruce says playing alongside Smith in the triples was “very cool”, especially having followed in her footsteps in the singles.
It was during the triples event, Smith reached 647 games and became New Zealand’s most capped player.
So, does Bruce hope to keep emulating 58-year-old Smith and continue playing at the highest levels for decades?
“Having people in the team who are experienced and able to pass on knowledge is super important for the growth of the team, and I would absolutely love to be part of that in the future,” Bruce says.
For now though, her sights are set on the 2025 world championships and the next Commonwealth Games where she’d like “to see if they can do better than bronze”.
“Winning is infectious and we have momentum at the moment,” she says, thrilled that she and her teammates won the prestigious Taylor Trophy, awarded to the best overall women’s team at the world championships. It’s an award New Zealand has only previously won on one occasion, 50 years ago.
Bruce says celebrating her success at the Burnside Bowling Club was an “unforgettable” experience, especially being back at the place where it had all begun. Having once been the youngster on the sidelines inspired to take up the sport, now she hopes to inspire others to give bowls a go.
“The sport is whatever you want it to be,” she says. “You could represent your country, or be competitive in a club. You could just be social. You can be able, disabled, deaf, blind, young, old, unfit, anything. It’s literally a sport for everyone.
“A lot of people who start bowls later in life say they wish they’d started earlier, after discovering how competitive and addictive the game is,” Bruce says. “I hope someone watches our games and decides to rock down to a club and see what it’s all about.”