Guide dog owners to compete in Commonwealth Games

Author: Regional Marketing and Communications Team
  • Dogs
  • Inspiring People
Chris and guide dog James
Chris and guide dog James

Guide dog owners to compete in Commonwealth Games

Author: Regional Marketing and Communications Team

Chris Turnbull, 73, from Scarborough, has been spending months preparing to compete in Lawn Bowls at the 2022 Commonwealth Games – accompanied by his guide dog James.

Chris, a retired teacher, husband, father and grandfather, has a sight condition called bilateral myopic macular degeneration and at 30 years of age, the optician told him he had the eyes of an 80-year-old. But as a keen sportsman, he didn’t let his sight loss stop him.

Chris said: “I couldn’t let my sight stop me from competing. It was my life, my way of achieving success despite my disability.

“I love a challenge but as my sight deteriorated, so my sport had to change. I started out playing football and achieved representative honours at county level despite having to wear glasses with very thick lenses.

“As I got older my footballing days ended but I carried on playing cricket as an opening bowler and number 11 batsman - I played at Yorkshire Council standard. One day, however, I was bowled a bouncer and although I couldn’t see it, I knew I was in trouble and quickly put my elbow up to protect my face. That made me realise my cricketing days were also over - I had to admit defeat and look for something else.

“I discovered lawn bowls in 1996. The local bowling club in Leicestershire, where I previously lived, had a ‘come and try’ day which was then followed by four free lessons. I was hooked! I had found something in which I could compete with sighted players with no danger to myself and on a more or less equal footing. However, to close the gap I needed certain adaptations.

“I had heard that visually impaired (VI) bowlers met once a fortnight at Victoria Park in Leicester for social bowls. I joined in and discovered that they used a green string to determine the centre line of the rink.

“This got me thinking - I could not see the green string on the green grass but I could see a white one. This had to be sanctioned and after many emails, phone calls, conversations with the relevant ruling bodies and with lots of support from VIBE, Leicestershire and Warwickshire Umpires Associations and EBA we got there in the end. It was passed. Now I could compete.”

Chris has gone on to excel in bowls and has represented England at three world bowls championships and in the UK singles visually impaired team, winning many medals.

Recently he has also represented Disability Bowls England in the Para Home Nations. Now, he is proudly representing Team England at the Commonwealth Games in the Para Visually Impaired mixed pairs with his bowls partner Alison Yearling.

Chris continues: “To me, this is just something I live with. I don’t think of it as a challenge or as negatively impacting my life because I have always done this. It is part and parcel of who I am. However, it has been pointed out to me that never knowing when or how much sight I will lose is a challenge. So I accept that it is.”

Chris was partnered with his guide dog James in 2015.

Chris and guide dog James close up

“In 2005 we returned to Yorkshire and moved to Filey from Leicestershire. My sight had deteroriated and we wanted to live by the coast – and of course return to God’s own country where I grew up!

“After my sight deteriorated further I contacted Guide Dogs a few years later to see whether I would be eligible for a guide dog and I was put on the waiting list.

“The support from the charity has been invaluable. First, my wife has allergies and we knew that I couldn’t have a Labrador because she was allergic to them. So Guide Dogs found a Labrador Poodle cross - James. We had a trial night with him in our home and my wife had no allergic reaction to him. When he was fully trained, James and I were paired up in July 2015. He has been my guide and buddy ever since.

“He takes me everywhere. We travel by train to Huddersfield football matches; to bowls tournaments; to town by bus and he even accompanied me to Spain where my wife was working at the time. So he’s been on a plane and a ferry with me too.

“James is also a keen bowls spectator, never taking his eyes off me or the woods. On one occasion, James was sitting at the end of my rink and I sent a fast, running wood. As the bowl approached the end of the rink, he calmly lifted his paw out of the way and then put his paw back when the wood stopped!”

Chris is now looking forward to the Commonwealth Games, following an intense period of training which included a two year trials process, various tournaments and test matches. After the team was selected in March, Chris and his teammates have spent many weekends training and have covered a number of topics to prepare them for the games, including psychology of sport and nutrition.

