From ‘the pits’ to the Commonwealths — how lawn bowls saved Tongan’s life

Gold Coast, Australia (CNN)Caroline Dubois is holding back tears. Standing before a throng of people as they begin their countdown from 10, she looks for her family in the stands. Her pulse is racing. “Please don’t cry,” she tells herself.

The Tongan cannot allow herself to lose her composure, not at the Commonwealth Games, not in front of hundreds of people, not with television cameras peering, and not with her teenaged daughter watching on.
On the dry khaki-colored green lawns of Broadbeach Lawn Bowls Club on a sultry Australian morning, the 53-year-old places her feet on the mat. A gentle wind blows in from the Pacific Ocean.
Five, four, three, two, one. She takes a deep breath before rolling the bowl towards the other end of the green. It’s not her finest attempt, but it’s not her worst.
For when you’ve lived without hope, spiraled into a darkness “no-one ever wants to go to” and been engulfed with guilt for not being the mother you wanted to be, winning or losing matters little.
The Dubois who once did not care about her tomorrows; the divorcee who drank too much, lost her job, her money, and nearly lost her daughter, is gradually being pushed to the past. Competing at the Games is another step towards burying her former self.
“This is where I’m dealing with it,” Dubois, one half of the first lawn bowls team to represent Tonga at the Commonwealths, tells CNN Sport.

‘I had a family, but felt so empty’

It is 2013. Seven years have passed since Dubois moved from Australia to Tonga, her parents’ native land, in search of the happiness she would never find.
The businesswoman, a once successful executive for Le Meridien hotels, is working for a hotel she and her husband of 13 years have invested in.
But the couple have drifted apart. The distance between them — her in Tonga, him in Melbourne — has turned them into strangers.
Divorce papers arrive through the post. The Frenchman has had enough. Dubois’ life comes crashing down.

What are the Commonwealth Games?

“We had an opportunity to buy and invest with a group of people in Tonga,” says Dubois, mother to 14-year-old Stephanie.
“What better way to learn my mother’s tongue than to be there and run that resort? I felt like I needed to do other stuff and he couldn’t understand what other stuff I wanted to do.
“I had a marriage and family, but I felt so empty. I needed something else. I forgot myself.
“We decided to compromise and find a balance halfway. He would visit monthly, but we drifted apart.
“If I’d known moving to Tonga would break up my family, I wouldn’t have done it.”

A toxic relationship, bringing shame on the family

Lonely and lost in Tonga, the now single Dubois became involved in a relationship which quickly turned toxic. The once responsible mother who rarely drank alcohol now drowned her sorrows in wine and liquor.
Evenings would end in the police station after yet another quarrel with the man she knew she had no future. Negativity consumed her.
“I have big regrets, the regret of not being a mother to my daughter,” says a melancholic Dubois, sitting around a table in the athletes’ village.
Wearing her red and white Tongan tracksuit, she blends in with many of the athletes coming and going around the plaza, though few will be afflicted by such torment.
“My husband was such a gentleman, a good father, a good provider,” she says, her voice trailing off.
“Just to think of those days … it was a shock to my family and friends how I became someone else. I was argumentative, fighting with my family. They despised my boyfriend and I was fighting for him.
“It became abusive. It was a vicious circle. Here I was trying to fix him, and he thinks he can fix me and in between we’re fixing it with alcohol.
“Tonga is not a big place and our family is respectful, a hard-working successful family. I go to the graveyard and have a cry there and just hope my parents can see me now.”

Moving to New Zealand, but refusing to change

Dubois, this once healthy, affluent family woman, became to look older than her years.
Her youngest sister, Pele, made one last attempt at trying to stop her gaunt sibling from self-destructing, giving Dubois a ticket to join her in Auckland, the city where she grew up and attended college before moving to Australia.
“I went to Auckland and my boyfriend was nasty on the phone, making me feel guilty, and I fell for that and I’d be back on the plane and my family kept paying for the ticket to take me back,” Dubois remembers.
During the school holidays Dubois’ daughter, who lived with her father in Melbourne, would visit, but Dubois was not yet ready to be a mum to her only child.

To the lawn bowls club, to a new obsession

Dubois’ family continued to search for solutions for the loved one they no longer recognized. But she was still drinking, still unhappy.
They invited Dubois to the local lawn bowls club where Dubois’ niece, a promising player, would bowl.
She had no interest in the sport, but knew the alcohol would be cheap.
“I’d drink too much, and my sister and I would be at loggerheads around members, her friends,” she says.
“It was terrible. In her good heart she thought going to the bowls club would keep me busy, but I saw it as an opportunity to drink. I’d be so embarrassed the next day.”
With another visit from Stephanie on the horizon, and following a tearful discussion with Pele, Dubois agreed to attend a training session at the bowls club.
Life began to change.
“When it was explained that bowls wasn’t easy and that it’s an art of line and weight, I thought ‘That’s challenging, I love challenges.’ I’ll take up this challenge,” says Dubois, offering up a rare smile.

