Paralyzed veterans shatter averages as American Wheelchair Bowling Association returns to competition
By Keith Cooper, MS Ed. CARSS-I, Adaptive Sports Program Manager II
Seventeen wheelchair bowlers from around the country once again gathered in Tampa, Fla., to participate in the 59th Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Florida Gulf Coast (FGC) State Tournament held April 21-23 at Pin Chasers Veterans Bowling Alley.
The American Wheelchair Bowling Association (AWBA) sanctioned competition was a return to play for many bowlers who had not participated since the onset of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The FGC tournament normally draws up to 30 players.
PVA member and combat-injured Army veteran Carl LaGrotteria (Beachwood, N.J.) was one of this year’s bowlers.
“Wheelchair bowling is an activity that I love because it gives me an opportunity to compete with other guys that are disabled and find commonality and friendship,” the Vietnam veteran said. “It’s different than bowling with leagues [at home] with other stand-up bowlers, because you are on equal footing. I enjoy [this tournament] very much.”
The tournament featured a doubles competition and two divisions of handicapped bowling, starting on April 21 with the doubles championship. In the roll-off finals, Rick Mahaney (PVA Lone Star Chapter) with partner Jimmy May (PVA Mid-Atlantic Chapter) competed against Marlon Benn (PVA FGC Chapter) and teammate Henry Walters (PVA Southeastern Chapter). Ultimately, the Benn/Walters team prevailed.
April 22 was the start of singles play. Muscle memory kicked in as bowlers continued to read and adjust to the lanes. But with no clear path to victory at the end of qualifying play on April 22, the April 23 series decided who entered the roll-off for each individual division.
In the B division, fifth-placed Deb Moulies of Florida and fourth-placed Dave McGinnis (PVA FGC Chapter) squared off. Moulies, a top women’s bowler, entered with a 100 handicap and played scratch games of 164 and 88, defeating McGinnis (221 total game). Moving forward, though, Moulies fell short of Dan Formento (PVA Nevada Chapter), who carried a 96 handicap and eliminated May to enter the finals against Mahaney.
Mahaney took top honors with a 227 game over Formento’s 222 total score.
In the A division, Navy veteran Dave Nelson Jr. (PVA Great Plains Chapter) knocked tournament director Wayne Webber (PVA FGC Chapter) down 203-186 in the first roll-off. Nelson first bowled competitively at the 2008 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Omaha, Neb. He was eliminated by Air Force veteran Brooks Martin, who started bowling at age 10 and was injured in 1977 while on duty. Martin finally fell to ABWA’s 2019 National Handicap Scratch Division champion Jason Nelson (St. Peters, Mo).
Nelson and Benn dueled in the finals, but No. 1-positioned Benn was the top pin chaser (245-183), adding to his doubles conquest.
Benn started bowling three years ago and said he bowls four days per week.
“I really enjoy the sport because you can bowl by yourself. It’s also very challenging,” he said. “Bowling is a good way of getting out of the house, meeting new people and having a good time, instead of sitting in your wheelchair crying about why you got hurt. It’s beautiful. I think everyone should get involved, whether you are walking or in a wheelchair.”
According to statistics by the International Bowling Federation, veterans with disabilities comprise 68% of all wheelchair bowlers in the United States. Bowling is unique, too, since there are no classifications. Rather, players are grouped based on their bowling handicap.
Bowling also can be a lower-cost adaptive sport, since bowlers can use their personal everyday wheelchairs. The chairs just need good brakes and front caster locks to prevent side-to-side movement when the bowler leans over to roll the ball.
The only special equipment are a strike ball and a spare ball.
Bowling is a longstanding PVA sport. The PVA Bowling Tournament Series is designed to assist in the rehabilitation of PVA members by providing them with an introductory experience in wheelchair bowling.
In addition to tournament match play, PVA partners with the AWBA to provide clinics at five chapter-hosted tournaments each year. Clinics provide instruction on equipment adaptations, ball weight, lane etiquette and techniques, such as how to approach the foul line.
Advanced strategies include correct hand position, a bowler’s mental approach and the three phases (skid, hook and roll) of rolling a bowling ball.
Despite the fact that this year’s tournament was missing the popular Up/Down competition that raises chapter money and pairs wheelchair bowlers with standing bowlers in pursuit of the contest’s coveted trophy, there were many smiles in Florida.
LaGrotteria said the community is what ultimately drew him to the sport.
“I’m sad that I didn’t find [wheelchair bowling] until I was 71 years-old, but now that I’m here, I plan on staying,” he said.