Not everyone would enthusiastically celebrate a lawn bowls bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games, but the Cook Islands certainly would.

At Gold Coast 2018, Taiki Paniani and Aidan Zittersteijn came third in the men's pairs to write a piece of history for one of the Games' smallest teams.

The duo had raced into a 7-0 lead against Malta's Brendan Aquilina and Shaun Parnis, but the bronze medal was in doubt when their opponents battled back to 10-10.

Paniani and Zittersteijn recomposed themselves, however, and were five points in front as Malta prepared for their final shot.

It was a near-impossible ask for the Europeans, and cheers from the Cook Islands delegation could be heard when the Maltese bowl was still en-route.

After careering off harmlessly to the right and not scoring the five points it needed to, the party could really start for the Pacific Islanders and the decibels rose by several notches.

As one television commentator put it, this was a "win for the little guy". He went on to predict that the following day would be declared a national holiday.

"It was a good feeling," said JP Wilson, the Cook Islands Chef de Mission in Gold Coast who will reprise the role at Birmingham 2022.

Taiki Paniani and Aidan Zittersteijn won bronze in lawn bowls for the Cook Islands at Gold Coast 2018 ©Getty Images
Taiki Paniani and Aidan Zittersteijn won bronze in lawn bowls for the Cook Islands at Gold Coast 2018 ©Getty Images

"The Queen's representative was at the game as well, so he witnessed them getting the bronze medal.

"The sad thing was I was still in the Gold Coast when the team arrived back home. 

"We had to do the handovers and all that - once everyone's gone we have to make sure we didn't break anything and hand everything back how we got it.

"They had a big celebration, we were watching as someone was filming it for us. 

"They did the works, they had an escort from the airport to the bowling club. They had a formal function down at the club, the Prime Minister was there, the Queen's rep was there. 

"We all watched it on a phone. It was like 'oh man, we should have been there!'"

Bowls is an important sport in the Cook Islands, with the Gold Coast pair beating England and South Africa on the way to their bronze, but only Zittersteijn will be returning in Birmingham.

"When we have the Pacific Games and Pacific Mini Games, bowls is one of our number one medal bringers," Wilson added.

"After the guys got their bronze medal from Gold Coast, there was a big boost and we started having a lot of young people getting involved which was a good thing. 

"They can start pushing some of the old fellas aside!"

Members of the Cook Islands delegation celebrate at the Gold Coast 2018 lawn bowls venue ©Getty Images
Members of the Cook Islands delegation celebrate at the Gold Coast 2018 lawn bowls venue ©Getty Images

The Cook Islands are planning to take 10 bowlers to Birmingham, including several young players which bodes well for the future.

A team of 18 is planned in total - with athletes also set to travel in athletics, boxing, swimming and weightlifting.

On the track, Alex Beddoes is set to return for his third Games over 800 metres.

"The Commonwealth Games of the past, a lot of people would watch it on TV, especially if our athletes are going to be competing," said Wilson. 

"Now that social media is big they can just watch it any time they want."

Cook Islands athletes face long journeys to sporting events from their isolated home in the Pacific, which lies to the east of the international date line in the same timezone as Hawaii. 

Wilson described one 15 hour flight between Melbourne and Dubai as being particularly gruelling, although any travel experience would beat the ordeal the team went through at the end of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Although the Games in Japan closed on August 8, the Cook Islands team did not return home until October after they became stranded in New Zealand due to COVID-19 restrictions and a lack of repatriation flights.

"We were stuck there and that was an eye opener, it was hard," said Wilson, who was Chef de Mission in Tokyo and stayed with family in New Zealand.

"If only there was something to do there, a job so we could jump in and do something while we were there...

The Cook Islands' Tokyo 2020 team were stranded in New Zealand for weeks after the Games ©Getty Images
The Cook Islands' Tokyo 2020 team were stranded in New Zealand for weeks after the Games ©Getty Images

"But while we were in New Zealand the whole place was in lockdown. A member of the family could go to the store and get something...

"We couldn't do much."

The Cook Islands closed its own borders for two years, and the team needed to sit through another fortnight of quarantine when they did return home.

This took place at the Edgewater Resort and Spa in Rarotonga, a more pleasant surrounding. 

"It was a good feeling just landing back at the airport," said Wilson. 

"Who cares that we were going into quarantine here, it was the best place to have quarantine.

"The sun was out and we were right on the beach." 

Wilson is currently serving an "eight year term" of Chef de Mission duties, which will take him through to the Paris 2024 Olympics.

This is part of a Cook Islands Sports and National Olympic Committee strategy to appoint a consistent face each time, particularly someone who is familiar with the athletes.

His first event was the Commonwealth Youth Games in The Bahamas in 2017, while he has served as the President of football and rugby clubs.

He also runs the local Scouts Association, is vice-president of the Red Cross and chair of a beautification programme for his village.

"If you don't get busy you just get bored," Wilson said.

In 2009, the Cook Islands hosted the Pacific Mini Games which led to improvements in infrastructure. 

Rugby league is a popular sport in the Cook Islands ©Getty Images
Rugby league is a popular sport in the Cook Islands ©Getty Images

The main island of Rarotonga boasts the outdoor BCI Stadium, which has an athletics track, and the indoor TSA arena.

"In each village there is a rugby field," said Wilson. "This is used for everything, you name it. We've got a lot of sports that happen here, we've got a nine-hole golf course, and two squash courts now. There's a five court tennis area and there's a beach complex. 

"The only thing we don't have is a proper swimming pool, but we've got a big ocean."

Rugby league is hugely popular and both the men's and women's sides have qualified for this year's World Cup in England. But contact sports have faced periods of suspension due to COVID-19, leading to frustration among those hoping to get leagues back up and running.

"When league is on, it's just league and netball," said Wilson.

"And when rugby [union] is on it's just rugby. And when it's soccer it's just soccer. So there's not much clashing which is a good thing."

A major event is the Cook Island Games, which pits teams from the different islands against each other in modern and traditional sports.

With the archipelago extremely spread out - the northern islands can take three hours to reach by plane - this is a chance to bring everybody together.

"The first Cook Island Games we had was awesome," said Wilson. "Seeing all the islands get together, supporting your own island and having your own flag and anthem...

"It's very competitive. You go hard for your island but afterwards you have fun. It's just the spirit of sport."