When I started college 50 years ago, I was not a bowler by any stretch of the imagination as I had never bowled in a league, competed in a tournament, or had a lesson. So, how is it possible that four short years later, this boy from a small town in rural Arkansas found himself standing on a podium in London, England, a member of bowling's Team USA, with a World Championships silver medal draped around his neck?
Looking back, it is surprising I became a bowler. No one in my family had ever bowled, nor had any of my classmates or friends. Football, basketball, and baseball were our sports of choice during high school, though a few friends took up golf in the spring of our senior year. Perhaps that is why I chose P.E. 124, Golf & Bowling, as my first-semester physical education elective. As the semester ended, the instructor – a golfer, not a bowler – asked, "Gary, have you thought about trying out for the college bowling team?" My surprised reply: "There's college bowling???"
Fortunately, my introduction to competitive bowling happened during an era when beginners, league bowlers, and professionals played identical versions of the game on a level playing field. From the moment I purchased my first bowling ball, my arsenal was equal to that of every bowler in the world. And because there was only one version of the sport, practice at my hometown's little 10-lane center was adequate to prepare me for whatever I would encounter in Arkansas, across the USA, and around the world.
To the extent anyone can have control in a sport where 60 percent of the outcome depends on chain reactions, I was in control of my destiny. Hard work, not equipment, would be the key to overcoming my lack of experience. Had success required more than the willingness to learn, an unwavering dedication to deliberate practice, and the ability to execute precise shots under pressure, it is unlikely I would have made it past the college tryouts my freshman year.
Compare my experience with that of a teenager taking up the sport today. Bowling's business model has shifted dramatically from simple to infinitely complex, making purchasing a single bowling ball and practicing in one center inadequate to prepare anyone for competition. So many versions of the sport exist today, and so many variables outside the control of a competitor are in play, it is difficult for anyone to take personal responsibility for success or failure. The inquiry "what ball did you use?" quickly undermines the accomplishment of winners, while losers ease the sting of defeat with "I didn't match up," or "Did you see who I had to follow?" or the excuse du jour, "Ban urethane!"
I will concede, the masses will never support a return to the version of bowling that fostered my love for the sport. As a ball company's marketing manager told me, "Our customers want a fun night out and a 230 average without having to practice." But the past 24 years of staging the Teen Masters have proven the existence of a small but passionate population of bowlers who prefer doing battle on a level playing field that exposes their weaknesses and highlights their strengths.
Why am I on the path I travel? Because bowling changed how I view myself and how I view the world around me. Bowling taught me patience, humility, perseverance, and how to remain calm and steady while my heart is pounding out of my chest. Most importantly, bowling taught me confidence.
When I threw four strikes in the final two frames of the U.S. Team Trials to come from behind and claim the last spot on Team USA in 1975, I learned I could achieve whatever I set my mind to. The version of bowling I experienced when I was a teen changed the trajectory of my life, and I believe it can have the same impact on the teens of today.