Val Smith is back in town!


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Val Smith is back in New Zealand.

After a stint of 6 and a half years working at Club Merrylands in the inner western suburbs of Sydney, Blackjack #37 has returned to Bishopdale in Nelson.  It’s not her home town (until she was 8, she lived at Bishopdale in Christchurch), but it’s ‘home’.

“I was grinning from ear to ear and feeling so emotional when I stepped off the plane,” she says. “It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy Sydney, but it was just so great to be back.”

Like all returning Kiwis, it had been a bit of a torturous trip back.

Val was one of those who was whisked off on a bus from Auckland Airport to COVID quarantine in Rotorua.  Unlike some of the horror stories we’ve been hearing through an excitable media, quarantine wasn’t too bad for Val.

“I was in the Ibis in Rotorua.  Everyone was doing the best they could,” she says “The police, the army, the security people, the hotel staff, the medical people … they were all very friendly, respectful and helpful.”

“I quite enjoyed the isolation and just relaxing.  My room was very comfortable and we were able to exercise as much as we liked in the hotel carpark.  I bought an iPAD Pro and pencil before leaving Sydney and spent a lot of time drawing, writing and reading.  I hardly watched any TV.”

“The meals were actually okay .. probably better than airline economy.  We were given a 3-day menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner which you filled in and gave back to reception.  The meals came with a little wooden knife and fork in a cardboard box in a paper bag.  Not so great when they tipped the boxes on their side … meals then became a real mashup!”

“They allowed you to buy a bottle of wine or 4 stubbies of beer a day.  It was only $1.90 a bottle – not regular hotel prices.”

On 4th July, Val was ‘released’.

“It was hard to make travelling arrangements home because they couldn’t confirm any details as to how we were getting back to Auckland.  So I ended up flying back to Auckland, then down to Nelson on a direct flight.”

Val was back home … the place she had spent most of her school years … and before she went to Sydney, the place where she had spent most of her working life.

“I would consider myself as being an average student at school.  And although I stayed through to the end and left with UE, I never knew what I wanted to do.  I did know that I didn’t want to work in an office.  So, after finishing school and doing a year in various jobs, I began a horticultural and gardening apprenticeship with the Nelson City Council.”

“After finishing my apprenticeship I moved into the sports field and turf side of the council - looking after lawn tennis courts, croquet lawns, Nelson city sports fields, the cricket wicket at Trafalgar Park (before cricket moved to Saxton Field), and assisted when required at the Waahi Taakaro golf club.  I even became a groundsperson at Nelson Boys College and Waimea College.  Funnily enough, although I came to know a lot about turf, I never looked after a bowling green.”

Despite being a petite five foot three-and-a-half inches, Val was good at sport.  Very good.

She represented Nelson in 8 sports : football, hockey, indoor hockey, cricket, indoor cricket, softball, touch and bowls.

“I started playing hockey at the age of 9,” she recalls.  “I remember seeing the Blacksticks win the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and thinking then that one day I want to represent New Zealand.”

“When I was 14 I started playing soccer.  I ended up making the New Zealand Under 21 team and the New Zealand B Team … and was in the New Zealand squad for 6 years.”

“But I didn’t try bowls until I was 25.”

“The Council ran a sports allrounder competition in Nelson.  You played 17 different sports every Wednesday evening and Sunday over one month.  I was pretty sporty, but there were 3 sports on the list that I had never tried. : small bore rifle shooting, sea racing kayaks and lawn bowls.”

“My boss at the time was Alan Griffiths … he took me down to his bowling club (Maitai) in my work overalls and steel cap boots, threw some oversized bowls shoes at me (which fitted like a clown’s), and he introduced me to the basics of lawn bowls.  I still take my line exactly the same way he showed me on that very first day.  I was fascinated with the game.  I thought what an amazing sport … I just loved it.”

“I started playing business house bowls at the Nelson Bowling Club.  My old schoolmate Jo Edwards and I were in a team from the Nelson City Council.  We wanted to be as good as we could be, right from the start.  So every moment we had, we would pop down to the club and grab mats and jacks, and practise.”

As first year bowlers there were no other junior women for Val and Jo to play against in the club.  So they asked the match committee whether they could play in the senior club pairs, without losing their junior status.

Not only did Val and Jo win the club pairs, but they went on to win the Nelson Centre Champion of Champions.  “We didn’t really know what we were doing, but somehow we pulled it off.  I guess it was a case of ignorance is bliss!”

