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Accidental Lawn Bowler: Wrong turn helped Tim Mason get to Commonwealth Games

Lawn bowler Tim Mason practices at the Kelvingrove Lawn Bowls Centre at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Mason took up the sport ten years ago after taking a wrong turn on the way to a community centre while looking for a gymnasium. A decade later he is bowling for Canada at the games. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

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Lawn bowler Tim Mason practices at the Kelvingrove Lawn Bowls Centre at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Mason took up the sport ten years ago after taking a wrong turn on the way to a community centre while looking for a gymnasium. A decade later he is bowling for Canada at the games. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

GLASGOW, Scotland - A wrong turn changed Tim Mason's life.

Having just moved to West Vancouver, B.C., he was in search of a local community centre and a new gym when he got his directions confused and stumbled upon some lawn bowlers.

"I had played every sport under the sun — had a cup of coffee in the minors for hockey, played tennis, golf ... you name it," Mason recalled this week. "I parked the jeep, walked through the gate and said 'What do I do? I've never seen this before.'

"Now ten years later I'm out here for the Commonwealth Games."

Mason is part of Canada's lawn bowling team in Glasgow, and in a decade the 39-year-old has been transformed from a neophyte to not only a competitor, but also a member of the sport's national board.

While he has a strong passion for lawn bowling, Mason conceded there are a lot of pre-conceived notions back home that he and his teammates are trying to change.

"Believe me, I've heard every joke under the sun from my friends that the sport is for old people who wear white," said Mason. "We're developing programs for kids to learn about the game because it's really unknown.

"At my lawn bowling club in West Vancouver we have a member that's eight, and a member that's 95. On the social side of things it's fantastic, or it can be ultra competitive like here."

In lawn bowling — or lawn bowls, as it is also known — players roll balls alone or as part of a team to a specific target on a grass playing surface known as a green. The balls are unevenly weighted and curl as they slow down.

Mason said that his background in other sports — especially hockey — helped him get a handle on lawn bowling.

"I wasn't a big guy out there on the ice," said the native of Penetanguishene, Ont. "It was about your hands. I was a playmaker. I've been using that as well as the sports psychology and the mental side of things."

Physical fitness is also a big part of what the five-foot-nine 170-pound Mason said has contributed to his success as he prepares for his first Commonwealth Games.

"It's not easy. We're out there two and a half hours in a game," he said. "You're lunging. You want to keep the muscle memory. You don't want your body to get tired because when your body gets tired you start to do a couple different things differently than how you practised."

A lot of competitors get into lawn bowling through family connections at a young age and grow up playing with parents and grandparents.

Mason took a much different route, but was a quick study.

Within three weeks of picking up the sport he was competing for a provincial title, and not long after he scored a victory at a qualifier for a Canadian championship.

"I won that and they sent me off to Australia," said Mason. "I was about a year and half in and found myself playing against some of the best players in the world."

He has a silver and three bronze medals from the Asia Pacific championships, but because lawn bowling isn't an Olympic sport, the Commonwealth Games are the pinnacle for these athletes.

"I love being here because it's so different," said Mason. "I'm in the gym training with the South African rugby team and the Australian rugby team and they're looking at me saying 'You're a lawn bowler?' It's really kind of cool that way."

Lawn bowling is divided into singles, doubles, triples and fours for both men and women at the Commonwealth Games, and also includes one para-event for visually impaired athletes.

Ryan Bester, who play professionally in Australia and is making his fourth trip to the Games after winning bronze in men's singles in 2006, is optimistic Canada will have a memorable showing.

"I think our prospects are pretty good," said the 30-year-old from Hanover, Ont. "This is why we play. All the hours of training are for moments like this."

Bester made his debut at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester at the age of 18 back in 2002 and like Mason wants to show Canadians what the sport is all about.

"I'm hoping that some of the medal games might be shown on TV in Canada," he said. "Maybe more people will try out the game."

Al Hanet tried the game out when he was in his 50s after his vision deteriorated, and all he has done since is compete for Canada at a number of international events, including the 1994 Commonwealth Games and the 1996 Paralympics.

Now 78 and the second-oldest competitor at these Games, the Kelowna, B.C., resident is relishing another opportunity on the sport's biggest stage in the para-event.

"Probably my last chance and I really appreciate it," said Hanet, whose wife serves as his guide. "I've worked hard for it and I'm happy to be here.

"(Lawn bowling) is not as popular a sport as I would like. A lot of people think it's just an old boys game, but it isn't. You can start young and work up. It's great entertainment."

Kelly McKerihen — who won a bronze in women's singles at the 2012 world championships and is considered a podium threat here — is cherishing every moment as she gets ready for her first Games.

"This happens every four years, our world championships happen every four years. It doesn't happen very often," said the 28-year-old from Toronto. "This is a great opportunity to showcase our sport and show that younger people can play the game and play at a high level."

Mason knows that he fell into the lawn bowling almost by accident, but it's his hope that success and exposure in Scotland will get a new generation interested.

"I didn't even know what lawn bowling was," Mason said with a smile. "I had never even seen the game or heard about the game.

"I always tell people now, 'You never know what you're good at until you give it a try.'"

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