“The desire and passion I have to play for New Zealand is still right up there” - Val Smith
At 56, Val Smith can sit back and look at her bowls career with immense pride and satisfaction.
Donning the silver fern for the Blackjacks on more than 600 occasions, amassing medals in both the Commonwealth Games, World Bowls and the former Asia Pacific Championships, Val is a household name in the New Zealand set-up.
But this article is far from a swansong . . . in fact, the esteemed Nelsonian is already eyeing up more performances in the black shirt - with her sights firmly set on a fifth Commonwealth Games as Birmingham 2022 approaches.
Recently named in the Bowls New Zealand High Performance Squad, Val’s efforts on the domestic scene in the last 12 months have been exemplary. Since returning from a six-year stint at Club Merrylands in Sydney,
Val has enjoyed a purple patch of form, taking out virtually every event she has lined-up for with the Nelson Club.
Alongside her long-time friend Jo Edwards, who also returned from several years at Pine Rivers in Brisbane, the duo returned to their grassroots club and started what became an insatiable appetite to win.
Winning everything from the National Interclub 7s through to stamping their presence on the Bowls3Five circuit, Nelson Bowling Club soon became firmly fixed on the radar as one to watch. Add to that a successful defence of the National Pairs title with Lisa Prideaux, a win for Nelson in the National Intercentre and a victory in the National Champion of Champion Singles, it’s no wonder Val has been named the 2020-21 Summerset Female Player of the Year.
Though it’s an award Val is quick to credit to those around her at Nelson, and the way she has felt since returning from across the ditch in July 2020.
“The way I’ve felt this season is probably the best I’ve felt ever since playing bowls, and sport.” she beamed.
“I think having that time, when you live a busy life, and something like that (COVID) comes along and shuts everything down, gave me that time to sit back and reflect . . . it brought my life back into some sort of perspective and made me realise that something had to change and that perhaps, I wasn’t really happy with where I was at and what I was doing.
“It was a time to refresh and the perfect opportunity to start again, and that’s when I made the call to go home. In many ways, it almost felt like a rebirth, the start of a new life . . . everything just felt right. As soon as I stepped foot back in Nelson, I felt it and yep, I knew that’s where I wanted and needed to be.”
Earlier this year, Edwards stepped down from the Blackjacks and called time on her international career. She knew the time was right and had no hesitation in bringing the curtain down on what is likely to be one of the most illustrious of careers in world bowls.
Though any suggestion Val is ready to follow suit is quickly dismissed, with Val herself describing her desire, hunger and passion for the top level of the game as “fierce as it ever has been”.
“The desire and the passion is still right up there. It’s like anything I guess, you have to ride the waves a bit and take the good with the bad, but when I hit the low points, it makes me want to work that little bit harder . . . you don’t want those low points to define who you are as a person.
“Sometimes it makes you think, am I on my way out or do I still have it . . . but I think you have to prove it to yourself and that’s what I’ve always done. I think if anything changes you’ll know, and just as Jo has, you’ll reach a point and just know, but for me, I don’t feel that and the future is really exciting.
And with the fire in her belly still clearly piping hot, Val is gearing up for another stellar season, and much like her fellow high performance colleagues, is already putting the work in, both on and off the green.
With the Trans-Tasman on the cards, subject to potential COVID implications, Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022 and the World Bowls Championships in 2023, there’s plenty more international bowls lined-up on the horizon – and if selected, Val stands a strong chance of surpassing the great Karen Murphy – who has clocked up 668 caps for Australia and is recognised as the most capped athlete worldwide.
Though as great as that milestone could be, for Val, the privilege to play for New Zealand – even just once – supersedes any such numbers or statistics.
“Honestly for me, I don’t even consider that (chasing more caps) . . . to me that’s just been a massive bonus. “You sit back and think wow, what a fantastic run that I’ve had, but to be honest, when I first had the dream to represent New Zealand and I got my first cap, never in a thousand years did I envisage I’d still be there after 600 games . . . it’s been so special and an incredible privilege.”
Having recently taking on her new role as Administration Officer for Nelson Bays Football, Val is clearly loving life back at home. She feels calm, she feels at peace with her decision to leave the bright lights of Australia and she’s ready to continue writing the next chapter.
And with a career already spanning more than three decades on the green, it’s clear there’s still plenty more to come.
*Val Smith is the 2020-21 Summerset Female Player of the Year