“I couldn’t blink”: Kelvin Kerkow details childhood battle with paralysis

by Bowls Australia

The more Kelvin Kerkow OAM speaks of his story, the more remarkable it seems.

Having endured the debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome at the age of seven, Kerkow’s journey into bowls saw him go on to enjoy a scintillating career for the BCiB Australian Jackaroos, amassing more than 300 international caps between 1995-2008 and becoming one of the sport’s most iconic and recognisable figures.

His battle with illness as a child left him temporarily paralysed and requiring the aid of a walking stick to play bowls for the remainder of his life.

In speaking with Clive Adams as part of ‘Legends Under Lights’, Kerkow detailed his health struggles as a child and the strain it placed on his parents.

“I woke up one morning, you know 4:30am in the morning to get up and go to the toilet… I couldn’t get out of bed,” Kerkow said.

“Overnight, I’d basically had become paralysed.

“My parents, who didn’t know what was going on, rushed me to the local hospital which was the Wondai Hospital at the time.

“I was very fortunate that there was a relieving doctor there had actually seen what I had developed overnight and it was called Guillain-Barré syndrome. It’s a virus that completely paralyses you from head to toe within 12-24 hours.

“He knew that was what I had. So I was then rushed by ambulance approximately 350 kilometres to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane where I was completely paralysed, put on a tracheotomy and life support system.”

Watch Kelvin Kerkow’s full interview below, as part of our ‘Legends Under Lights’ series, proudly presented by Legacy Sport Lighting.

Kerkow’s struggles from there were far from over, with the once athletically-gifted child faced with the unthinkable task of learning to walk again.

“The next six to eight weeks was a complete blank. I don’t remember anything. It got to the stage where, basically, I couldn’t blink. I was lying completely flat on my back and had a machine next to me that pumped my oxygen levels to keep my alive,” Kerkow said.

“I spent 12 weeks in intensive care and then I spent another nine months in hospital.

“The walking stick I use to this day is actually the walking stick I left the Royal Children’s Hospital with when I was about nine years of age.

“In a nutshell, it was three months in intensive care, nine months in hospital and two years before I learned to walk again.

“That’s why I took up the game of bowls; my parents had just started playing the game, so they took me down to the local bowls club which was Wondai Golf & Bowls Club.

“I actually had my very first game of bowls from a wheelchair… That was the way my career started.”

Kerkow’s journey into bowls was born out of the harsh reality that he would never able to participate in a high-impact sport.

Fortunately, the Queenslander took to the sport like a duck to water, enjoying a steady rise up the ranks, first debuting for Queensland at the age of 19 before making his Australian debut at 25.

Kerkow, now 51, created arguably the most iconic moment in the sport’s history when he claimed the coveted men’s singles gold medal at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games, after which, he ripped off his shirt and was chaired from the Darebin International Sports Centre arena by his teammates, draped in the Australian flag.

“Obviously, the biggest highlight of my lawn bowls career,” Kerkow said.

“It was an honour to pull on the green and gold and play for your country, play for Australia.

“Up until that date, it was the most successful Australian lawn bowls team [at a Commonwealth Games].

“The team went really well and obviously the men’s singles is at the backend of the Commonwealth Games… I had other Australian teammates who had medals and I wanted a medal.

“To win that gold medal on the last end and you know, rip my shirt off that everyone remembers me for… It doesn’t happen in bowls but it was one of those things. It was just the passion and the joy for what I’d come through with my early childhood illness, to representing Australia and winning a Commonwealth Games gold medal.

“They’re great memories to have.”