Partially sighted bowler seeks gold

Neale Emslie

DESPITE deteriorating sight, Port Elizabeth’s Gwen Nel is fully focused on achieving a fourth gold medal when the World Bowls Championship for blind and partially sighted bowlers takes place in Worthing, England, next month (July 6-19).

The 60-year-old Westview member, who is coached by former EP player Geoff Newcombe, has been playing for South Africa since 1993 and won the world title in Canada that year, in Scotland in 2001 and Johannesburg in 2005.

She has also picked up numerous SA singles titles – “about 15”, says Newcombe – and last year, with partner Glen Emslie, took the SA pairs gold medal in Bloemfontein.

Despite her disability, caused by macular degeneration, Nel remains positive about her life. “It has taken me all over the world and I am very privileged and I am blessed,” she said. Nel has been playing bowls since the age of 23 and her eyesight was fine until it began to deteriorate at the age of 11.

Now she has only between 2 and 5% vision, and it’s a fascinating exercise to watch her practice with Newcombe.

As her director, Newcombe is able to stand in front of her, but no further than 5m away, and provide an indication of the direction she should take.

Explaining the process, Newcombe said: “We are allowed to orientate a blind bowler from the front. If they are totally blind, they will play to sound, but partially sighted like Gwen, they look to see whatever they can see in front of them.

“You are allowed to do that in a competition as well, but you cannot stand further than five metres. What I do is work out her run-in [distance] to the jack. I am giving her the line to play to but she has to pick up the distance, the weight, so whether the jack is 28m, 29m or 32m, she has to try to find it. I can’t do that for her; I merely give her direction.

“Once the bowl has come to rest, I would then describe the head like a clock where the bowl has landed, whether it’s through (past the jack) at 1o’clock or short at 5pm or 6pm.”

From her side, Nel said: “The biggest challenge in maintaining standards is about practice. With the eyesight deteriorating, it’s about contrasts and with Geoff and the green pants and the white shoe, I pick up a glimpse of the shoe and I bowl to his shoe. On certain days when it’s overcast, it’s more difficult.”

Newcombe said Nel remained a formidable competitor at world level and he also paid tribute to several sponsors who have made the trip possible.

“When other bowlers play Gwen, they know they are in for a tough match, and we must thank three people who have made this trip possible,” Newcombe said. “In bowls, it’s all about funding the trip yourself and we have to thank Mark Chapman, Steve Fullard of Drakes Pride and Dave Tolson of Pro Bowls, whose support has meant so much to us.”

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