Life in the Oiled Lane
USBC offers window into the world of serious bowling
By Kendra R. ChamberlainPosted Feb 15, 2012
You’ll hear it as soon as you step foot inside the building: the low rumble of a fourteen-pound ball rolling down the lane, followed by the bubbly din of falling pins.
Then you’ll hear it again, and again, and again.
The silence in between these two sounds is thick, a sign of the focus and determination the player hold toward the game at the 151-day long US Bowling Congress Open Championships, being held now at the River Center.
“The goal is to win an Eagle,” said Matt Cannizzaro, media relations manager for the USBC, referring to the coveted USBC trophy. “While it’s fun and there’s comradery and it’s a vacation and you get some prize money, ultimately you want the Eagle and you want your name hanging on the banner.”
The sport of bowling is unlike any other “officially” regulated game. The once-considered “blue collar past time” is, by my estimation, one of the most un-elitist sports out there.
The competition being played on the 48 lanes constructed in the River Center is a national championship, though anyone with their own gear and a membership to the USBC can compete. Anyone – even me.
“Part of the allure of this event is that you only get one shot, and on any day, anybody can be that guy,” Cannizzaro explained.
It’s not all that unusual for bowler Cinderellas to spring up out of nowhere and take the Eagle home.
“Last year, it was Matt Weggen. Personally, I had never heard [of him],” Cannizzaro said. “He became the first bowler in the history of our event to bowl back to back eight hundred series, and he is now one of three that have two eight hundreds in their entire careers.”
(If that sentence didn’t mean much to you, you’re not alone).
“He went from being unknown to being the most famous bowler of 2011,” Cannizzaro translated. “It can be that easy.”
That’s not to say the championships are children’s play. On the contrary, the USBC strives to deliver the hardest game anyone has ever come across.
But bowling is a different kind of sport – the kind where competitors can kick back beers while playing, teams are encouraged to enter side pots, and everyone has a different way of throwing the ball.
This is serious bowling, and whether you rent your shoes or you have your own pair, you could probably stand to learn a thing or two from these guys.
Step 1: Pick a ball
The bowling ball is one of the most unique pieces of sports equipment. Sports equipment at competitions is typically consistent – official soccer balls, for example, are “official” because they fall within a thin, uniform set of parameters.
Uniformity isn’t really part of bowling – not in the lane, not in the players, and definitely not with the balls.
“It’s not as simple as going in and picking the green ball that says fourteen on it,” Cannizzaro said. “Each one is different, each one does something different. [Each has] a totally different shape, so you’re going to get a different reaction.”
First of all, not all balls are made of plastic. The coverstock (that’s the outside of the ball) can range from polyester to urethane to reactive resin, or a combination of those. Some coverstock are shiny, some are smooth, and some have “particles” that add texture to the outside surface.
Then there are the cores – the weights in the center of the balls that affect how the ball moves on the lanes. Solid, “pancake” cores are of yesteryear; nowadays, the cores are complex, oddly shaped, and backed by what must be years of physics analysis.
“They’re getting more intricate,” Cannizzaro said. “There are some very smart guys in laboratories, coming up with those ideas.”
The USBC does, of course, have standards and parameters for the balls. When a player arrives, one of the first things on his or her agenda is to get each ball weighed, to make sure it’s within regulation. If a ball is weighted incorrectly, it can either be “fixed” or excluded from the game.
Cannizzaro is a bowler himself, and will be competing in May with his team. He showed me his bowling bag – his “arsenal,” as he called it.
The competition allows each player to have up to eight different balls to play with, though Cannizzaro uses only three.
“If you’re a regular guy, you’re going to have a dull one, a shiny one, and a plastic one for spares,” Cannizzaro said. “That’s the basic arsenal.”
Step 2: Understand the oil
The variability in ball is a consequence of the phenomenon of the oiled lane.
