When Kylie Whitehead first stepped onto Wodonga's bowling green she never imagined the sport would one day become her passion. Now, nine years later and a world championship title under her belt, Whitehead spoke to The Border Mail's GEORGIA SMITH this week about what led to the history making moment and the role her grandparents played in shaping her.
GS: How does winning the World Singles Champion of Champions compare to your prior bowls achievements?
KW: I don't think you can really compare it because I've never won anything like this, on an international level. It's definitely my biggest win and an amazing feeling to be the world champion.
GS: With the title coming right down to the final bowl, how were you feeling?
KW: Towards the end I was a bit of a nervous wreck, although to be honest, I didn't think that I would even be in a tie-break because I was so far down in the second set. It was a little bit surreal towards the end. Coming down to the last end and the last bowl, my heart was definitely racing. I honestly couldn't believe it and I was just in shock when she (New Zealand's Debbie White) missed that last bowl and I ended up winning.
GS: How do you cope with nerves when competing?
KW: I've never been in that situation before where I'm in a world championship final, so I didn't really know how I would react. I think I was very nervous to start off and it showed a bit. I got off to a good start in the first couple of ends, but I knew Debbie would come back. When I fell behind, the nerves started to kick in a bit more because I was under pressure a lot of the time and Debbie was playing really well. She definitely found the green quicker than me. I guess I was just struggling in the mid part of the game, just switching my hands a lot and trying to figure out what to do. It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster in terms of nerves and how I was feeling.
GS: How did you get into bowls?
KW: I started nine years ago. I came down to Wodonga Bowls Club with my grandfather (Jim). He wanted to take up the sport and give it a go, so I came along with him to a come and try day. I can't say I fell in love with the sport immediately, but I guess I thought this isn't too bad and just wanted to keep getting better. I guess it was something really nice just to share with my grandfather. I've been playing ever since and just got hooked.
GS: Your grandfather must be proud of your achievements.
KW: He passed away four years ago, but I know he's always with me and he was definitely looking over me in that final and all through the week. My grandma (Anne) is still with me and she's definitely my biggest supporter.
GS: Did your grandma travel to see you compete in Adelaide?
KW: Yeah she wouldn't have missed it for the world. She has been everywhere with me and is my number one supporter. Not only in bowls, but in life, and I definitely wouldn't be here without her. She's my rock and is always there for me. She was so excited when I won, she had a little cry. She loves bowls and it was great to have her there and share it with her.
GS: Understand you grew up in Chiltern with your grandparents?
KW: Yeah I've lived in Chiltern since I was seven with my grandparents. Since grandpa passed away it's just been me and grandma. We look out for each other.
GS: Some would say you're probably younger than the average bowler, what do you think?
KW: As the sport's growing, it's definitely probably not an old person's sport anymore as it may have used to be. I think there's still definitely that stereotype that it's an old person's sport. There was a lot of younger people there playing for all different countries. I think I might have been third youngest in the female group and there was a few young ones in the men's group too. I've made a lot of young friends through bowls, which is nice. That's what's great about the sport as well, the vast variety of ages. You can play with anyone from any age and make friends, which is great.
GS: Do you think more young people should give it a go?
KW: Absolutely. I think people don't realise how difficult the sport actually is. I think for me, the mental aspect of the game is the most challenging because you need to play mind games with yourself to keep yourself in the game, while trying not to get too down on yourself. Anyone from any background, age, body type or with a disability can play, including blind bowls. It's a great social sport to make friends and it's a great activity for exercise in general.
ALSO IN SPORT:
GS: What's your training like?
KW: I try and get down for a roll a couple of times a week. I suppose that's what else is great about it, you don't have to be an elite athlete to play. It's more relaxed in that sense. Obviously though, it helps in big tournaments to have fitness and endurance.
GS: How do you enjoy playing open pennant in Wodonga?
KW: I love it. Not that I don't enjoy playing with the ladies, but with the men it's obviously a tougher competition and they see the game differently, so I think it helps when you go to play at higher level competitions to match it with the top players.
GS: You're the first Australian Indigenous bowls player to play in the international event and win the title, what does that mean to you?
KW: That was really special. I try to be a bit of a role model for the Indigenous community, particularly young kids. I've been pretty blessed with how my life's panned out having that support from my family, and my grandparents in particular. I think I just want to show Indigenous kids and young people that if you put your mind to it, you can do it and your dreams really can come true, particularly in this case.
GS: You also swam competitively?
KW: Yeah back in the day. That's one difference between bowls and swimming, you don't have to get up at 5am to go to training. The only side of swimming I miss is being so fit. I guess having that swimming background definitely helps in terms of fitness and knowing what it takes to compete. I didn't get to the top level, but I swam at state level. Swimming and bowls are completely different sports.
GS: Is it something you'd want to get back into one day?
KW: I'm pretty happy with lawn bowls. I mean, I might get back into the pool for a couple of laps, but my swimming days are definitely behind me.
GS: You're also a physio?
KW: Yeah I work for a local business called Icaria Health. I'm mainly in aged care and disability. They've all been really supportive of me at work. They were all sending me messages and they watched the game as well.
GS: Would you say your interest in sport influenced your career path?
KW: Yeah definitely. Originally I wanted to get into sports physio, but I guess as you go through uni you realise there's a lot more to it. I never really imagined I'd be working in aged care, but I absolutely love it. A few of them used to play lawn bowls and I get a couple of my participants out on the bowls green because it's a really good activity for mobility and balance. It's a great job and a good way to mix up work and play as well.
GS: What's next for you with bowls now?
KW: I keep joking that I'm going to retire, but I probably still have a few years in me yet. I guess the ultimate goal is getting selected for the Australian squad. It's really competitive here in Australia. Our national squad has such strong players in it who are all really lovely. I earnt my way in and won this by myself, but I guess to be recognised by the national selectors and be picked in the squad would be great. Playing for Australia again one day would be amazing.
GS: Think you might have got their attention now?
KW: Hopefully. It definitely hasn't done me any harm. We'll see how it goes. I'll just keep playing bowls and enjoying it and see what happens.
GS: What would your message be to anyone thinking of taking up bowls?
KW: Just to get down to your local bowls club and have a go. There's a lot of social bowls out there now and players have come through those pathways. If you're thinking that it looks like fun, which is what I had in mind - I didn't have any intentions of taking it up competitively - then I think definitely have a go. You might be surprised.