Natasha Van Eldik is one of Australia’s best at bowls, but not all women have felt welcome on the green

You wouldn’t generally expect a 30-year-old to be such an accomplished national lawn bowler, but in her already esteemed career, Natasha Van Eldik has made more than 300 international appearances for Australia.

In June, she made history by becoming the first woman to win three Australian Open singles titles, and now has her sights set on next year’s Commonwealth Games.

Van Eldik started playing at 15, when she was looking for somewhere to belong.

Bullied at school, she made a deal with her parents that if she picked up a sport, she could leave school half an hour early. But she admits her initial attraction to lawn bowls wasn’t the sport itself.

Natasha Van Eldik bowls while the sun sets.
Van Eldik started bowling at 15 after striking a deal with her parents to leave school early and play a sport.(Getty Images: Feng Li)

She went once a week, and for the first nine weeks in a row she didn’t even bowl.

“The coach at the time [Tony Scott] said ‘please, can you just put down some bowls so you can say you’ve actually done something?'” Van Eldik said.

“And I did, and he was basically like ‘oh wow, there’s a lot of talent here.'”

Scott rang Van Eldik’s parents the next week and told them he wanted to coach her, because he believed one day, she’d play for Australia. And he was right.

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Three years later Van Eldik went to the Delhi Commonwealth Games, where she became the youngest player to represent Australia in lawn bowls.

It’s not all positive

For Van Eldik, the experience of coming into bowls as a young woman was overwhelmingly positive.

“Everyone at the club made me feel really welcome. I kind of fell in love with it. Within the first few weeks [of playing] I realised it was my happy place.” she said.

Natasha Van Eldik speaks with two other teammates while on the green.
Van Eldik (left) has had an overwhelmingly positive experience in bowls.(Supplied: Bowls Australia)

But Bowls Australia admits that hasn’t been the experience for all women.

“From an inclusion point of view, it’s been difficult, and the statistics don’t lie. A third of our membership participation is women. We’re nowhere near the population breakdown. So there’s a real gap there.”

Driving change in order to attract and retain women from all generations is now a key focus for Bowls Australia.

Five women in green and gold outfits stand on a bowling green, link arms and smile.
Bowls Australia is now implementing strategies from the green up to make sure the game is inclusive.(Supplied: Bowls Australia)

Making changes from the top

Knowing anecdotally some of the barriers and experiences women were having across the sport, Bowls Australia formed a Women in Bowls working party.

A survey was then used to gather data to support a new strategy to drive change.

Professional player, former CEO of Bowls Tasmania, and current Bowls Australia High-Performance Manager, Rebecca Van Asch, is part of that working party.

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Van Asch first got into the national team 11 years ago, and despite having positive experiences herself, she was aware change needed to be made.

Rebecca Van Asch kneels and bowls.
Rebecca Van Asch says she was aware change needed to be made.(Supplied: Bowls Australia)

Part of that longevity strategy is developing more women leaders through a ‘Future Female Leaders’ program that focuses on admin and leadership skills.

“We struggled to get a lot of women to step up to fill board positions, they’re still very much male dominated,” Dalrymple said.

A new-look green

Closer to the green, the survey results also highlighted ways the bowls community could change to modernise and promote inclusivity.

That included scheduling of games, flexible options with less commitment and more competitions centred around social connections.

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“Historically, like golf, we offered women’s-only competitions during the week, during the day, so if you worked or went to university or school, you couldn’t play bowls, so having competitions at night, under lights and on weekends and at different times is critical,” Dalrymple said.

And yes, the uniforms also came up.

“One of the women of the advisory group used to wear a white dress and white hat and didn’t want to get out of the car because she didn’t want to be seen, so it’s definitely important,” Dalrymple said.

A woman in white leans down and is about to release a bowl.
Bowls Australia says there’s a demand for more modern outfits on the bowling green.(Getty Images: Grant Faint)

By engaging with this research and the working group, the sport has been able to more clearly understand the nuanced experiences of different women and small things that create big barriers. Bowls Australia will now work to implement the strategy over the coming months.

Natasha Van Eldik found community and connection through joining a sport that welcomed, encouraged, and included her from the moment she walked into the rink at Raymond Terrace, looking for a happier place.

Bowls Australia has challenged itself now to commit to making this the new normal for women of all ages wanting to find theirs.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Felicity Smith is a freelance writer and a participant in Siren Sport’s Emerging Sports Writer Program.

And Kasey Symons is a Research Fellow in the Sport Innovation Research Group at Swinburne University in Melbourne and a co-founder of Siren: A Women in Sport Collective.

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