GAYL KING: PLAYING THE MEN AT THEIR OWN GAME
Early in the year 2000, Tommy Cox of the Professional Darts Corporation announced in Darts World that the PDC was to include a woman darts player in their Skol World Championship to be held at the Circus Tavern, Purfleet, Essex that coming December.
Ladies No. 1, Trina Gulliver greeted the news enthusiastically and said, “At last! Here’s the opportunity the top ladies have been waiting for. A guaranteed place in a world championship darts final against the men. Darts is a sport that women and men can play at the same standard and I know that all of the top female players will be looking forward to the opportunity to prove it.”
The original idea was to run a qualifying event, a knockout involving the top eight ladies at the Crosbie Cedars Hotel in Rosslare as a featured part of the PDC’s annual World Grand Prix tournament. However, despite the initial enthusiasm from Trina and other lady darters, the event did not happen. Due to the politics of the sport at that time and other ‘personal reasons’, the majority of the world’s top lady darts players, including Trina, declined to participate.
Whilst this significantly embarrassed the PDC, the cause was not totally lost. Even though she possibly risked being frozen out of other darts events in the future, 36-year-old Gayl King, from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, then ranked No 7 in the world, bravely stepped forward to accept the invitation to take the 32nd place in the Skol World Championship.
A relative unknown in Britain at the time but not in her native Canada, Newfoundland-born Gayl, a bookkeeper for a restaurant chain, had the vision to appreciate that taking part in the Skol World Championships could really boost the women’s game and bring her and ladies darts in general to the world’s attention. Gayl told reporters, “It is a fantastic opportunity and I didn’t really think twice.” National newspapers in Britain, Canada and the USA seized upon the story and for a while Gayl was the subject of a media frenzy. ‘King aims to be queen of darts’ said the Ottawa Sun whilst the New York Times described Gayl’s imminent appearance in the World Championships as ‘a day of liberation for darts’. As usual the British press relished the challenge as The Times announced ‘Woman with guts shakes up beer bellies’ and The Guardian weighed in with‘Gayl force hits the bull’s-eye’
In the competition, played out in late December 2000, Gayl faced England’s Graeme Stoddart in the first round. To everyone’s surprise, except perhaps her own, Gayl took the first set off of the world men’s No. 29 and the crowd went wild. According to one newspaper, losing the first set left Graeme ‘shell-shocked’. However, Graeme immediately upped his game and eventually won the match by three sets to one. Gayl left the Circus Tavern stage to a standing ovation, with her head held high and her place in darts history assured.
Gayl said afterwards, “I enjoyed this. And I enjoy playing against the guys and seeing what I can do…I had the right mindset and was ready to go and I did the best I could. This was my dream and I lived it.” She told the New York Times, “It was awesome. It was just electric. Everybody was going crazy. It was wonderful.”
The British press were impressed with Gayl’s performance, The Star stating that, despite losing, ‘King is the Queen’ whilst The Independent headline ‘Relief for the boys as King’s rule is cut short’ reflected the relief felt not only by Graeme Stoddart but also the entire male-dominated darts world. The most revealing post-match headline of all was that featured on the BBC Sport internet page on 29th December, ‘Darts player wants women out of worlds’. Graeme Stoddart was quoted as saying “I would have hated to have been ranked 32 and have my place in the tournament taken by a woman. The women have got to a certain standard now and they deserve their own world championships.” As if the BDO was watching and listening to Graeme, that organisation announced in September 2000 that the women were to have their own world championship which would be competed for during the same week as the 2001 Embassy.
Gayl King could rightly claim that she was the catalyst in the creation of the Embassy/Lakeside Women’s World Darts Championship. Indeed, some people in darts are of the view that her participation in that contest may well have forced the hand of the BDO to establish the first women’s world championships at Lakeside.
Before and after the Skol, Gayl registered enormous success in her sport, including being a three-time winner of the Canadian Open Women’s Singles (2000, 2002 and 2003), Ladies champion in the 2001 Northern Lights tournament and Canadian Women’s National Darts Champion in both 2000 and 2004.
I recently went in search of Gayl. I wanted to talk to her about this article and about my including her in my forthcoming book The Complete Guide to Darts (to be published in New York in early 2009). I found her still living in Edmonton, Alberta, and now working as an Administrative Assistant for a cheese company. My first question was “Do you still play darts?”
Regrettably, due to sustaining a shoulder injury, Gayl no longer plays serious darts. She told me, “I just don’t have the endurance for tournaments”, although she added, “I do play a game here and there; for fun of course.” I then asked her if there was any truth in the story at the time of her appearance in the Skol World Championship that she ran the risk of losing valuable world ranking points if she took part in the event. Gayl replied, “I don’t recall losing any points due to playing in the tournament.”
Although I knew the answer in advance, I asked Gayl to look back on her darts career and nominate one highlight. She immediately nominated her unique appearance in the Skol World Championships. She told me, “I have to say the highlight of my career was stepping onto the stage at the Circus Tavern and participating in that history-making event. As I said at the time, it had always been a dream of mine to play an event such as that and at that moment my dream came true. I will always treasure that.”
Gayl indeed made darts history that December day and clearly illustrated to one and all that women darters were more than capable of playing the men at their own game.
©2008 Patrick Chaplin
The original of this article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Darts World.
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