FORUM: Sports

Athletic activity has served me well as a favored pastime throughout my life. For me, athletics is an enjoyable method of reversing physical withering resulting from long periods of primarily motionless sitting when working at a desk. Athletics provides an applied setting in which to employ scientific and engineering knowledge and evaluate specific measurable personal objectives across time. Athletics also provides opportunity to compete against others in socially-sanctioned tests of comparative skill and stamina.

Hiking and exploring nature have been principal hobbies since I was young. In childhood my family frequently relocated to numerous ecosystems featuring rich palates of plant and animal species, and natural physical phenomena—offering exercise for body and mind. When my siblings began to mature (I was first-born), organized games such as “hide and seek,” or its derivative “kick the can,” became daily favorites. Swimming at the beach and pools and associated impromptu games such as racing and underwater distance competition, structured games such as “Marco-Polo” and pool volleyball, and body-surfing or rafting were favorite pastimes of mine, and of my siblings and friends.

My mother was a Polish Olympic volleyball player (digger and setter) in exile in India during WWII, and our family—including all six kids—played volleyball in the summer evenings. I became adept as a digger, server, and spiker, and played league volleyball for one summer in the service. The only time that any team ever carried me from the field happened after I spiked match point into the face of a flat-footed Marine, knocking him onto his back and winning the inter-service competition for the Navy squad. I still recall how it felt—as though I was floating on a cloud.

My father played baseball in college, and he taught me the game at an early age. I played left-field in neighborhood and league baseball between third and sixth grade, and for a summer in the military, and was a “walk-on” pitcher on the practice squad for a month in my first quarter as a graduate student. I can still mentally visualize my two best-ever throws made from left field, both of which tagged a runner, who was running with the pitch from second base, at home plate—once on the fly, and once with two perfect top-spin bounces, both directly into the catcher’s mitt. Always a switch hitter, I swung with power from the right, and slapped the ball from the left side of the plate. I was always the fastest kid on the field and around the bases: I routinely stole second base, and in college ran out of two pickles between second and third. I was never beaten in the hundred-yard dash or the standing broad jump in school physical education (PE) classes.

In high school my father became ill, and our family became poor. I worked as a chicken cook during the week and sustenance fished on the weekends: these activities were both athletically demanding. Many of my “core” courses were taken at local colleges, however I had to take state-mandated high-school courses such as PE, art, drivers’ education, and shop. In PE, I enjoyed tennis but in Southern California kids who played well were at the game for many years, and I didn’t enjoy being dominated. I was a terror in badminton, but there were not enough players to support regular practice and competition. So, I went into competitive speech/debate, chess, and science fairs—but that is another story.

When I became an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Northwestern Medical School, I lived a few blocks northeast of Wrigley Field. I didn’t have a car, but I had a custom mountain bike. Every day I’d ride through Lincoln Park, stop at the zoo to say hello to my favorite orangutan (she waited for me in the same location on weekday mornings), continue through the park down to Bears Stadium, and return to my office at the Medical School. On the way home I’d reverse the journey, ride at flank speed to Lake Michigan near Montrose Harbor, just east of the fifth hole of the Golf Club, and fish the rocks for monster Yellow Perch. On weekends I’d pedal up to 200 miles with my friend Ray. In my most active two-year period, I biked over 3,000 miles. When I relocated to the northwest side of the city, near the start of the Green Bay Bike Trail, I cut my riding in half because I had to take the train to and from Medical School. I continued biking until I had a child, then I began to drive—it was the end of my mountain-biking period.

This was, as the saying goes, all fun-and-games. Exercise kept me physically and mentally strong so that I could work 80- to 100-hour-long weeks in scholastics.

However, when I was a graduate student there was one sport at which I truly excelled—it took a disaster to keep me from turning professional. The sport was ten-pin bowling.

It was my final undergraduate quarter. I’d completed everything substantive required to graduate, completing majors in psychology (College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), quantitative methods (Business College), and systems engineering (College of Engineering). I only needed to take “fun” courses, called “electives,” for six hours of credit, to finish. I signed up for three PE classes: baseball and tennis (with which I was familiar), and bowling (which I’d never tried).

Curious about bowling, before the quarter began, I ventured into the campus’ 24-lane bowling alley. I’d never been in a bowling alley before. I had enough money to rent a pair of shoes and play one game. I had no idea how to score a game, but it was obvious the objective was to make all ten pins fall. I only recall my first-ever “shot.” Using both hands I rolled the ball down the middle of the lane. It meandered left and right over and again, and when it reached the pins, they toppled like drunks. When the machine reset the remaining pins, the left- and right-most pins in the furthest row—which I later learned is called the “7-10 split,” was left. I didn’t yet realize that this was the most challenging configuration of two pins to fell with a single shot. With two hands I aimed at the 7-pin on the left side of the lane. The ball hit the pin, which lazily bounced off the side of the “bucket” (where the pins eventually ended), and gently rolled to the right. Before the machine could reset the pins, the 7-pin hit and toppled the 10-pin. I had no idea then that this would never happen again for me.