He said: “Being selected to play at the Commonwealth Games for my country is the pinnacle for me and such an honour. I feel great joy that I have been included in this talented Team England, especially at this inclusive Commonwealth Games.

“James will be with me at the games. He usually waits patiently at the side. “I look forward to learning from and observing the tactics and skills of some of the best bowlers in the Commonwealth and of course I can’t wait to play! I’m very excited and a little nervous too. It would be the pinnacle of my sporting life to win a medal, preferably gold!

“It has taken time and now at the ripe old age of 73, I’m ready. Bring it on. Let the games begin!”

Meanwhile, Welsh guide dog owner Julie Thomas knows exactly how it feels to win a medal in lawn bowls at the Commonwealth Games, having scooped a bronze in Gold Coast, Australia, in 2018. She hopes to do even better this time, with the extra reassurance of knowing guide dog Yoko, a three-year-old German shepherd retriever cross, is at her side.

Julie and Yoko

Julie, a mother of three grown-up children, was a primary school headteacher until she suffered unexplained sight loss and was faced with the challenge of rebuilding her life. She was eventually introduced to para lawn bowls, and found she had a natural talent. In addition to her Commonwealth Games bronze medal, she holds the Welsh and UK Outdoor Singles title.

Julie says: “I had wanted nothing more than to be a teacher my whole life. Teaching was my passion. Suddenly I could not do it any more and I felt completely lost. Everything that I was and had built my whole life around had gone. I felt I had lost myself as well as my sight. I felt utterly useless.

“I spent six months just wallowing. I'd wake up, open my eyes and would not know what to do. I needed help to do simple tasks like washing, dressing and getting in and out of the shower. You keep asking yourself, ‘Why me?’

“But I'm a very resilient person. I had children to bring up - I was still a mum. They needed me. I've always been a problem solver, a practical person. I couldn't teach, but I needed to do something, so I became the chair of a charity for visually impaired people and started organising things for them.”

Julie discovered bowls by chance during a taster session for the charity and found she had a natural talent.

Julie and Yoko with team

“Bowls saved my sanity. The taster session didn't sound very exciting – but I was well and truly hooked. Bowls is an amazing sport and my sight loss was not a barrier to playing. It was really gripping. I took to it like a duck to water and it really boosted my confidence.”

Just two months after attending the session in April 2014, she entered her first competition, where she was crowned Welsh Champion. She went on to win her first British Isles title the following year, and there was no stopping her. She became the first Welsh VI athlete to hold an Indoor and Outdoor title at the same time - an incredible achievement - with the help of coach and mentor John Wilson, who taught Julie to bowl to such a high standard.

Within three years of starting the sport, she was selected to represent Wales at the Commonwealth Games, winning bronze in the mixed para-sport pairs event.

“It seems surreal. I can’t believe I was representing Wales in Australia and competing for a medal after only three years. I'm the sort of person who puts a lot of pressure on myself, and we were so close to winning gold or silver it leaves you wanting even more. This time I feel better prepared mentally as I know what to expect. I was taken aback by the noise and atmosphere – clapping, whooping, cheering. It was great, just unexpected. They keep telling you how proud you are going to feel wearing the red vest of Wales, but you don't understand it till you get there. You step on the green and really want to do well, more than usual. There’s an extra dimension to it. I’m proof that with dedication, determination and commitment, anything is possible.”

Julie qualified with her first guide dog, Yoko, in late 2020 and the pair have attended a number of bowls competitions together. Julie says: “Yoko is absolutely fantastic. She’s a real superstar. She is so calm and reassuring and seems to have built-in radar. She only has to do something once and she knows exactly where she is going. This is so reassuring for me, as we often visit places only once. She seems to have this uncanny ability to problem solve and find alternative routes around obstacles. She gives me a whole new sense of independence off the green and this makes it easier for me to play. She is also great to give a little cuddle too if you need to relax for a moment or two. I don’t know what I ever did without her. She really is amazing and she has made my life so much easier.”

Julie and Yoko were chosen to appear in a film unveiling the Wales team kit for this year’s Commonwealth Games. “I think Yoko stole the show when she put her paw up and gave me a lick,” Julie says. “She was a natural. She just takes everything in her stride. I am so proud of her and delighted that she is with me to represent Wales.”

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