By Ben Fleming
Durham has forever been steeped in sporting prestige. Whether it be gold medal Olympic triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, former England cricket captains Nasser Hussain and Andrew Strauss or World Cup-winning rugby player Will Greenwood, the list is endless.
And whilst these Durham alumni all went on to achieve great feats in their respective sports after university, none were competing at the pinnacle of their sports whilst studying, let alone reaching the later stages of a world championship.
This, however, is not the case for Devon Cooper. Last month, the Durham second-year science student, at just twenty years of age, reached the semi-finals of the Women’s Singles at the 2021 World Indoor Bowls Championships, held in Great Yarmouth.
“Considering that I haven’t been able to practice properly due to lockdown since last March, I am very happy with my performance,” Cooper tells Palatinate as she recaps her incredible achievements at the tournament, having been knocked out by Katherine Rednall at the semi-final stage.
“In the two quarter-final games, I used different bowls which I felt suited the green better and enabled me to play more confidently. I was disappointed with my two games in the semi-finals but playing at that level under pressure was a good experience and will help me progress further in future years.”
The personal highlight of the tournament for Cooper, which saw no crowds and athletes forced to remain on-site and only bubble with two other competitors, was undoubtedly her stunning first-round victory over two-time reigning women’s champion Julie Forrest.
“I knew that it was always going to be a very tough game and just wanted to do myself justice and play to my full potential. I lost the first set but was pleased I managed to keep calm and then stepped my game up a gear to win the second set and tiebreak. It’s the best win I’ve had during my career.”
Alongside her performance in the women’s segment of the competition, Cooper also reached the semi-finals in the Mixed Pairs playing alongside world number 5, Les Gillett, eventually losing 12-1, 11-3 to Stewart Anderson and Julie Forrest.
“I felt very relaxed playing with Les. He was so easy to play with and never put me under pressure. It was good to learn from his experience and helped me to keep calm even when things weren’t going right in the game,” Cooper notes.
Achieving all this at such a young age may seem somewhat unexpected to the untrained eye. Yet, for those who have seen Cooper’s rise through the sport from a young age, it was quite clear early on what a promising future she had in the sport.
“I started playing when I was six at my local club after my nan introduced me to the game. They had junior sessions for under 18s which ran every Saturday morning. I started playing more competitively when I was around 13 or 14 in national competitions and I won my first national title at 14.”
Having gained national recognition, the next logical progression was to play internationally which she would go on to do that same year in a junior international series, winning Player of the Series. Eventually, in 2019, Cooper would get the chance to fulfil a lifelong dream and represent England as part of the Senior International Team.
As well as receiving her first cap at the BIWBC (British Isles Women’s Bowls Council) International Series, she would take home silverware, alongside Katherine Rendall, by winning bronze at the European Championships in the Women’s Pairs.
“It has been something I have always wanted to do ever since I started getting into the sport more competitively. It is always an honour to play for your country, but I always feel more pressure in these games than individual ones as you are there to represent your country.”
Despite the added pressure that comes from representing her country on the international stage, Cooper is still undeterred from her ambitions and dreams to travel around the world and reach the very top of the sport. “My biggest goal is to play in the Commonwealth Games in the future. I would also like to win the Ladies Singles at the World Indoor Championships and the National Indoors Singles which I have come runner-up in for the last three years.”
For now, however, she must focus on the task at hand, namely balancing her flourishing bowls career alongside her degree, something that, at times, has proved a difficult juggling act.
“There are multiple competitions per week and four International Series a year which can be located anywhere in the UK. I try to ensure that when I have an International Series, I complete assignments beforehand and rearrange any labs that I have for that period. I then try to watch the lectures in between practice and playing the games as soon as I can.”
Looking forward to the year ahead, Devon admits she is hoping to build on her impressive performance in the World Indoor Championships, even if much of the season and her ability to practise is still hangs in the balance.
“I haven’t been able to practice properly since March as all the clubs have been shut. I am hoping that for the outdoor season that starts in May we will be able to play competitively and the International series in the summer will be able to go ahead.”
I finish our interview, and my personal education on the sport of bowls, by asking her about the biggest assumptions about her sport. Bowls undoubtedly has a certain stereotype amongst the younger audience, but Devon is quick to reject this and keen to see plenty more young players entering the game she loves.
“Most of the best players today are all young and the sport is becoming more modern with the use of coloured bowls and a change from the traditional uniform – I would always be happy to help anyone out wanting to try out the sport or get into it!”
For now, Cooper’s lessons will have to wait until the clubs are back fully open. But if she is reaching the semi-finals at a World Championship without proper practice for almost a year and a degree to manage alongside, then the future most certainly looks bright for this young player.
Image: Devon Cooper