It all started so well.
I bowled a spare on my practice rolls and I bowled a strike not too long after that. I could feel my confidence begin to swell.
“That’s how we do it at The Ottumwa Courier,” I told Ottumwa senior bowler Anthony Roberts after my strike.
The remark was mostly in jest, but I was feeling a little cocksure at the time. The idea that I might have a chance to beat Michaela Malloy and Roberts in a round of bowling was swimming through my overly optimistic brain.
The competitive juices had begun to flow and I was filled with that exhilarating rush of adrenaline that only comes from competition. Bowling didn’t seem too hard; as long as you roll the big ball down the middle of the lane things seemed to turn out OK.
But, alas, that confident feeling was short-lived. After a couple of terrible rolls, my confidence had evaporated before you can say Pete Webber. My fantasy was being strangled by an unwelcome reality. At that moment the lyrics to one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs suddenly rang oh so true:
“When life looks like easy street there is danger at the door.”
As my game — and with it my confidence — were plummeted, Roberts and Malloy were just getting warmed up. I noticed that their rolls had a certain elegance to them that mine lacked. They featured more than a hint of spin that I couldn’t even begin to replicate. Pretty soon, their strikes became more abundant and the gap between their score and mine began to widen quickly. I started to understand that there was more to bowling than meets the eye; and a greenhorn like me wasn’t going to discover all the sport’s secrets in a day. Or a month. Or a year.
With each strike, the Ottumwa bowlers also drove home why the Bulldog bowling programs are such a powerhouse each year. The command these two had over their shots could only be achieved with a lot of practice and dedication.
Now, maybe it was a figment of my overactive imagination, but when Malloy and Roberts bowled a strike, it sounded distinctly different than when I accomplished the same feat. For when their bowling balls glided down the lane and crashed into the pins, the sound it made was somehow more natural, more melodious, more pleasing to the ear than when I did it. When Heintz-guided bowling balls produced strikes, it was as if there was a mistake in the cosmos ... A broken piece of machinery had briefly gummed up an otherwise perfect system. Theirs represented the appropriate order of things while mine were an aberration; a lucky mistake that happens now and then but shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Although I soon found myself way too far behind to catch either of my opponents, I did manage to bowl one more strike before the game mercilessly ended. Malloy finished with a 213, Roberts scored a 173 and I finished with a meager 94. I had hoped to at least crack 100, but what can you do?
Properly humbled and a little befuddled, I sought answers from Malloy and Roberts about how long it really takes to become what could legitimately called a good bowler.
“The thing about bowling is it does take a lot of practice,” Roberts said. “There is a lot to this game ... more than what people think. People take this game for granted, [they] think it’s more for fun. But when you look at it from a competitive view, it takes a lot of practice and lots of dedication.
“I have been bowling for 13 years and I’m still working on my game and there’s a lot more to improve.”
Malloy said she’s also bowled for 13 years.
“You usually start off with a plastic ball, which is just the general straight one and you just move up from there,” she said. “As you get stronger you move up with balls and start to curve it and stuff like that.”
Roberts also recommended beginners start out using a plastic ball and working on direction.
Then I asked both bowlers how long it took them to get comfortable with putting so much “English” on their rolls.
“To get the curve in there it would take probably at least a couple of years,” Roberts said. “You have to build the muscle memory. ... You have to get the feel of how to rotate the ball. It took me until I was about 12 to put a little spin on it.”
“I don’t think you ever perfect it [the curve],” Malloy said. “It took me about a year to get completely used to it and to get it where I wanted it to be.
“There’s a big difference between the curve and the straight. It gets more action in the pocket and knocks the pins down better than the straight one.”
Malloy and Roberts were both good winners, as they opted not to needle me about my lopsided defeat. But they had taught me a valuable lesson — bowling is no cakewalk that can be mastered by some hobbyist playing in a higgledy-piggledy fashion every other weekend. It requires the same amount of practice, mental toughness, poise and skill as its more popular brethren.
This is a lesson I won’t soon forget.
Got a sports challenge for Courier sports writer Andy Heintz? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.