Olympic bowlers mix fun, competition

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 17, 2008

FRANKLIN—There’s fun at the same time as competition.

There are athletes who love learning from their coaches and teammates and coaches who love teaching and seeing their players improve.

That’s every Wednesday evening at the Franklin Playtoe Bowl for the Suffolk Special Olympics bowling team.

The bowling season rolls from January to June, culminating in the State Games in Richmond on June 2 and 3.

Bowling, swimming, powerlifting, tennis, golf, soccer and volleyball make up a year-round calendar for Suffolk Special Olympics.

“The kids basically participate in one sport and qualify to go to states in one sport,” said Pat Smith.

That doesn’t stop the athletes from being multi-sport competitors.

Chris Clark and Kirk Willis, who were both bowling last Wednesday evening, play golf and volleyball, respectively, when it isn’t bowling season.

Smith organizes and coaches bowling each week as well as swimming. Her son, Ethan, is autistic, and he’s been bowling and swimming for four years.

There is some serious competition during the evening, and some competitors who could take on anyone.

Chris Clark, while saying in about the third frame that his best score is in the 150-160 range, might have been sandbagging a little as he proceeded to roll a 173. Clark, 31, has been involved with Special Olympics for more than 20 years. Only a couple years ago he started golf with Suffolk Special Olympics.

“I’ve bowled versus a pro before and he was very nice about it. He asked me if I wanted to take his spot. My real goal is to play golf professionally.”

Last October, five Suffolk Special Olympic athletes went to the AAU World Games as Special-Olympic world-record setting power lifters. Rafael Curry, Peter Curry, T. J. Woolfolk, Daryl Taylor and Lee Umphlett, all from Zuni and coached by Rob Kelly of Suffolk, went to Orlando to compete against all of the world’s best amateur athletes.

The coaches don’t cut their athletes much slack. The rules each night for the bowling team are the same rules you’d find at a pro event.

Daniel Winters, 16, who attends Lakeland High School, said, “When I started, they told me the rules, and you have to do it that way.

You can only be five or 10 minutes late or else you don’t bowl.”

“You have to switch lanes each time,” said Winters.

There’s the competitive reason behind alternating lanes each frame, but there’s a more important reason to follow the rule.

“You have to be careful to be only in your lane.

If you get in someone’s way they might not be able to stop,” said Winters.

Winters got into sports because many of his family members were and are Special Olympians.

Initially, Winters wanted to follow in the skates of figure skaters older cousin Kelly and older brother Nicholas.

His mom and another cousin were horseback riders said Winters.

“I tried skating, but that didn’t work out very well,” said Winters.

“So now I’m an Olympic bowler.”

Keeping up the family tradition motivates Winters.

“I want to try to make the Olympic finals and see how I do there.

I’d like to go and I’ll just try my best.”

“Everyone has goals,” said Smith, “everyone wants to go to tournaments, or to states, and win ribbons, medals and trophies.

That’s their thing.

It’s what they love to do.”

Newcomers to the team are welcomed quickly and whole-heartedly said Larry Graham, who’s Wednesday night in Franklin was his third week with the team.

“This is the first time in a long time that I had been bowling,” said Graham, who moved to Zuni on Jan. 14.

“I didn’t know what it would be like, but I’ve just tried it and I like it.”

“I’m already a part of the team and I really like the group,” said Graham.

“Charles (Clifford) is another volunteer,” said Smith, “he’s here each week.

He’s a very good bowler and he helps the kids with their technique, their form, how to straighten their hands up, everything.”

Make no doubt, Smith says, the coaches and volunteers get just as much out of each bowling night as the athletes.

Clark’s 173 topped Clifford’s score in that game, prompting a “congratulations” and a hand shake from coach to student.