Bowling back from the brink

Mark Simcocks in the bowling alley. Photo by Travis Medhurst
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Doctors thought Mark Simcocks, owner of Melbourne's first bowling alley, would be wheelchair-bound after a stroke. Partly blind, he taught himself to bowl backwards and still get a strike. Travis Medhurst reports.

He lifts the orange bowling ball to his waist. With a slight flick of his wrist the tall white-haired man with a kind face rolls the ball backwards without visible effort. He turns and grins as all but one pin falls.

“Somebody came here and said they’d seen a video on YouTube about a man bowling backwards,” says the man. “I watched it and I saw that when he bowls backwards he is initially facing away from the pins. But as he bowls he turns and faces the pins. To me that’s not bowling backwards. So, I learnt to bowl backwards without turning.”

Sixty three year-old Mark Simcocks has had a lot of time to practise because he owns the bowling alley.

Located in a quiet corner village in Mont Albert North and part of the Heathways Recreation and Aquatic Centre, the bowling alley was built in 1961 and is the longest running in Australia. Heathways is a family business. His wife Nina operates the gym, his daughter teaches swimming at the pool and his son is working with the construction team renovating outside.

Despite the recent renovations and efforts at modernisation, dozens of artefacts signifying the bowling alley’s age are present. The score system is operated manually through a green tinted CRT monitor and mounted on the wall is a prize offer from AMPOL Petroleum Ltd of £1000 to the first person who rolls a perfect game.

Mark continues to bowl forwards and occasionally backwards. Every so often he manages to get a strike; not bad for a man with limited sight.

In March 2001 Mark suffered a stroke, leaving him with hemiplegia and hemianopia, meaning that he is unable to feel or recognise his left side.

“Professor Carey at La Trobe University basically remapped my whole brain. Even though I can’t feel my left side, I can move it,” says Mark.

He grew up around Cronulla beach in Sydney. He was just 12 when he learnt to bowl in high school. But before owning Heathways he was a metallurgist, someone who studies metal alloys.

“I’m a scientist by profession,” says Mark. “I’m not interested in what you think, but how you think.”

In his 20s he recalls working 16 to 20 hours a day and being highly active. However, his family has a predisposition to stroke. His mother’s father, an original ANZAC who lost his arm at Gallipoli, died from a stroke at 39. His Dad’s father, a public servant in Papua New Guinea, at 41. His father, a union official, had his first stroke at 52 and later died from his third at 65. Mark had his at 46.

It was 2.15 on a Thursday afternoon. Soon after leaving Bunnings in Nunawading, he realised he’d left his car keys on the counter. He went back to fetch them and, as he walked towards his car, he started feeling disoriented. He thought he heard a noise. It was loud. It sounded like the exhaust of a jet engine. “This was it,” he thought. He remembered what his father cautioned after falling down a flight of stairs when he had a stroke. “What did Dad say? Get to the ground!”

Mark collapsed on the roadway before he could reach his car.

Nina was at work in her haberdashery shop when she got the call. “Is that Nina Simcocks?” asked a nurse. “Yes,” said Nina. “I think I have your husband here in the hospital,” said the nurse, “Your husband’s had a stroke.”

“So, how bad is it?” said Nina.

Melbourne-born Nina met Mark on a beach in Malika, Malaysia. “He was at the end of his trip and I was at the end of my trip,” said Nina, “and on the very next day I hopped on a bus to Singapore because I was going to stay with a friend of a friend and when I got down there I couldn’t get in touch with them. Lo and behold about an hour later the next bus came in and Mark was on it and he said ‘I got somewhere to stay.’ ”

A year later Mark surprised Nina by visiting Melbourne two days before her birthday. Two years later they were married and have been together for 40 years.

Mark can no longer remember their wedding day.

“His condition was so bad that they didn’t think he would recover. They thought that he would be in a nursing home in a wheelchair,” says Nina.

Despite the negative prognosis Mark was determined to receive therapy at the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation centre in Fairfield. “Even though I was assessed as not suitable for rehab I was fixated [on attending Talbot]. I had the charge nurse ringing up once a week, once a day, three times a day. This went on for months until the doctor finally assessed me and on psychological grounds they accepted me.”

Mark was in rehab for 14 months: “With part of the remapping I felt like there were shards of glass in my arm as my brain made new connections,” says Mark. “I don’t worry about it now, all I can do is ignore it.”

Sometimes after rehab Nina would sneak Mark to work.

“I would go pick him up in the afternoon and would take him to work and we would have takeaway dinners together and he would be here counting out the change while I was running around. He knew he was going to come back here. He was around his friends.”

John Guida, director of Stronghold Construction, is renovating Healthways. A frequent member of the gym, he has known Mark for 20 years.

“Once you know Mark and he trusts you, he will always say ‘It’s not safe for you now,’” says John, “meaning once you start with him he will always have something for you to do and as long as you do the right thing by him, he will do the same.”

When Mark was admitted to Box Hill hospital, three of the four nurses who looked after him in acute care were clients of his and the fourth one was an occasional attendee. At Talbot, the physio assigned to Mark was an ex-client. Mark’s connections in the community run deep.

Mark is committed to helping with the prevention and treatment of stroke. He is on a number of committees for stroke including AUSCR (The Australian Stroke Clinical Registry).

“In so doing he not only changed the way stroke was being looked at and the way stroke was being treated, but he also helped himself,” says Nina. “He thinks in being treated he’s helping other people. That’s his philosophy in life.”

Back in Healthways Mark continues to bowl. Nina attempts to bring him food but he grins and protests and bowls for a little while longer until the sky outside becomes dim.

“He can bowl really well,” says Nina. “But you don’t have to see anything to bowl, that’s what he figures. You just have to stand in the right spot. You don’t have to see all the pins and he doesn’t.”