Bowlers often say they are bowling “against the numbers,” but as far as I can tell, the biggest opponent to the bowler is the oil slicked onto the lane. Each bowling alley has its own unique set of “lane conditions,” which refers to the pattern of oil on the lane. The oil helps the bowling ball glide towards the pins, and the amount and distribution of oil across a lane will alter the balls movement. Generally, there is more oil in the center of the lane, and less at the edges around the gutters. That’s how a ball that drifts out to the edge will (sometimes) hook back into the center of the lane.
But each time a ball is thrown down the lane, the distribution of oil shifts, altering the lane conditions, even if slightly, for the next throw.
“That’s where the difficulty comes in,” Cannizzaro said. “You have to adjust.”
Among bowlers, the USBC lane conditions are considered the toughest ones any bowler will face.
“The lane conditions they put down for this tournament are just really, really challenging,” said Richard Harris, team captain of the local Fun in the Shade team.
“I’m already intimidated before I get on the lanes because the shot is so difficult.”
The team Fun in the Shade competed Sunday, and emerged as the high score leader. But that didn’t mean the lanes were treating the players very well.
“My first six games I averaged one hundred and fifty, and I’m a scratch bowler in the town,” Harris said with a laugh. “It’s not your typical house shot that you’re used to bowling on.”
For the USBC, altering the lane conditions to keep them challenging is a way to level the playing field for competing bowlers.
“It doesn’t favor one style over another, Cannizzaro said. “We try to make it so people can attack it from different angles, so [that] different styles are able to score well.”
This year, the lanes aren’t the only things getting lubricated during competition.
As I strolled through the arena, I couldn’t help but notice the (at times impressive) number of beer bottles gracing the tables during a team game.
I asked Cannizzaro if the players are drinking while competing.
“[The bowlers] are now allowed to drink while they’re bowling, and they do take advantage, whether it’s beer or soda, or whatever,” he said. “It’s a new thing for us.”
Step 3: Approaching the approach
Bowling is a physical sport, though in terms of exercise, it’s considered low-impact. The athlete must have the upper-body strength to push the ball down the lane, the coordination that any athlete needs, and, perhaps most importantly, balance.
I asked Cannizzaro, who has bowled fifteen perfect games in his career, for some approach tips.
“Everybody’s unique. It doesn’t matter what happens behind the foul line, it doesn’t have to look pretty at all,” Cannizzaro explained, surveying the bowlers from the second floor viewing space. “Some of them don’t have perfect balance. You want to be balanced, you’re squared with your target, your eyes are on your target, you want to follow through.”
If you search Youtube for bowling videos, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll find yourself watching the wide selection of “epic fails” in bowling techniques. Most of these videos involve embarrassing mishaps with the bowling ball release.
I mentioned one particular video I watched that had a bowling ball flying across the lane, with a man – still attached at the finger holes – flying behind it.
“The Machuga Flop,” Cannizzaro said. “Let’s google that one. This is his signature move.”
The Machuga flop is a trick, but Cannizzaro did say bowling accidents are not unheard of.
“It does happen if you’re nervous, or it’s hot, or it doesn’t fit well,” he said. “I don’t like to admit it, but when I was a youngin’ I did drop a ball on my head.”
Aside from the dangers of handling a heavy ball, the sport is, for all intents and purposes, ageless. Anyone who can pick up a ball can play – all generations of the family.
“That’s what I like about the game,” Cannizzaro said.
With months until his team will compete, I wondered whether he was anxious to get out there on the lanes.
“I’ll take my one shot at it. I know I’ll have my chance, so I’m not in hurry, I’m not antsy,” Cannizzaro said. “If anything, I might learn something in one hundred days until my turn.”
2012 US Bowling Congress Open Championships
The bowling events are completely free and open to the public, so if you’re looking for a novel date night, or to learn some tips from the pros, head down to the Exhibit room of the River Center, located at 275 South River Rd. downtown. The daily schedules are still light, but by March 2, the center will be operating at full capacity – thirty-one continuous hours of bowling across 48 lanes, seven days a week, until July 11. Wowza. Visit www.Bowl.com for more information.