Jo and Val after their World Championship Triumph in 2008
Jo Edwards was sitting in Auckland traffic last week when she made the biggest decision of her 20-year international career.
The New Zealand bowls legend was heading across town to prepare for another night of commentary on a Bowls3Five event, when the penny dropped.
“I was sitting at the traffic lights and I thought ‘I’m done’,” says Edwards. “I almost said it out loud. That was the moment when I knew, yup, it’s time.”
Edwards had been pondering retirement for the last six months (“not that seriously though”) but those thoughts began to solidify in early November. A series of “tough” conversations with her husband Dave made her realise it was time to draw the curtain.
“People have always told me ‘you know when you know’ and that is definitely true,” says Edwards. “It’s always going to be hard and there is a definite sadness, but I also feel happy. It’s been 23 years – nearly half my life and this is perfect timing.”
The 50-year-old admits the unexpected Covid-19 chaos – which took her away from the greens for nearly eight months – helped to crystallise her thinking.
“The  World Championships event was always an aim,” says Edwards. “But it didn’t go ahead this year and who knows about 2021. But I also wanted to give Bowls New Zealand time to put together new teams and I knew if I wasn’t fully committed then it wasn’t going to work.”
The news will be received with sadness across the bowls community and wider New Zealand sport. Edwards is regarded as the greatest bowler this country has produced and has been a giant of the sport.
But it’s also a time to celebrate a remarkable career, encompassing a record 646 caps for the Blackjacks and a staggering array of medals and trophies, including five World Championship medals (two gold), three Commonwealth Games triumphs and an unprecedented six World Cup singles crowns.
Edwards struggles to pinpoint favourite memories – “that’s tough, after 20 years in the full New Zealand team” – but is particularly proud of winning world titles on all surfaces (northern hemisphere, southern hemisphere and indoor), which requires remarkable versatility.
She also looks back fondly on the 2008 World Championship pairs title in Christchurch alongside Val Smith.
“We are best mates; we have known each other since school so that was pretty special.”
Her toughest tournament was the last world championships in 2016.
“My mother had passed away a few weeks earlier so it was really hard,” says Edwards, who still picked up silver in the pairs and a singles bronze.
Edwards made her national debut at the Asia Pacific Championships in 2001, with her first match stretching across 18 hours.
“I’ll never forget it – it just kept raining,” says Edwards. “We had to go back and finish the game the next day. I was nervous anyway; it’s your first international tournament and you think this could be your one and only chance.”
At the following year’s Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Edwards was named to skip Sharon Sims in the pairs.
“A lot of people thought the selectors had got it round the wrong way,” says Edwards. “I’ll always remember walking past the media area and hearing a commentator discussing it. He said it was such a bad decision, putting a brand new player in like that. But it worked out okay.”
Edwards and Sims claimed a memorable gold before another triumph at the 2004 World Championships in Leamington Spa, England.
“Those two campaigns were so special,” says Sims. “From the build up to the end, we shared the ups and downs of all of it.”
From a massive pool, Edwards nominates Australia’s Karen Murphy as her toughest opponent.
“She made her Academy debut at the same time (1997), so our paths have been crossing for 23 years,” says Edwards. “I don’t think there is anyone I have faced more often and we have developed a friendship in that time”
Of all of their encounters, the 2010 World Cup singles final in Warilla stands out.
“It came down to the last end,” says Edwards. “Every bowl changed who was going to win and I took it on the last bowl.”
Edwards is famously modest, and you won’t find her medals and trophies on display in her lounge room.
“No – definitely not,” says Edwards. “Our home is our home…it is not a shrine. “That’s not my style.”
That may be so, but Edwards has become, in her own way, a national treasure. Her deeds have often resonated with the public, especially in Nelson, where she has become a local hero, albeit a reluctant one.
“My husband used to point it out - I was a bit oblivious to it,” said Edwards, though one episode at the Stoke New World sticks in her mind.
“There was a young guy 50 metres away, waving at me,” said Edwards. “I’m looking around, thinking, who is he waving to? He came up and said, you don’t know me, but I have followed your career, your bowls and what you have done for Nelson has been unbelievable’. You are just going to get your mushrooms out of the bin, and you think ‘holy shit, it’s quite amazing’.
You don’t realise the impact that you have maybe. You don’t do it for that reason but it’s quite nice.”
On another occasion, in the wake of a Commonwealth Games triumph, a teller at her local BNZ bank had an unusual inquiry.
“She asked me ‘I don’t suppose you are wearing your gold medal,” laughed Edwards. “I looked down inside my sweater and said, ‘oh bugger, I took it off when I had a shower this morning’.”
Edwards isn’t completely sure what the future holds. She has entered a few events across the summer – including the mixed pairs at the National Fours tournament– but it will be at a different pace.
Jo after her amazing Commonwealth Games Gold
“I imagine I will keep playing,” says Edwards. “But I am not going to be training three or four time a week so expectations will change. And my husband always said we could get a dog when I stopped playing…so I might get a puppy!”
Edwards will be forever grateful to all those who have been part of her life changing journey.
“I’ve been so lucky,” says Edwards. “The success you have, the people you meet, the places that you get to see. But there have been so many people involved in my career. All my teammates, all those people at different bowling clubs, my friends, my husband. Bowls New Zealand have been amazing, my coaches and my sports psychologist. I’m so grateful to everyone.”
Jo would like take this opportunity to thank her family and friends for their continued love and support in what has been a hell of a ride.
JO EDWARDS FACT FILE
Year started bowling: 1992
Blackjacks debut: 2001
World Championship medals: Two gold (pairs 2004 & 2008), two silver (pairs 2012 & 2016) & one bronze (singles 2016).
Commonwealth Games medals: Three gold (pairs 2002 and singles 2014 & 2018)
World Cup singles: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2017 and 2019.
World Champion of Champion Singles: 2011, 2018
National titles: Five (pairs 2004 & 2011, singles 2011 & 2018 and fours 2017)