Commonwealth Games: Margaret Johnston: Bowls: The mistress of the end-game

BY THE age of 55, most sports players have long since joined the gerontocracy and lapsed into "it weren't like this in my day" mode. Margaret Johnston, five times a world champion, is a shining exception to this rule.

High in this feisty grandmother's seemingly endless list of achievements during nearly 35 years of competition is the Commonwealth Games singles gold medal which she won for Northern Ireland four years ago in Canada. She is relishing her defence of the title, but there is also a touch of apprehension, not about the competition, but the conditions.

"Of all the sports, bowls requires the competitors to be out in the open for the longest period," she said. "A fours match can take up to four hours to complete. Coming from Ireland, I'm not exactly used to heat. The hottest I've ever bowled in was 40 degrees Centigrade in Australia, but the thing about Malaysia is the humidity. I don't like hats but I'm going to have to wear a visor. Perhaps I'll do what one of the Australian girls does and put a damp cloth on my head. I've also spent a fortune on sun blocks and creams. There's no doubt you've got to be really fit for this.

"I'm told that the greens out in Malaysia are going to be very fast which means that we will be aiming straighter than we would normally here at home. Fortunately for me, I'll have almost two weeks to acclimatise because we all go out there at the end of this month and the ladies' singles is the last event in the programme." Her main rivals are likely to be Scotland's Julie Forrest, Carmen Anderson from Norfolk Island, New Zealand's Millie Khan ("she's even older than me") and the South African Lesley Hartwell. "In my experience, though, the ones you're not expecting too much trouble with are often the toughest to beat," she said, aware that as defending champion hers will be the most coveted scalp of all.

Her love of bowls has not wavered since she first encountered the "short mat" version of the sport at her local church hall in County Londonderry in 1964. "The minister started up a group of us and I seemed to have the knack straight away. I'd been good at other sports like hockey and netball at school which probably helped."

She soon graduated to the real thing but has only become an international force in the past 15 years. In addition to her Commonwealth crown, her roll call includes a pairs gold medal at Edinburgh in 1986, a singles bronze in Auckland four years later, three world outdoor pairs and two world indoor singles titles, plus a string of Irish championships.

But despite such consistent success, her life away from bowls has been far from easy. Apart from the obvious difficulties of living through the Troubles ("As a sports person you can't get involved. You keep your nose clean and your mouth shut"), she has been unemployed for the last three years since being made redundant from her job as an auxiliary at a private nursing home.

"Money is tight. I'm divorced and I've got no sponsor. There's only a small amount of Lottery funding, but it doesn't cover my main expense, which is travelling," said Margaret, who has two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren. "The club I play at in Ballymoney is 22 miles away and Belfast is a round trip of more than 100 miles. In addition, we pay all our expenses when we compete internationally and you also have to buy your own uniform. They tried to get some money out of us to go Malaysia but we told them that if that was going to be the case we wouldn't go."

This is not the only dictum which the team management, clearly more at home issuing instructions to callow teenagers, will struggle to enforce. "Because of the heat, we've been told not to drink any alcohol at all while we're out there," said Margaret with a chuckle. "I'm not sure whether I'll be sticking to that, though." After all, things like alcohol bans never happened in her day.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Manager

£32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an an exciting opportunity to jo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Reports Developer / Application Support Engineer

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Ashdown Group: BI/ SSRS Developer

£40000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An experienced BI/ ...

Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Sales Executive

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A highly successful e-commerce ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas