“You’ve watched people win National titles many times but to actually manage it yourself is an incredible feeling – it’s the pinnacle of your career.
“Even now, a few months on, I look at the pictures and think: ‘Was that really us? What a summer that was!’
Nuneaton BC stalwart Steve Smith is a well-known figure in Midlands bowls circles and someone whose involvement with the sport goes back to the 1980’s.
Winning the 2022 Senior Pairs alongside Warwickshire and Nuneaton teammate Graham Ashby – a friend with whom he first bowled in the Under-25’s – was therefore as thrilling and emotional as it was unexpected.
“We started bowling together in the 1990’s at a club in Rugby,” Steve recalled.
“In fact, Graham, myself and a nucleus of others who are now at Nuneaton have bowled together and against each other since those days.
“Graham won the National Pairs with his late Dad Ken in the late 1990’s – that was a real achievement which you know won’t come around too often.
“Then last year Graham and his son Scott got to the final of the Family Pairs where they lost to Mark and Scott Walton. As we were sitting in the stands supporting them I was thinking: ‘We’re 55 next year and we need to have a serious bash at this!’
“I turned 55 a year ahead of him and when he got close I said to him: ‘Come on Ash, let’s give it a try, I think we’ll do OK.’ As things turned out the first time we entered we didn’t do too bad!
Steve’s definition of ‘doing OK’ was some way from winning a National title, however, as he freely admits.
“We started in our local area in Warwickshire and to be honest we’d have been quite happy to have won that so to qualify for the regional finals in Somerset was a bonus,” he said.
“We played really well in the area rounds – in fact there was only a couple of times where we played the last end so we had a good run.
“We were new to the Over-55’s, we knew almost everyone we played against and when we won the area final 18-1 we started to think we might have a chance, but we knew we had to get through the regionals first.
“We had two matches in Ilminster which were played on a red-hot day – it was over 30 degrees and really tough. We beat Colin and Alan from Cornwall 15-12 in a really tight game then beat Wiltshire reasonably comfortably to get to Leamington.”
Steve’s previous experience at National Finals had come when representing Warwickshire in team competitions, but despite this he admits to being positive about his and Graham’s chances beforehand.
“Once you’re at Victoria Park you can’t help but think: ‘It’s only three more wins and we’re there,’ he said.
“We started off against John and Ron from Berkshire who we beat 21-14, and were both then thinking: ‘Now we’re in the semi-final which is the one you really don’t want to lose.’
“That was the most nervous we were – Ash had been in a few National Finals before including the one with his lad in 2021 – but it was a new experience for me and I knew we’d have a big chance if we got through to the final as we were both bowling well.
“We played Martin and Alec from Lancashire who we’ve known for years and it was a really tough battle which we eventually won 17-10.”
Not many get to bowl in a National Final, so being on edge when bowling in front of plenty of friends and family at the home of bowls would be very forgivable. However, Steve and Graham instead rose to the occasion to produce a nerveless display.
Steve recalled: “We ended up winning the final against Steve and Ken from Kent 19-6. There was no pressure, as it felt like we had done the difficult part by getting there, so we relaxed.
“I bowled probably the best game I have ever put together and was so delighted to give Ash a good lead.
“I remember thinking to myself: ‘You don’t get these opportunities very often, this is your chance, take it with both hands and go for it,’ and thankfully we did.”
With Graham having previously reached National Finals alongside both Dad Ken and son Scott this story has a real sense of family – and Steve’s success added to that.
“I won the County Mixed Pairs last year and my son Harry won it this year so we had a bit of fun about that,” he said.
“Then this year he got to the final of the White Rose but ended up with a silver so when I came home with a gold and put it on the mantelpiece alongside his medal it gave me the bragging rights!”
Inspired by Steve’s story? Entries for our individual and club National Competitions are now open! Always popular and keenly contested, 19 National Competition winners will be crowned at Victoria Park in August 2023, alongside 16 National Championship victors. So whether you are a regular competitor or new to our sport we have plenty of opportunities for you to get involved. Click here to enter.