What is Boccia? By Ricky Stevenson

Over the next few weeks Wales Arts Review is proud to share a selection of excerpts from a new anthology of marginalised voices,  Just So you Know: Essays of Experience, published  by Parthian Books on August 1st.  This collection aims to bring to light stories, issues and lives that have too often been overlooked, and challenge us to think anew. The anthology includes essays on topics such as self-identity, language and culture, the immigrant experience as well as  BAME, LGBTQ+ and disabled writers confronting heteronormative ideals rarely addressed through a Welsh lens. In this extract Ricky Stevenson explores his journey as a Paralympic boccia player within Team GB and the experience of being a marginalised voice in a largely ignored sport. 

When I tell people I play a sport featured in the Paralympics, they’re impressed. When I simply tell them I play boccia, they stare blankly into my eyes, then ask that dreaded question: ‘What’s boccia?’

My lips go numb and my brain shuts down.

‘What is boccia?’ I ponder, as if I’ve been asked to give the exact measurements of the universe, add them up and divide by Pi.

This is what happened when a BBC reporter interviewed me in the run up to the 2018 Boccia World Championships. I knew the question was coming and I knew I’d fail spectacularly at answering it. The reporter never let on that I was rambling, but beneath his permanent grin, his wide eyes and rapid nods, I could tell he wished he’d never asked.

‘You have six balls and a jack… Have you ever watched Bowls? It’s kind of similar but not really because the balls aren’t bowls, and so they run much more like balls than bowls, if you know what I mean….’

Obviously when they aired the piece they cut this bit out, along with the majority of my other nonsense. I’m just a newbie after all – although I’ve been casually practicing boccia for around eight years, I’ve only recently joined Team GB as part of their transition squad. More experienced players are so well versed and fed up with answering this question that they carry around pre-prepared sticky notes covering the basics, to be flung at any inquirers (turns out the ability to throw objects with speed and accuracy has real-world uses too).

The question is naturally common since boccia remains an overlooked sport, so much so that perhaps it’s a good sign that people are asking questions at all. The best coverage boccia has received so far happened at the 2018 World Championships, where a generous selection of matches was streamed live on the BBC website and uploaded onto YouTube. No live streams were available during the London and Rio Paralympic Games, so I had to settle for watching dressage instead. I have nothing against dressage, but I promise that boccia is far, far easier to grasp than whatever dressage is. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this. Why don’t BBC reporters ask dressage competitors what their sport is?

Perhaps one reason I’m reluctant to provide an easy answer to the question is because I don’t want to undermine how bloody hard it is. Football is just a matter of passing a ball around until you’re close enough to kick it into a massive net. Easy, right? Well in boccia you simply have to make sure that you throw all your balls closer to the jack than your opponent… except both you and your opponent have a physical disability which has a considerable impact on both your dexterity and throwing ability.

In boccia there are four categories of players including BC3s, for example, who use a ramp from which they launch their balls and require an assistant to manoeuvre it under their instruction. But I can only speak as a BC1 (someone affected by cerebral palsy) and as a BC1 you can never be sure where your balls will end up. You have good days and bad days, but for me boccia feels generally like playing darts with a shaky hand (I’d imagine – I wouldn’t dare throw a dart. Even if I was in the middle of the Sahara Desert, I know I’d end up killing something or else stabbing my own eye out.)

Nevertheless, during the 2017 Boccia UK Championships, I inexplicably played my best boccia to date and was very lucky that coaches from Team GB were there to see it. I was apparently good enough to land a spot in the team’s transition squad, in which players are selected for their potential to reach an elite level. That was over a year ago, when I was naive to the fact that I had a lot of work to do, work which would seemingly never end.

The two-day competition passed by like a nice fluffy dream. My throws were accurate, my technique solid throughout, and at no point did I put anyone’s life in danger via wayward throws (a major achievement in itself). I learned first-hand what it means to be in ‘the zone’, and when I received my Silver Medal I couldn’t believe it. My biggest highlight was a tight game against the top-ranked BC1 in the world. What on earth had happened? It didn’t make sense. For the past three years, he’d hammered me and I’d treated this competition as a bit of demented fun, exiting at the group stage each time. Now, over the course of two days everything had changed: I’d discovered that, when playing at my best, I could be a threat to anyone.

Yes, gone were the days of intimidating only the referees who stood too close or anyone unfortunate enough to be fixing the ceiling lights during one of my matches. Now I possessed something called ambition and another thing called confidence and these would continue to grow throughout the transition camps as I established myself as a skilled and consistent player. Then in March 2018 I took part in my first international competition for Team GB: the Bisfed 2018 Madrid Regional Open. Time to make my mark!

Sitting in the waiting room opposite my first opponent of the day, I was pumped. I searched his eyes for weakness. I assessed his body for weakness too. In high-level boccia the nurturing attitude that tends to surround disabled people is turned upside down. In the arena of sport and competition, disability is seen as something to exploit. If I clock that my opponent has a weak arm, for example, it can leverage confidence that I’ll beat them since my strong arm is an advantage. Nobody feels sorry for anyone here – not during a match anyway.

