Not often has Rhodesia walked away with the laurels in a major South African sporting championship. To do so twice in one year was a truly remarkable achievement by diminutive Bulawayo bowler, Lucie Olver.
'Little Lu', as she is known to her colleagues, in 1975 became the first bowler — man or woman — to win the South African national singles title, and the South African Masters singles in the same year. When she clinched the first leg of this historic double with a victory over fellow Rhodesian Flo Kennedy in the Masters final at Pretoria, it was a bitter-sweet moment for the brave Lucie. Her husband, Pat Springett, had passed away in November the previous year and she had played little bowls in the ensuing four months.
She had strongly considered withdrawing from the prestige invitation line-up of the top sixteen singles players in Southern Africa and even wrote to former Bulawayo administrator, Nellie Banet (a Springbok selector) asking if she was right to keep a player like reserve Pauline Price out of the tournament. Nellie and many of her friends told Lucie she owed it to her late husband to play and when she brought back the coveted trophy she said simply: "At least Pat's name is on the cup."
Few people know of the indomitable courage Lucie showed in winning this Masters tournament on the Berea Park greens. On top of her bereavement, she had undergone an operation two weeks before travelling to Pretoria.
"After the operation I was able to have a complete rest," she said. "I was fully relaxed when I came out of hospital twelve days before going to Pretoria and I played the most consistent bowls of my life. When it was all over my sister Merrill rushed on to the green and I'm afraid we both got rather emotional when she hugged me."
It was her fifth appearance in the Masters — she had been runner-up in her first tournament in 1971 — and showed the high esteem in which she was held in Southern African bowls.
Her triumphant double was completed at Observatory Park at Johannesburg when, in spectacular fashion, she swept aside Springbok, Pauline Price, 21-11 in 15 ends to win the South African singles final. But 1975 was to bring Lucie even more honours when she was selected to play in all three Tests for South Africa against England — she and Thelma Ault, also of Bulawayo, thus becoming the first Rhodesians to win Springbok colours for women's bowls. It was a happy series
with South Africa winning 2-1.
Lucie Olver's remarkable year made her a strong contender for the Rhodesian Sportsman of the Year award and she was chosen as one of the five finalists, being denied the John Hopley Memorial Trophy by the golfing duo of George Harvey and Denis Watson, who won the world amateur pairs championship at Bogota. Her record in Rhodesia, South Africa and now Zimbabwe is probably without parallel.
She was a member of the winning team in the South African inter-districts tournament in 1968 and 1969, and was in the teams which finished runners-up in 1970, 1973 and 1976.
In 1973, she won the Silver Medal in the South African Games singles, when she lost to Mavis Steele of England, and won a Bronze Medal (with Thelma Ault and Flo Kennedy) for finishing third as a team. All three played in the singles and Lucie played with Thelma as a pair.
Apart from her three singles successes in the national championships, she also holds two Gold Medals for fours and one for pairs. In 1964, just four years after starting to play bowls, and two years after arriving in Bulawayo, she led for Bernice Denyer in the Raylton fours which won the title (Nancy Rose and Beth Haiden completed the line-up).
In 1980, the day after her fiftieth birthday, she skipped a Raylton team of Ethel Boucher, Doris de Klerk and Pat Holland to victory to win her second fours Gold Medal.
In between, she won the pairs with de Klerk in 1968 — the same year in which she won her first singles crown.
She has never played in the triples at the national championships — the only event she needs to complete the Grand Slam, achieved by few players to date.
She reached the quarter-finals of the South African singles at Johannesburg in March 1968, and played for Bulawayo Raylton in the Districts Trophy at the championships. At Bulawayo sub-district level, she won the fours title in 1969, the pairs (again with Doris de Klerk) in 1974 and the singles in 1973. She was Bulawayo champion of club champions in 1972.
In the Rhodesian 'Masters' (known as the Champion of Singles Champions tournament) she beat Flo Kennedy for the title in 1976, and was runner-up to Anna Whatling a year later. She won the Matabeleland Open Pairs (with de Klerk) in 1978 and with Isobel Walkden in 1975.
At club level, she won the Bulawayo Raylton singles in 1965, 1966, 1969, 1971,1972,1975 and 1976, the pairs in 1967, the triples in 1974 and the rinks in 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1978.
It's a sobering fact that Lucie, had she not been an asthmatic as a child, may never have played bowls.
She played no sport at school at Ladysmith, Natal, and it was in 1960 when she and husband Pat Springett were living in Broken Hill in the then Northern Rhodesia, that a doctor suggested she should get out into the open air — and she joined the bowls section of the Broken Hill Railway Club.
The Springett's closest friends there were Ernie and Doris de Klerk — and it was Doris who took Little Lu in hand as a bowler after Jack Hopwood (now at the Bulawayo Bowling Club) taught her the rudiments of the game.
In two years at Broken Hill, Lucie and Doris won a number of events — but it was when the Springetts were transferred to Bulawayo in 1962 that the career of the woman who was to make South African bowling history really took off.
Personal tragedy struck again in 1978, when her second husband, well- known sportsman and broadcaster, Syd Olver, died. This was a shattering blow that saw the heart-broken Lucie step out of the bowling limelight again — but she was persuaded to put her name forward for selection to the South African inter district tournament in 1979 and she was chosen to play third to Mary Philp.
On the eve of the tournament, Lucie's bowling life was again tinged with tragedy. Mary Philp's son Stuart died — and Lucie, back in big-time bowls after an absence, was pitch-forked into skipping one of the Rhodesian teams.
She did well — and it marked the return of this sporting champion to the greens of Southern Africa she had graced for two decades. The hallmarks of any top calibre international sportsman are the dedication and grit it takes to soar above others. These qualities — plus her quiet personality and exemplary sportsmanship — were always evident in Lucie Olver, who fought against enormous personal adversity to emerge a champion among champions and one of the greatest of Rhodesian sportswomen.
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