Felicity Smith spoke with Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Natasha Van Eldik about challenging misconceptions of lawn bowls and why it should be an Olympic sport.
The 2021 Trans-Tasman Test Series was cancelled, citing COVID-19 implications. The event was going to take place November 16th-19th on the Gold Coast between the BCiB Australian Jackaroos and the New Zealand Blackjacks. Although disappointed, professional lawn bowler Natasha Van Eldik, knows how to find a bright side.
“We’ve had lots of events cancelled, but I’m very lucky, you know, there’s worse people off than we are in Australia at the moment. We’re still able to train, we’re still able to compete in some states at certain times.”
For those wondering what exactly a professional lawn bowler’s training routine looks like, Van Eldik says it’s all about balance—mentally and physically.
“We’re using one side of our body a lot, so when we go to the gym, we tend to do a lot of work on our opposite side to make sure it’s still physically strong. There’s also training off the bowls green, so the mental side is things like reading books, game analysis… I also work with a sports psychologist to make sure that if I’m feeling anxious or under the pump with a certain shot, I’ve got ways to deal with those emotions.”
Over the years and after competing in numerous competitions, Van Eldik’s game prep has come to include a bit of tradition alongside preparing her body and mind.
“I’m quite a superstitious person. If it’s a big game, I’ve got to wear a certain colour. It can be on any form of clothing, but I have to be wearing it at all times. Every morning, even outside of bowls, the left sock goes on before the right—I’ve also got to be wearing a watch at all times, I feel naked without one.”
I ask her about the intensity of the watch tan line, Van Eldik quickly confirms, “Oh yeah, it’s next level.”
Challenging the Misconceptions of Lawn Bowls
What generally comes to mind when you think of Lawn bowls? There tends to be a common misconception that it is only meant to be enjoyed by an exclusively older crowd all donned in white and merrily swapping retirement tips. If you have been lucky enough to attend a barefoot bowls session at a local club, you may already have an inkling that this simply isn’t true. Van Eldik laughs at this assumption.
“Yeah, I think when people think of bowls, they just think of old people in hideous clothing, but that’s far from the case. And there’s nothing against the older generation either, they’re the ones that accept you into the club!”
And the classic lawn bowls whites we often see in depictions of bowls?
“It’s very rare that we wear white or cream clothes anymore, the clothing that’s out there for bowls now is spectacular. You know, sometimes I scratch my head and go, ‘I’ve got such a wide variety of clothing and colours to choose from, there’s a section of the house that’s literally just bowls clothes’. I think I’m a fashion designer sometimes.”
The other misconception is that bowls is always easy, so if you’re looking to play a bit more competitively than a barefoot bowls session with friends over beers, you might need a little more endurance.
“When some people think of bowls, they think it’s a piece of cake. When you’re playing, a game can go anywhere between two to four hours. You’re constantly out in the sun, or on your feet, there’s no sitting down.”
It was the connection to community that started Van Eldik’s love affair with bowls and she has played for the Raymond Terrace Bowling Club her whole career and it is where she wants to stay. She’s enthusiastic about getting people in to have a go and get involved in the community spirit of the club.
“It’s not just about the game itself, there’s plenty of other good things about a bowling club. If there’s any inkling you want to have a go, have a go! You can walk in there, anyone will be willing to help you. Who knows? You may love it.”
What is special about this sport is that it can deliver so many options for different age demographics, physical abilities and social and competitive options. It really is a sport that can provide something for everyone, and for Van Eldik, that something was world class competition.
Craving Competition and the Elite Atmosphere
“All I ever wanted to do was play sports for my country, I played soccer, quite a bit of cricket—with lawn bowls, I didn’t even know you could play for Australia”. Van Eldik went from not knowing it was even possible to compete, to making her debut for Australia in a record amount of time.
“I jumped the ranks quite quickly, starting at like age 14-15 then making my debut when I was 18. They were starting to pick the Commonwealth Games team for Delhi at this stage and I got invited to go to a camp. I was putting in the work behind the scenes, but never thought that it would ever happen to me.”
Van Eldik takes me back to the 2018 Commonwealth Games held on the Gold Coast, giving Australia the home-green advantage. The women’s fours lawn bowls team consisted of Kelsey Cottrell, Carla Krizanic, Rebecca Van Asch and Natasha Van Eldik. Their thrilling win was the first lawn bowls Gold Medal Australia had won (individual or team) since 2006. It was followed by another gold in the women’s triples where Van Eldik was joined by Krizanic and Van Asch.
“I’ve never experienced anything like a home Commonwealth Games. When you think of the Games, you think everyone wants to go to the athletics, the swimming. But there was never a spare seat in the two weeks that the bowls were on at the bowling club. They’d fill the stand every day with 5000 people, the atmosphere was phenomenal—people were screaming and yelling”.
Although people may consider bowls crowds to be on the quieter end of the spectrum, Van Eldik assures that, “there’s no rules on being silent” and that although she’s used to it now, “there’s nothing better than a crowd cheering for you, it sends goosebumps all through your body. It’s phenomenal.”
Bowls Australia CEO, Neil Dalrymple has recently stated that bowls should feature at the Olympics in 2032. Although Van Eldik is busy preparing to try out for the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, she says she’d like to see it become an Olympic event.
“It’s such a tactical sport, I compare it to the other sports in the Olympics and it deserves a spot! Fingers crossed if it does get there I’ll still be around.”