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Blind Ambition: Lawn bowling for the visually impaired

Ladner's Matt Yole is the current Canadian National Blind Lawn Bowling champion

Ladner’s Matt Yole is the current Canadian National Blind Lawn Bowling champion

As people grow older and their eyesight begins to deteriorate, a common fear is that they won’t be able to participate in their favourite activities.

That was certainly the case seven years ago when Ladner’s Matt Yole thought he could no longer go lawn bowling because his vision was so impaired he could only see one third down the green.

“I was ready to just pack it in here because there were no other low vision bowlers,” recalls Matt, who bowls at the Ladner club across from the McKee Seniors Recreation Centre.

But then Matt discovered blind lawn bowling, an adaptation of the classic game for those with low vision or blindness. Later this month (Sept. 13-17), he will be defending his gold medal as Ladner hosts the Canadian National Championships on behalf of the Blind Bowls Association of Canada.

Organizers are expecting 25 bowlers across four classifications of blindness, in which classification one is totally blind. Matt says he’s a number two.

A casual observer of blind lawn bowling may find it difficult to notice the difference between sighted and blind games because the quality is so good.

The main difference is that totally blind bowlers make use of a nylon string to mark the centre of the rink, helping participants calibrate their direction prior to unleashing their bowls at the jack.

A tournament volunteer called a “marker” will be assigned to each rink to centre the jack, clear bowls from the green that have gone out of bounds and communicate to players how far their bowl is from the jack. All other rules are otherwise identical to conventional lawn bowling.

I ask Robert Maxwell, president of the Ladner Lawn Bowling Club, how Matt fares against sighted bowlers.

“Just like us, Matt can have an off day,” says Robert. “But other times he can be a killer. He may miss his first two but the third comes in just right. It’s amazing.”

Indeed, Matt has his name on several club trophies collected over his 27-year career in lawn bowling, many of them collected recently. Perhaps his proudest achievement was winning the gold medal in Calgary last year at the national blind championships.

Should he prevail here on home turf he will earn a berth at the World Lawn Bowling Championships in South Africa in 2017, which has hosted blind bowling since 1977.

In preparation for the tournament, Matt is receiving help from a pair of coaches, Don Hobbs from Chilliwack, and Dave Leach of Tsawwassen.

Matt’s enjoyment of the game has not been diminished despite his vision impairment, something he didn’t think would be possible just a few short years ago.

“You go through depression and all that. But that was way back when, I’ve gotten over all that,” he says, matter-of-factly.

“I’m getting almost over the hill now,” he adds with a laugh. Matt is now 87. “But if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t keep bowling. Physically, you have to be able to handle it as well as your eyesight. But I like the game so much.”

The Blind Bowls Association operates under the aegis of the Canadian Blind Sports Association, which serves as a regulatory commission for blind sports and helps sponsor championship tournaments like the one in Ladner.

For more information about the 2016 Canadian National Blind Bowls Championships visit llbc.ca.

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