Veteran and champion bowler Ian Graham tells Jan Alpin how sport can boost confidence and improve physical and mental health.

For many people the traditional image of the game of bowls is one of pensioners playing on a picturesque green. Or, maybe, of Sir Francis Drake finishing a quick game before defeating the Spanish Armada.

Yet, historically, bowls was such a violent sport that the Scottish lawyer W. W. Mitchell was forced to clean up the game. In 1848 he saw fit to outlaw kicking, hacking and tripping on the green. Perhaps it is no surprise that the term ‘wapenshaw’, used to describe bowling competitions in Scotland, can also be translated into a show of weapons.

Today bowls is an inclusive sport that welcomes everyone, including those with visual impairment. Blind bowling events, which are held up and down the country, are the perfect place for veterans to come together to play sport and enjoy the camaraderie that competition brings.

Real sense of purpose

I asked veteran and blind bowler Ian Graham from Grangemouth in Scotland what got him interested in the sport.

“I played sport all of my life and I especially enjoyed playing football. When I lost my sight I found myself in a dark place. One day in 2011 I went along to the Forth Valley Sensory Centre and met a fellow veteran, George Gourlay, who was recruiting new bowlers.

“That night my son, who played basketball and was registered blind in 2011, phoned me to tell me he had been selected for the 2012 Paralympic Games. He asked me ‘what are you going to do, dad?’ Straight away I said, ‘I’m going to play in the Commonwealth team in bowling’.”

Ian, who is now the national secretary for the Scottish Blind Bowlers, as well as the British Indoor Blind Bowling B2 champion and the Scottish outdoor B2/B3 champion, feels bowling has given him a real sense of purpose. He has also started mentoring a fellow Blind Veterans UK member, Robert Graham, who has already played in some national competitions and is progressing well. Ian believes that the discipline of sport appeals to many ex-service personnel and he is convinced many of them have the ability to play at international level.

"I played sport all my life and I especially enjoyed playing football. When I lost my sight I found myself in a dark place."
Ian Graham

Life changing

Although Ian has won many events, he says that he gets the greatest satisfaction from recruiting new members and then seeing them chatting away to each other like long-lost friends while enjoying a game.

During all the time that Ian has been involved in the sport, there are two comments that have stuck in his mind. One was from a wife who said, ‘thanks for giving me my husband back’, and another who said her husband was ‘like a bairn with a bag of sweets’.

Life-affirming testimonies such as these are the reason why we at Blind Veterans UK continue to use the unique healing power of sport to help transform the lives of our veterans and their families.

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