Kelsey Cottrell on her meteoric rise to lawn bowls champion and keeping the sport alive. By Cindy MacDonald.


High roller: Kelsey Cottrell, 26, lawn bowler

I started playing lawn bowls when I was about 12. I used to play tennis but I hurt myself and wasn’t training as much so I was going to bowls with Mum. Everyone kept saying to me at the bowling club, “You should have a go, there are other kids that play.”

It all happened pretty quickly. There were no girls at my club so Mum said, “We’ll go to the state junior championships during the school holidays so you can meet some other girls and have some people your own age to play with.” I ended up winning the Queensland under-18 state singles. I think I was 13 or had just turned 14.

When I was nearly 15, there was a really big singles event for seniors and I made the finals. The way it worked out, in the semi-final I played against the Australian singles representative, Maria Rigby, who was then I suppose the best player in the country. Once I beat her, in the final I came up against probably the now all-time best player in Australia, Karen Murphy, and I beat her as well. Pretty much everything skyrocketed from there. 

I got a lot of attention from the media because I was a 14-year-old kid. It was at Maroochydore on the Sunshine Coast, which was like my local town, so I had a lot of people come down and support me. It blew me away. I was just there to have a bit of fun and the next thing I was winning and I was on the news. Not long after that I got invited to trial for the Australian team. Then, when I was about 15½, I played my first game for Australia at the Asia-Pacific Championships. 

Back in the very early days I didn’t want to tell anyone at school I was playing bowls, so I would just say, “Yeah, I play tennis on the weekend.” But that all came crashing down when I ended up on the news and in the paper. I thought I might get picked on at school but it didn’t happen. There were maybe one or two kids who had a little dig but as soon as they realised I was winning money, I was flavour of the month. 

The first three years were a blur. Those Asia-Pacific Championships were a lead-up to the 2006 Commonwealth Games and I was first reserve for that, but from then on I’ve pretty much been picked to play for Australia in every major event. So I’ve played two Commonwealth Games, two World Championships. Number three is a few days away in Christchurch. I’m playing in the pairs with Karen Murphy, the woman I beat all those years ago. She and I won a silver medal in the triples at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. She’s Australia’s most capped international, the one everyone looks up to. I’ll also be skipping the fours.

Men competing against women is probably the way of the future. Obviously there’s not really a physical aspect to bowls, so it’s just your skill set and the mental side of it. The men play a different style of game – they are more attacking. It’s only the style of game women are playing and the opportunities we’re getting that are holding us back at the moment. A lot of clubs still play their women’s championships during the week, so working women or students are disadvantaged. The men get to play pennant on the weekends and they’ve got tournaments left, right and centre. If women are given more opportunity to play, they are going to get as good as the men. 

I have a journalism degree from Griffith. I work for Bowls Australia three days a week in the media department and I’m doing some part-time study again – business and marketing – to give me some more options. I’m quite lucky. I’ve been a member of the St Johns Park Bowling Club in Sydney for nine years now and they actually pay me as a professional athlete. There are a lot of clubs out there that will financially support players, so it is a bit more professional, especially in Sydney and Melbourne.

I don’t want to see the sport die. I think there was a period of time where it was perceived that it was. But things have changed a lot in the past 10 years. Bowls is less traditional – it’s a really fun and exciting game now, it’s on TV, there’s music, the outfits are a lot nicer. I think there are a lot more young ones playing. Hopefully they’ll get as hooked as I did.

Leading up to the last World Championships in 2012 the average age of the Australian bowls team was younger than the Australian men’s cricket team. At a guess I’d say the average age of the team going to these World Championships would be around 30, maybe just under. At an elite level there’s a bit more focus on physical training and we have a minimum we have to do every week. It’s a lot more professional than it used to be. There are probably a hundred-odd bowlers around the country who are involved in the high-performance program.

In Christchurch I’m hoping to defend my world pairs title. Back to back would be good. The girls in the fours have a pact that if we win gold we have to get a tattoo. I’m horrified. It took me 21 years to get my ears pierced. We’ll see what happens. If I get one, it will be very small, the tiniest thing ever.


1 . This week’s highlights…

• Cricket: Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, day three

Saturday, 2pm (ACDT), Adelaide Oval

• Basketball: NBL – Melbourne United v Sydney Kings

Saturday, 7.30pm (AEDT), Hisense Arena, Melbourne

• Tennis: Davis Cup final – Croatia v Argentina, day 2

Sunday, 1am (AEDT), Arena Zagreb, Croatia

Rugby union: Wallabies v Ireland

Sunday, 4.30am (AEDT), Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Soccer: W-League – Melbourne City v Melbourne Victory

Sunday, 2.30pm (AEDT), AAMI Park, Melbourne

• Lawn bowls: World Bowls Championships 

Tuesday until December 11, Christchurch, New Zealand

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 26, 2016 as "High roller".

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