Back in the waiting room, my time had arrived. I was going to rock up to that court, land my first ball straight onto the jack and stroll towards thunderous victory! And I lost, heavily: 11-0. Ouch. I entered the next match shell-shocked but desperately optimistic. Final score: 12-0 to my opponent. My biggest defeat at the UK Championships was 5-1 and that was against the World No.1. What had changed since then? What had changed since last week in training when I was still throwing with a sense of ease and flourish? Here in Madrid every shot felt stiff and unnatural, each match a grind. My third and final Individuals match was far closer – I lost by just a point – but I left the court with a sense of unease. I hadn’t performed the way I wanted to and ‘the zone’ had completely deserted me. But my mood would U-turn two days later when the BC1/BC2 Team I played substitute for won Gold! After all the turmoil and torment of the Individuals, I was now a Gold Medalist… welcome to elite boccia, everyone, a world where you never know what’s around the corner.

While teamwork is important, for the sake of simplicity (and self-indulgence) let’s keep the focus on my experiences as an Individual BC1 player. My road to the Boccia World Championships 2018 in Liverpool was bumpy to say the least. Apart from a hard-fought win during the Bisfed 2018 Povoa World Open, I remained displeased with my performances. The 2018 UK Championships were staged in June, a month prior to the main event. Here was my chance to reignite the passion and confidence I’d experienced just under a year ago! If I hoped to make a dent on the world stage, I needed to prove to myself that I remained the second best BC1 in Britain – that I was worthy of the incredible privilege that lay ahead of me in Liverpool. Would I succeed?

Well… no. I was knocked out at the group stage, a complete one-eighty to last year’s competition. What on earth had happened? Would I ever experience ‘the zone’ again? I had to put the competition (and questions) behind me and move my attention onto the World Championships. I faced a tough group due to my low ranking, but I took this as a positive: I was the underdog again and my only goal was to put my experienced opponents to the test. And I did, in a way. I won an end in each match and made one player in particular sweat under pressure. But winning was never on my mind here – my opponents were just too good and I felt frankly outclassed. If only I could’ve provoked that sense of flow and confidence I’d once experienced… I paused the thought and remembered my goal. One of my opponents later reached the final so I couldn’t have played too badly.

I had tried my best in Liverpool but the fact is – in sport – there’s a big difference between trying your best and playing your best. Over the past year I’ve been regularly documenting my feelings, experiences and reflections on my journey as a transition player for Team GB. Below are excerpts from a selection of entries I wrote during a recent training camp in February, which centered around a competition. I’m returning to it here in the hope that it will offer up a sense of my current feelings towards boccia and maybe it will even help answer the question for myself: what is boccia?

Day 1:

I have little confidence about the competition tomorrow. In the recent UK Championships I lost to people I used to beat consistently and, unfortunately, a few of them have turned up here. Tonight I’m sleeping in a different building than usual, an old jail that’s been renovated; the bars have been removed and the blood scrubbed off the walls. Hey, as long as I have a toilet and shower I can fit into, I’m happy. It’s a learned happiness that comes from travelling with the team to a hotel with just one accessible shower room to be shared amongst us, and where the lifts were so tight you’d be lucky to fit one wheelchair in; not fun with the hotel accommodating at least ten teams of athletes.

Day 2:

I played two matches today, lost both by some distance. Scores can be harsh in boccia. I try to ignore them. You can lose 9-0 because of one bad round out of four. 

Day 3:

I lost two more games today. Although losing to the World Champion is to be expected, a player I would once dominate also beats me convincingly. He’s improved so much I’m left wondering if there’s any improvement left in me. It seems the more you chase ‘the zone’, the more it eludes you. 

One thing that hasn’t helped is that my medication was changed a week ago, leaving me feeling less in control of my body than usual. Matches are usually tiring but these past few days I’ve been in more of a battle with my body than with any of my opponents. 

Day 4:

Today I spent an hour or two with my coach doing a repetitive exercise which was both educational and a challenge in abstaining from ripping your stupid boccia balls apart because 70% of them don’t land where you want them. My main weakness is my main strength: power. My strong arm is useful for blasting balls to the back of the court but less reliable for the short game. If I was a golfer I imagine I’d happily whack the ball over a load of trees, but as soon as I’d see the hole up close I’d probably start shaking. 

So, what is boccia? Part of me gets a sick satisfaction from the fact that I’m a marginalised voice practicing a largely ignored sport. It’s now obvious to me why veteran players despise being asked what this little boccia thing is all about. They devote all their time and energy into the sport, win medals for their country, go through all the emotional ups and downs as in any other sport, and yet outside the camps, competitions and training sessions, one simple question can make it all seem a bit irrelevant. So next time I’m asked, ‘What’s boccia?’ My answer will be, ‘Decide for yourself.’

Just So You Know: Essays of Experience is available to pre-order from Parthian Books.

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Ricky Stevenson is a writer from Swansea, and since achieving an MA in Creative Writing from Swansea University a selection of his comedy plays have been performed by the Fluellen Theatre Company, including ‘Are we there, Yeti?’ and ‘Jackpot!’ Ricky lives with cerebral palsy, and is a transitional boccia player in Team GB. He has been part of the team for over a year now, and it’s been a huge learning experience, full of drama, doubt and confusion – the perfect recipe for comedy!