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Bowls not just for oldies

Olivia (left) and Fiona Mancer after their win at the Manawatu Open Pairs in 2021. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Family chemistry bowls over their rivals
Lawn bowls is no longer just an ‘old person’s’ sport – and Fiona and Olivia Mancer have the championship titles to prove it. They chat to ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL.

When Fiona Mancer was invited to play her first game of lawn bowls, she admits her first thought was “no way, I’m too young.”

In 2011, Fiona was living in Manawatu with her young family when, while taking her two small daughters to their Girl Guides meeting, she was approached by a member of Kimbolton and Districts Bowling Club.

“The bowling green was right by the community hall. I’d dropped the girls off, and a woman came up to me and said, ‘you’re wearing flat shoes. We need a third person for our game.’

“I played my first game, and I was hooked. I went home and bought a pair of bowling shoes and a set of bowls on TradeMe. It became my thing.”

On moving to Wairarapa, it wasn’t long before eldest daughter Olivia, then still at primary school, caught the bug – drafted in last-minute for evening games at Masterton Bowling Club.

Flash forward to 2022, and both Mancers are two of the region’s most decorated sportswomen in their field: winning, between them, over 20 Wairarapa Centre titles, several national medals and, for Olivia, two consecutive national secondary school championships.

Olivia, now Year 13 at Solway College, was awarded Junior Player of the Year at the 2001 Bowls Wairarapa Awards.

The Mancer women regularly join forces on the green, both as a pair and in triples teams – and rate their proudest moment as their win at last year’s Manawatu Open Pairs, beating former New Zealand representative Sharon Sims.

Gone are the days where lawn bowls was solely the domain of pensioners in their “summer whites”.

Thanks to greater visibility on television, and the success of younger players (such as Katelyn Inch, who made the New Zealand Blackjacks at age 21), the sport is becoming more popular among secondary students.

Though the Mancers receive some good-natured teasing for their sport of choice (Olivia says her nickname at school is “Granny Mancer”), their skill on the turf is undeniable – with the combination of Olivia’s dynamic style and Fiona’s cool head making them a formidable force.

“I think Liv’s youth is an advantage, as she plays with no fear,” Fiona said.

“She sees a shot lined up, and she goes for it. She plays with no hesitation and doesn’t doubt herself.

“There aren’t a lot of sports where people of all ages can play together at a competitive level – and the young people definitely bring that energy to the green with them.”

“Basically, for me, if you can see it, you can play it,” Olivia chimed in.

“While Mum is all about the strategy. She’s good at figuring out what our opponent is doing, and then blocking their moves.”

After her fateful first game, Fiona quickly joined the Kimbolton and Districts Club Bowling Club, and later the Masterton Bowling Club – which she noticed was “much more competitive”.

At a training day, she met then Bowls Wairarapa chair and team selector Darkie Barrow, who advised her to find a coach.

Barrow recommended Ian Monaghan, long-time coach and winner of no fewer than 70 Wairarapa Centre titles.

With Monaghan’s guidance, Fiona went on to win her first Wairarapa title – and still has the envelope her certificate came in, which Barrow addressed to “Fiona ‘Millie Khan’ Mancer”.

The late “Magical Millie Khan” is widely considered New Zealand’s greatest female bowler.

“I really treasure that. Darkie obviously saw something in me.”

Fiona now holds 18 Wairarapa titles – most recently emerging victorious at last month’s Wairarapa Open Triples, alongside Olivia and seasoned bowler Dale Rowe – and one Manawatu title.

In 2019, she and fellow Wairarapa bowler Tina Hogg competed in the National Women’s Pairs in Dunedin, where they placed third.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would go this far.”

Olivia at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Open Girls Championship.

Olivia has similarly come along in leaps and bounds since first picking up a bias ball at age 11.

With her father on late shifts, she accompanied Fiona to twilight games at the Masterton club – where, if any teams were short, she would come on board as “the third man”.

Olivia confesses those early games were “a bit chaotic” – but she pressed on, working with Monaghan and improving her technique.

She eventually joined Solway College’s bowling team – also coached by Monaghan, assisted by Fiona (who jokes she is mostly responsible for “bringing the ice blocks”) – and, in her first year, competed at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Open Girls’ Championship, placing eighth.

She won the Wellington Secondary Schoolgirls’ Bowling Championship two years in a row and, in 2019, was part of the victorious Solway team (alongside sister Bianca) at the Wellington Secondary Schools Junior Championship.

Playing for the Carrington and Featherston Bowling Clubs, Olivia has won four Wairarapa titles, and has competed in the National Championship Triples and Fours with Dale Rowe (her “second Mum”), Tanya Wheeler and Janelle Frew.

They finished in the top eight for the triples, and third equal for the fours.

“I was very proud of that – I’ve still got the medal hanging out in my room!” Olivia said.

She and Fiona say the key to their success as a pair is being able to draw on one another’s strengths, good communication, and even a bit of family intuition.

“I can tell by Liv’s face what shots she wants to take,” Fiona said.

“Sometimes, I’ll fall into the mum role and reassure her. But it’s important she develops confidence in her moves.

“Plus, she makes some of her best shots under pressure.”

Fiona admits she can be “an embarrassing Mum” on the green – calling Olivia by her childhood nicknames of “princess” and “chicken noodle”.

“In every game, we have a W drawn on our palms, which we see whenever we high five. Hopefully, it’s a W for winner; if not, it’s an upside down ‘M’ for Mancer.”

As members of different clubs, the Mancers are sometimes rivals – and happy to give one another a fierce competition.

“We’re pretty competitive – but we’re each other’s biggest supporter,” Olivia said.

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