One day in the late 1980’s Gary Cantwell was crossing the road and was hit by a car. He was in a coma for almost three weeks and when he woke he was unable to talk, see clearly or walk, for months after the accident. Doctors recommended Gary be placed in permanent care for the rest of his life, however his parents worked hard to convince the doctors that he be given a chance to rehabilitate. As a result of the accident Gary has a traumatic head injury (Acquired Cerebral Palsy) and some physical problems.
With great progress in rehabilitation, Gary is able to walk again unassisted, and after five years was back running in Para-Athletics, something he was passionate about as he had always competed in athletics prior to his accident. Gary earned a place in the Paralympic Squad for the Sydney Olympic Games. Unfortunately, however, an injury and an operation 9 months out from the Olympics prevented him from meeting the required performance obligations for selection.
Gary had an Uncle and Aunty who used to bowl at the Simpson Bowls Club in South Western Victoria, so being exposed to bowls at a young age meant taking up bowls was always going to be on the cards for Gary, and was something he intended to do when he retired from running. Gary was forced to give up his running earlier than planned due to increasing discomfort, but was only able to take up bowls once he retired from work four years ago.
Gary joined Ferntree Gully Bowls Club in September of 2016 and started playing pennant 2 weeks later. The following April he was assessed as a Bowler with a Disability and that same day, he played in the State Multi-Disability Championships at the Yarraville-Footscray Bowls Club. In addition to playing pennant each Saturday, Gary plays regular social games at Ferntree Gully and Lilydale, and occasionally at Bayswater, Dromana and Warragal. He is a Social Member of the Boronia Bowls Club and a member of the Maltese Social Bowls group with whom he plays bowls monthly on a Sunday over the pennant season at Preston Reservoir Bowls Club. Gary’s unique bowling stance and delivery has given him the nick name ‘the crab’ amongst some of his fellow bowlers.
Although his involvement in bowls has been short so far, Gary says he has the best fun on the green. “I love bowls because it is very social, but you can also play as competitive and serious as you want. I am very passionate about the community, and bowls is a community sport. It is easy to play and it’s no contact, so it really is a sport for All Abilities. It’s a gentle way to become active and the rules are simple”.
Gary’s unusual bowling action
When Gary was asked about some of his best achievements and favorite experiences playing bowls, he said, “A couple of years ago I bowled in a tournament in Victoria on a Monday and stood at the same end with the great John Snell. Four days later at the Disability Bowlers Australian Open Pairs on the Gold Coast I bowled against Ken Hansen and Lucas Protopapas. So, in one week, I had bowled against 3 Medalists (5 Medals) from past World Championships and Commonwealth Games teams”.
“There are great opportunities for Disability Bowlers. In Victoria we have the State Development Squad, State Championships, Disability tournaments and the Australian Open. As a Disability Bowler I see areas for improvement through the development of inclusive policies and identifying people with a disability as another channel for recruitment,” Gary says. “I started playing bowls to have fun and to try a new sport. I started bowling with the Disability State Squad and found myself in a world of dedicated fun bowlers”.
Gary sits on his club’s Recruitment Committee and enjoys recruiting new bowlers to the game. “I’m proud that I’ve introduced a couple of pennant bowlers who I then referred to be classified as Bowlers with a Disability, and to be able to compete with the State Squads”.
This year Gary has joined the Bowls Victoria Disability Support Committee and brings to the role his recent experience and new ideas. Gary is his Local Government Area’s Citizen of the Year, awarded for his work in his local community. “I speak publicly about resilience and living in the now. I’m involved in several community projects, with focus around isolation, community engagement and ageism. I see similarities between bowls and Councils with the need to be flexible, be innovative, be aware and be inclusive within their respective Communities” said Gary. “I’d like to use my skills developed over 30 years working in business analysis, strategy, business development and marketing management to assist the Disability Support Committee foster an inclusive bowls club culture. This includes making our sport more accessible to people with a disability”.
Some final words of wisdom from Gary were simply “Sometimes each of us needs to ‘Step Off the Mat’, take a deep breath and have a look around”.
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