A TALENTED visually-impaired bowls player is looking forward to taking part in the biggest sporting event in his life – the World Championships in Australia, from next week, writes Guy Boswell.
Stephen Hartley, of Tavistock, was selected earlier this year for the para team bowls mixed pairs by Bowls England. It is the first time the governing body has chosen a para team for the world championships and sets him and others on the path for a potential Olympic place in Australia in Brisbane 2032.
He and his team flew to Australia last weekend (August 20) and said: ‘We arrived on Sunday morning (Brisbane time) today’s plan is to collect the woods and go for our first team practice. We walked to one of the championships match greens yesterday and the grass is very different to UK – drier, shorter and quicker to play on. I had a good long sleep, so hoping jet lag will stay at bay. There’s a good all round team spirit which is helping fighting off the nerves, so confidence at a high level for us all.’
After this major event, his next ambition is to play in the Commonwealth Games in 2026 for Disability Bowls England, having only been playing the sport for only about four years, another potential step to the Olympics.
He has been practising intensively for the world’s, which are from Tuesday (August 29) to Sunday, September 10, in Brisbane. The para team is sponsored, giving Stephen equality of opportunity for the first time.
The ex-dental hygienist lost most of his sight in a work accident and took up bowls as an accessible sport. He said: ‘This is the biggest sporting challenge of my life so far. It’s a huge honour to have been selected for the world championships. I qualified through playing well at the Home Nations, even though I lost two and won two.
‘I’ve overcome personal challenges through changing my life completely after my eyesight was damaged and losing my job as a consequence and my marriage ended because of it all. Now I have the highest sporting peak to climb so far. But I believe that having that ‘door’ slammed in my face, which drastically affected my life, has opened a whole new life with opportunities I’d have never had otherwise.’
He is also aiming high with the Brisbane Olympics beckoning as a ‘guest sport’ chosen by Australia.
This new opportunity happened because bowls governing bodies which have been urged to choose Olympic para teams.
Stephen, who plays at the Sir Francis Drake Bowls Club in Tavistock, will pair with Plymouth player Alison Yearling and directed in competition by sighted Isaac Shieh to help Stephen with strategy. His coach is Gilly Ainslie.
However, he will not be taking his constant companion — guide dog Kingsley because of the Australian heat and length of the flight. Kingsley will be looked after at home by Stephen’s partner Dawn Williams. In October Stephen will play in the UK Visually Impaired Singles Championship.