The thrill of the grass for local lawn bowler
When James MacGowan was nine years old, he made fun of his older sister when she went lawn bowling. In March he'll be laughing all the way to China where he'll be competing among 120 top teams in two of the most prestigious amateur lawn bowling events, the Tiger Bowls World Invitational in Hong Kong and the China Open in Shenzhen.
MacGowan may have mocked his sister's choice of activity, but he wasn't too proud to give it a go when she dared him to join her at one of her games. He was already playing golf, baseball and basketball, but he took an immediate shine to the fine, subtle skill of curving an 11 cm bowl down a rectangular pitch of finely manicured green grass.
Before he turned 16, MacGowan was the top young player in Ontario. A resident of Burnaby for the last two years, he's now ranked amongst the top 32 players in the world.
Along the way, MacGowan, 29, has endured all the expected barbs about playing a sport normally associated with senior citizens in pressed white slacks and shirts. But once he started winning competitions and traveling the world, the snickers subsided.
In 2010 he reached quarter-finals in the Scottish International Open, a prestigious tournament that's part of the four-event World Bowls Tour contested by the best professional and amateur singles players in the world.
Playing on live television, in front of a gallery of 2,000 fans, some of them wagering on the results, is a long way from the friendly environs of the local lawn bowling club. To make his shots required razor-sharp focus and steely concentration.
"It's testing mentally," says MacGowan. "You have to have an even temperament, patience and confidence. You have to be able to brush off adversity, you can't let things get to you."
It's that mental edge that separates top bowlers from weekend rollers, says MacGowan. To prepare for his Asian challenges, he's been working with a sports psychologist, visualizing games, exercising his concentration. That's in addition to the 15 hours a week of practice at an indoor pitch in Vancouver he squeezes around his shifts at Clearly Contacts.
MacGowan will be part of a team of four, two players from Ontario and another from Australia. That presents unique challenges as they all have to work together to outmanoeuvre their opposition, support each other after a bad shot and encourage good ones.
"It's important to develop team communication," says MacGowan. "You have to build a rapport so that you're comfortable and know they'll make a shot."
MacGowan has his sights set on lawn bowling's ultimate prize, a berth in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, in which its been a fixture for every competition but the 1966 Games in Kingston, Jamaica. And turning heads along the way.
"I like to shock people and tell them I lawn bowl," says MacGowan.