“Jo and I were like free spirits at the club.  We were quite naïve about the etiquettes and protocols of lawn bowls ...  we were pretty chatty on the green … we sat and had a beer with the men after the bowls .. even though this was in pre-amalgamation days.  They loved our carefree youth and enthusiasm.  I particularly remember Sadie Fauchelle – she was a highly-respected and great bowler, yet she gave Jo and I heaps of support.  It helped to smooth our way into the bowls scene in Nelson.  We were very lucky to always have fabulous support from family, friends and fellow-bowlers.”

In 2003, Val got a call-up to the New Zealand Bowls Team.

It was the start of a remarkable lawn bowls career which continues to this day (see below).

It has been a career full of highlights.  But the stand-out highlight has undoubtedly been the World Outdoor Champs in Christchurch in 2008, where she won gold in the Singles, gold in the Pairs (with her great mate Jo Edwards), and silver in the Team event.

But it was another memorable moment for Val which showcases the extreme highs and lows of competitive sport.

“In the 2007 Asia Pacific Games in Christchurch, my singles debut event, I was beaten 21-0 by Karen Murphy in the preliminary rounds.  I can remember I was more worried about Dave Edwards (the coach) who would’ve been wondering what he could possibly say to me to get me up for the rest of the tournament!”

“But I put the whitewash behind me.  And went on to meet Karen again in the final.  She was up 13-3 before I started to come back at her.  When I was up 18-16 I chased my last bowl down the green … I had enough weight to reach Karen’s shot bowl, sit it out of the head and stay there to give me three shots to win the game.  I remember leaping in the air with jubilation ... if Dave hadn’t of stood up too, I think I would’ve leapt right over the top of him!”

Being able to pull off those sorts of gritty wins is the right stuff Val is made of.

It’s the sort of stuff which no doubt triggered Sydney’s Club Merrylands to offer her the role of Women’s Bowls Coordinator in 2013.   It would mean uprooting from her beloved Nelson.  Val thought about it … for a moment.  Val could put her lawn and gardening maintenance business (‘The Lawn Bowler’) on hold until she returned.  Merrylands would be a new adventure.

It was.  Merrylands was one of those big Aussie clubs with meals, pokies, entertainment … the works.  Bowls was just a part of it.

“The club had 25,000 members.  They spent $22 million on an extension while I was there and replaced one of the two grass greens with an all-weather carpet.  It was all go.  I found myself at the club 6 days a week, working, coaching and representing the club in championships, tournaments and Pennants.  But they were also happy to give me time off to fulfil my Blackjacks commitments. They were very generous.”

“I enjoyed my time there. It was challenging but it was a great experience and an opportunity I will always be grateful for.  But after 6 years it was time to come home. It’s time to start another new adventure.”

We’re looking forward to it Val.  You may have been playing bowls for 30 years, but we’re darn sure you’ve still got another 30 years bowls in you yet!

VAL SMITH AT A GLANCE

International

2003

Asia Pacific Championships

Brisbane

Gold in the Fours

2004

World Outdoor Championships

Leamington Spa

Bronze in the Triples

2005

Asia Pacific Championships

Melbourne

Bronze in the Pairs

2007

Asia Pacific Championships

Christchurch

Gold in the Singles

2007

Asia Pacific Championships

Christchurch

Silver in the Pairs

2008

World Outdoor Championships

Christchurch

Gold in the Singles

2008

World Outdoor Championships

Christchurch

Gold in the Pairs

2008

World Outdoor Championships

Christchurch

Silver in the Teams

2010

Commonwealth Games

Delhi

Silver in the Singles

2011

Asia Pacific Championships

Adelaide

Gold in the Pairs

2014

Commonwealth Games

Glasgow

Bronze in the Fours

2015

Asia Pacific Championships

Christchurch

Bronze in the Fours

2016

World Outdoor Championships

Christchurch

Bronze in the Fours

2018

Commonwealth Games

Gold Coast

Did not medal

2019

Asia Pacific Championships

Gold Coast

Gold in the Fours

2020

World Outdoor Championships

Gold Coast

Selected, but champs cancelled

National

2004/05

New Zealand National Pairs

Christchurch

Winner

2010/11

New Zealand National Pairs

Dunedin

Winner

2010/11

New Zealand National Fours

Lower Hutt

Winner

2016/17

New Zealand National Fours

Taranaki

Winner

2018/19

New Zealand National Pairs

Auckland

Winner