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Bowling champion: ‘Anyone can do it if they really try’

Posted on - 24th March, 2011 - 9:58am | Author - | Posted in - Competitions, Recreation, Sport

Spanish striker Fernando Torres may have signed to Chelsea for a record £50 million this season, but not all world champions are able to command six-figure weekly salaries and live a life of luxury.

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Ten-pin bowling champion Zara Giles works full time in marketing, coaches children at weekends and still manages to squeeze in – and win – the odd international tournament.

Preston-born Zara caught the bowling bug at friend’s birthday party when she was ten.

“I just really enjoyed it and kept dragging my parents down there,” she laughs. “It went from there really.”

Team tournament rules required every team to have a female member so Zara found herself competing against 18-year-old men before she had hit her teens.

Now, at the age of only 29, Zara has already been crowned single, doubles and all-events world champion and been named UK Female Bowler of the Year. She has previously been ranked number 1 in the UK and 2 in Europe.

Zara’s father, Michael, is secretary of the Lancashire Bowling Association. Her mum, Barbara, now coaches the club where her daughter started out. Neither had tried bowling before Zara took the sport up.

“I’ve dragged them in!” jokes Zara. “They’ve got loads of extra work now!”

Zara’s mother Barbara, who was a police constable, was the inspiration behind her drive to succeed: “She’s broken the mould in her generation really and she’s always been pushing you, saying you’re equal and you can do anything you want to do.”

And, in many ways, Zara has broken the mould too. She is one of the youngest inductees into the Bowling Hall of Fame, having been selected at the tender age of 26.

“You do think ‘well, does that not mean my career’s over?’” she says. “But it’s an honour.”

Unusually, ten-pin bowling is one of few sports which allow women to compete directly against men. Although the British Tenpin Bowling Association maintains separate ladies’ and men’s events, the European Bowling Tour has allowed Zara to pit herself against her male counterparts.

“If you’re mentally strong enough, it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female,” says Zara.

“The English ladies, a couple of years ago, we would run rings around the men’s team. We were such a unit and very strong together.”

But women remain chronically under-represented in the sport. Zara has just returned victorious from a team event in Cyprus where she was one of only a handful of female competitors.

“In a way it’s benefitted me because I’m very marketable,” says Zara. “If I make the final it’s written about a bit more than if some English guy makes the final.”

Although Zara is one of only a few UK bowlers to receive sponsorship, she admits that the lack of financial return in the sport is frustrating.

“It’s quite hard, because you work all your life thinking ‘if I get to that standard, that’s it, I’ve made it,’” she says. “And then you actually get to that standard and realise it doesn’t make any difference really. I’ve still got no money and I still can’t buy a house.”

“I might have been a bit better off if I hadn’t wasted all this time doing this, if I’d worked a bit harder at a career.”

Competitors regularly have to fork out £1,000 for entry fees, flights and a hotel for weekend tournaments

“I had a year where I did really badly,” she adds. “If you’re going to two tournaments a month, it’s soon a lot of pressure on your shoulders to try and win something to pay it back.”

Zara believes that the British Tenpin Bowling Association could do more to boost the sport’s reputation as a “real sport” and attract serious competitors.

She says: “The whole organisation is all very old fashioned. I think the average age is mid-60s. They’re not moving with the times really.”

“People have already got that idea in their head that it’s old school beer and skittles, all middle-aged blokes with beer bellies” she adds. “That the lads go there, have a few beers. That it’s a night out rather than a sport.”

Zara feels UK bowling could learn something from other countries where the sport is regarded rather differently.

Last year, the Swedish league paid for her to go over and compete: “It does actually feel like you’re part of like a football club. They’ve got dressing rooms and it’s really treated like a sport.”

“Asia is the biggest one really,” she adds. “One of the girls I’m friends with who’s Malaysian is on billboards over there, advertising chocolate and things. It’s a different world.”

But the future of UK tenpin bowling may not be so bleak. Zara recently founded a Lancashire academy to train youngsters across the county and is keen to encourage more newcomers into the alley.

“We train adults on Monday night in Blackburn and last week we had a 75-year-old come along!” she says.

“That’s the thing about bowling,” she adds. “Whether you’re five or 90, anyone can do it if they really try.”

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