To shorten a long-story, the class was fun and by the end I managed to average about 100 points per game. I continued bowling on my own as time and budget allowed. One day I watched in amazement as a man my age bowled a 200-point game. His ball travelled down the right side of the lane and at the last moment made a sharp left turn toward the first pin and the pin in the next row and to its right (“the pocket”). His shot usually knocked over all ten pins. I spoke with the man, James Walker, who it turned out was active on the pro bowling circuit. James started coaching me.

Within a year I was averaging 200 points a game. My shot required me to start from the extreme left-hand side of the lane. The ball crossed to within five inches of the right-hand side of the lane, then accelerated like a missile into the pocket. My shot had 19 top-spin revolutions: only Mark Roth, one of the top-three touring pros, had a shot matching mine in power. I was a natural. I landed a job with the Bowler’s Journal, the official trade magazine of the bowling industry which circulated in 60 countries, as the staff scientific author. This was exciting and wonderful; however, it wasn’t the most memorable athletic moment of my life…

Twice a week, early in the morning, I’d go to the campus bowling alley to practice. I was on the varsity team. The front desk would give me two sheets, each with spaces to score ten games. As a member of the team the games were free. I didn’t score the games, I simply wrote an “X” to indicate a strike, a “/” to indicate a spare, and a “0” to indicate an open frame (failing to knock down all ten pins in two shots). I’d go to the pair of adjacent lanes which had been prepped for me. When I completed my shot on one lane, I’d switch to the other: this emulated tournament bowling.

Starting about fifteen feet behind the scoring desks, paralleling the lanes, were three rows of benches—easily enough room to sit 200 people. On the day I recall, when I arrived two students were sitting on the benches, on opposite sides of the alley, both reading books prior to going to class.

I was in the zone. My ball was obliterating the racks. I never looked past the ball return and score sheet.

When a league bowler gets a strike, pins typically bounce off each other and the sides of the “bucket,” some spin around, and it makes a racket lasting several seconds. Then a metal bar comes down and slides all the pins into the bucket area behind the lane, to be reloaded into the pin-setting machine.

My strikes were qualitatively different. The ball would smash the pocket, and all ten pins would immediately fly up and backwards into the bucket, making an extremely loud booming report. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! I played both sheets. A third of the games were perfect scores of 300: 12 successive strikes. I had four perfect games in a row. There were no open frames, I only left the 10-pin when I failed to strike.

I turned around to get my bowling bag and pack to leave. I thought there was nobody there, I only heard my booming shots—nary a single human utterance. To my surprise every spot on every bench was taken, and additional spectators were standing behind the benches. Nobody said anything. Everyone looked at me. I left in silence. It was the most excellent athletic performance of my life for decades to come, until I became a stand-up long-range big-game angler.

I was planning to go pro, but bowling was competing with baseball as a new Olympic demonstration sport—ultimately baseball won. My coach, the magnificent Tom Kouros, helped me during the US Olympic tryouts at River Rand Bowling Center. I had to stroke one shot on each of 24 lanes. Tom told me to take my normal shot. On the first lane I did as coached, and my ball flew straight into the gutter. I looked at Tom with horror, and he repeated that I must use my normal shot. The next five shots were repeat gutter balls. I thought I had gone insane. Tom told me not to worry each time. On all remaining lanes my normal shot was rewarded with a thundering boom! The first six lanes had blocks (“oil patterns”) used in amateur leagues, the rest had the standard pro block which I used in practice. I made the team.

Tom told me to stop drinking and dancing (I was a punk rocker), and to stop playing baseball (I played in scrimmage games with undergraduates at the University of Illinois). I called my punk rock buddies (all but one of whom are now full professors at prestigious universities) and told them I made the team. They suggested we dance, get drunk, and hang out at the beach after the club closed—to celebrate. I said coach told me I had to quit. They said he meant to quit starting tomorrow. We did as they suggested. The next day the Department of Psychology had its annual picnic. They played a game of 16” softball. I never tired that before. I was sent to left field (though I was a pitcher). The first hit the ball came sailing into my zone. I thought I’d show off and demonstrate how a baseball player, and Olympic bowler, can catch this big fluffy ball one-handed.

The ball shattered my right-hand pinky finger. This is THE most important finger in bowling—it is the last finger to address the ball before being released and is crucial in making the minute corrections required to ensure the perfect trajectory. Career OVER!

After visiting me in the hospital, my beloved coach never spoke with me again. Every Christmas he’d mail me a card with a bowling theme. My life would have been different if this hadn’t happened, I’d probably have made a great living as a professional bowler, coach, and writer.

However, if I’d gone down the bowling pathway, I wouldn’t have discovered quantum mechanics for non-Hilbert data, which turns out was my life’s work. I am often disappointed that this discovery hasn’t made me any money—but then again, many of my misfortunes (no pun intended) in life turned out to be blessings in disguise. As they say, I’m going to roll with it.

I must strike on every shot…


July 28, 2021

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

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