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Helen Wood bowling 

When Helen Wood became a wheelchair user at the age of 21, her whole life changed and she had to learn to live with her disability on a day-to-day basis.

"I was able-bodied as a child and team sports were my main love, hockey, tennis, badminton, netball and basketball," she said. "The thought of giving up was devastating.
"I have always been sporty since when I was little so when I knew I had to use a wheelchair I wondered how I was going to survive without sport."

After starting to have problems with her health in her late teens, Helen was in and out of hospital for three years before being diagnosed with Hemi-Dystonia, a neurological condition which affects her left side.

After a stint in rehab, she represented Great Britain in wheelchair basketball from 1986 to 1992 until her health deteriorated further and she was no longer able to play due to the amount of contact involved.
"It was heart-breaking. I went back into rehab and it was there I met my husband Barry."

In 1994 the couple stumbled upon an indoor bowls green while away on holiday.
Helen recalled: "I didn't think bowls would be for me as I thought it was a slow pace and not physical, but I was hooked straight away and loved it. As soon as we got home I found an indoor club for us to play at.
"Bowls has genuinely given me a life and helped me to focus on the things I can do rather than what I can't do. Yes, I think occasionally that I wish I could do some thing or other, but I try to push those thoughts aside.
"It's a safe environment where most people are welcoming and you can choose what level you want to play at. Bowls has been important for me from a social interaction perspective as when I am at the club I am meeting and engaging with people from all different walks of life.
"Another great thing about the game is that anybody can play from a child up to 100 years old, bowls truly is a sport for all."

Helen has worked hard to show just how inclusive bowls is and has made it her mission to excel in mainstream competitions. Such is her drive and ability that she was the first wheelchair player to reach EIBA national finals in 2009 and she has been a regular ever since, last year reaching the last 16 of both the women's pairs and fours.Helen Wood and team

She said: "I have always been a competitive person, I find that competition gives me a purpose and drives me. I get good days and bad days and my condition affects all my left side but I love my bowls, it keeps me alive and going."

Awareness of disability bowlers and their needs has improved dramatically since Helen starting playing, thanks largely to Mo Monkton, Maggie Smith MBE, Steve Watson, the backroom staff of Disability Bowls England and EIBA Chief Executive Peter Thompson.

But it has not been all plain-sailing.

Helen said: "There is still a lot of prejudice but I have learnt to let it go over my head and it makes me more determined. The toughest part is not being accepted by some people or when they try underhand tactics to put you off, like saying that the wheelchair is in the way.
"Once I was bowling in a league game and Barry was sat watching - I don't think they realised he was my husband - this chap was complaining that I was always in his way even though I was on my own rink the whole time. He tried to say it was just banter but it wasn't.
"I have been asked a few times if I can re-position myself which is fine when the jack has been moved but not all the time. I try my best but I am concentrating on my own game.
"In my early days when I was in a manual chair and relied on a pusher, they hadn't turned up one day and the opposite skip said she'd help me as she could see I was struggling.
"A couple of ends later she said she could no longer do it as her teammates were complaining and saying she shouldn't help me. That really did hurt and she was mortified too.
"I think the key is greater education. I just want to enjoy the bowls.
"Teammates and friends say they don't see my disability, they just see me and there's a lot more of that then the negative side."
Heen Wood with trophyBarry said: "Helen has been quietly determined to carry on - early on there was resistance to her being on the bowls rink, we had quite a few comments about disabled bowlers having their own competitions so why are they joining ours, but things have come a long way and now people are a lot more willing to accept that Helen is on the rink.
"Electric bowls chairs have made a big difference and there's a lot more disabled people playing now."

Helen has enjoyed a long list of successes over the years and this season has earned a place on the EIBA women's ranking list.
"That was a really nice surprise," she said, "It's a really big achievement and something I've strived for since I started bowling in 1996.

"Although I am not one for the limelight, I am very proud of myself and I have always been determined to show that bowls is a sport for all."

A former winner of Disability Bowls England's 'Player of the Year' Award, Helen regularly skips rinks for York & District IBC the EIBA Yetton Trophy which the club won in 2019, and for Yorkshire in the EIBA Atherley Competition.
She was the Disability Sport England National Singles champion in 2004 and since DBE was established has done well in both the pairs and singles events.

But Helen's proudest achievement was being named captain for DBE in the International Para Home Nations event this year.
"Every home nations I have been involved in we have brought the cup home which is a great triumph," she said, "To get picked to play for your country is such an honour and we have a great squad.
Everyone comes together and it is just one team England and it's brilliant.
"Last home nations at Newport stands out - to be captain and to lead your team and raise the trophy was fantastic.
"It breaks my heart to think we may not have these events for much longer due to finances.
"The ultimate goal for me would be to represent England in the main team - I've had three trials to date but it seems to be a bit of a glass ceiling."

Helen's one piece of advice to anyone thinking about taking up bowls is simple: "Just do it, don't be put off if one club doesn't fit, try another one. And don't give up. If you can get a friend involved, even better!"

Sian Honnor

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December 2023

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