Chris Turnbull, 73, from Scarborough, is due to spend the next few weeks preparing to compete in the 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.”
Because of Chris, the game of bowls is now more accessible to those with sight loss. A white string is placed from one end of the rink to the other down the centre of the rink. This tells the player where the centre of the rink is. Visually impaired players with some vision will look for the string and use it as a guide, and those who have no sight at all can feel for the string.
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: “I have focused on the more technical challenges I’ve faced in sport but whilst all this has been happening, my sight is gradually deteriorating. My teaching role changed to accommodate my sight losses until I could no longer continue teaching and had to retire early.
“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.
“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 in July, 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!”
The Lawn Bowls and Para Lawn Bowls will be taking place in Leamington Spa from Friday 29th July.
Guide Dogs helps people with sight loss live the life they choose and relies on its amazing network of volunteers and donations to deliver its lifechanging work.
For more information on how you can support Guide Dogs, visit: https://www.guidedogs.org.uk/how-you-can-help/