Bowling come rain or shine

Dubois doesn’t recall the moment when bowls became more important than booze, but she does remember lying in bed thinking about her new hobby rather than a bar. A healthy obsession had replaced a destructive one.
She was always early to training sessions, listening attentively to her coaches. She would practice in the rain, in the piercing sun, even sneak onto the green when the club was closed.
Family would ring her mobile, but there would be no answer. Dubois was on the green, “rolling it up and down.”
“The more I got into it, slowly my mental state was starting to change,” she says, attempting to offer an explanation to a transformation she herself cannot fully shed a light on.
“I got more involved in training, got to know members’ names and I started to think outside of me. It had previously all been about me, me, me.
“I was starting to separate myself from the negativity. I was breathing bowls. I couldn’t wait to get up and go to the green and my family supported me. They’d drive me to games. The old me came back.”
With practice Dubois became good. Very good. In her first year she won an Auckland championship as a fours and shortly after was asked to represent her region, North Harbour — one of New Zealand’s best teams.
“I was so excited,” she says. “So much had changed so quickly. I had to slap my face. I’d beat all these women … my name would start appearing in post sections, center websites, etc.
“We were given a mental skills coach and I think that was another saving grace for me. It helped my bowling, but it also helped me personally, though they don’t know that.
“It was getting me back together, it was a big part in what set me straight. I never touched a drink, I was never even interested in alcohol. I’d have the odd drink after a game but as time went on I wasn’t having that drink, I refused it.
“I don’t know how the hell it happened, picking up that bowl, progressing and proving to myself that I could do it has saved me in so many ways.
“If I wasn’t doing this where would I be? Would I be dead? Sometimes I used to think ‘Who cares about tomorrow?’ That awful side was winning.”

Commonwealth selection, elation, tears,

February 2018. Two years have passed since Dubois first held a bowl in her hand.
She receives an email from Tonga’s lawn bowls association, confirming that she will partner Malia Kioa, a fellow New Zealand resident whom she had never met, at the Commonwealths.
“One sister said: ‘Hang on, I think I’m just having a heart attack right now’ when I told her,” says Dubois, laughing at the memory.
“Two other sisters are in Melbourne … to hear the squeal of excitement when I called them. I could just imagine the tears that came with it.
“My daughter never answers her mobile, never answers a text, so I texted her and said: ‘Can you keep a secret?’ and she replied straight away. I said: ‘Mum is going to the Commonwealth Games to play for Tonga.’ I never got a reply back!
“Unbeknown to me at the time, she’d left her phone and ran to her dad and I got a call from him saying ‘Are you serious?’
“I have spoken to him more in the last month than I did in the last five years. He’s remarried. I am happy for him, but sad for what I lost, but I can’t bring it back. I can’t live with regrets.”

‘Go, Mummy!’

Dubois’ daughter, her ex-husband, Bruno, and sister Pele are watching her first match, against Norfolk Islands.
“Go Mummy!” screams Stephanie. Dubois does not want the match to end.

Burying the past

Dubois can often be found sitting on the balcony of her seventh-floor apartment at the athletes’ village. It is, she says, a marvelous vista.
She can see everything, athletes sitting on giant bean bags in the courtyard, others sometimes playing a giant Connect Four. Live music emanates from the bar.
Tears will slide down her cheeks.
“Sometimes I just need that quiet moment to think about what I was looking for back then,” says Dubois, looking into the distance.
“I never found it. I thought I wanted freedom, but what was I looking for? I still can’t answer that.
“How much I’ve drunk I really don’t know, but obviously I drank a lot because by the time I got to Auckland I had no money left and I did have money so that’s a lot of money spent.
“Everyone said I was turning into an alcoholic, which I probably was, but in my mind I wasn’t.
“Now the joke is I’m an international sports person!
“Someone asked me: ‘What would the Caroline today say to the Caroline of five years ago?’ I’d say: ‘You bloody idiot.’
“Sometimes I cry for her. I don’t see her as me. I don’t want to know about her, but I still mourn her. Here I am talking about her in the third person … But now I can slowly bury her.”
The tears can no longer be held back. Dubois cries, for the five years she lost and for what she has since achieved.
“The Caroline of today is the one I’m going with,” she says, wiping away the tears with her fingertips. “I never want to back there again. That was the pits.”

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