Bowling for Gold

Margaret Johnson - Northern Ireland's world beating outdoor bowls champion

These days Margaret Johnston restricts her outings to the bowls club in Ballymoney to competitive matches.

‘It's a 44 mile round trip from my home,’ she explains. ‘That’s too far just to go to practice for half an hour. There’s nothing like playing in real matches.’

As well she might know, having been crowned world outdoor lawn bowls singles champion an unprecedented three times, to go with her three world pairs gold medals. A 61 year old grandmother, she is quick to dispel any doubts that she still has the desire to succeed.

‘Sometimes I think to myself, what am I doing out here? But as soon as I'm on the green I say I'm not going to let her beat me and I give it all I've got.’

Since she took up bowls 41 years ago Johnston has been giving it her all: ‘I was always into sport. I played a lot of hockey and netball at school and later I took up short mat bowls just to get out of the house one night a week.’

‘I suppose you could say I had the aptitude for the sport,’ she adds modestly. That aptitude has brought her rewards on bowling greens the world over.

Johnston, who has countless national titles and international appearances to her name, claimed her first world singles title in 1992 in Ayr. Four years later she missed out, but resumed her reign at the top in 2000 in Australia and again last year in Lemington Spa where she outclassed Commonwealth bronze medallist Lorna Trigwell of South Africa.

At the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, she won the gold medal in the singles. In the world pairs all her victories have been shared with close friend Phyllis Nolan. However, it is the Commonwealth pairs gold with Freda Elliot, won at the Edinburgh Games in 1986, which remains her most precious possession.

‘I remember the moment when I put that gold medal around my neck. Nothing I’ve achieved since came near to that feeling of pride. It was my first gold and will always have a special place in my heart.’

In between her travels, Margaret works as the caretaker at the local primary school in Bellaghy. When she returned from defeating Scotland’s Karen Dawson in the final of the Champion of Champions tournament in Warilla, Australia in late 2004, she brought each of the pupils at the school a toy koala bear.

‘I’ve been very fortunate to get to travel the world and play at the highest level at some of the best rinks that there are. The special thing about this sport is the friendships that you make.’

At an age when many sports people might be expected to thinking about more sedate past times, Johnston already has her plans laid out for 2005 and 2006. 

‘I hope to be able to defend my singles title at the Atlantic Rim tournament which is in Bangor this August. A good performance in that will hopefully help my chances of selection for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne next year.’

Indoor bowls and the outdoor sport – which Margaret prefers – is attracting a much younger following, but anyone writing off this world champion’s ambitions does so at their peril.

‘I’ve always loved a challenge. That’s what keeps me going and gives me the edge to my game. As long as I have that, who knows what else I might achieve. Don’t discount me yet.’

By Padraig Coyle

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