By Amy Geiszler-Jones
Wichita bowler Maggi Watson may not be able to see her score due to her failing eyesight, but she can still knock down some pins.
In her fifth frame and after hitting her second spare, she asks a senior league teammate for her score.
“You’re at 45,” responds Johnny Kirk, who makes sure Watson gets to The Alley bowling center in east Wichita every Tuesday.
“Oh, I’m behind,” she says.
“Yeah, Maggi, you’re a little behind.”
Until this year, Watson, who’s 101, bowled all three games of each match with her team, the Rollabouts. When league play rolled around this past August, she cut back to just one. “I started feeling my age,” she explains.
But on this Tuesday — after scoring 30 points higher than her 87-point average — Watson goes for a second game.
As she watched teammates take their turns at the lane, she turned to an observer and recalled what she calls her claim to fame.
“Maybe eight to 10 years ago, I had a 245 game. It was unusual enough that after four strikes in a row, people came over to watch. I ended up bowling six strikes in a row.” In bowling terms, she had two “turkeys,” a turkey being three strikes in a row.
Watson and her teammates are among the hundreds of bowlers who hit the lanes every week as part of senior bowling leagues, which are generally open to those 50 and older. League play usually runs about 32 weeks, from August to April. Senior leagues tend to be handicapped leagues, meaning a formula using your average and a basis average is used so that bowlers of varying skills and ability have more equal chances.
All four of Wichita’s bowling centers, as well as others in nearby towns such as Derby and Newton, offer league play for seniors. Some Wichita alleys, like Seneca Bowl and West Acres, run more than one senior league.
“It’s one of our most popular age groups,” said Derek Frazier, the owner of Seneca Bowl since 1982. The center currently has four senior leagues. In January, it may add more leagues with a shorter season, Frazier said.
The website of Wichita’s Northrock Lanes cites three reasons senior leagues continue to be popular: Bowling forms social networks, playing three games is the equivalent of walking a mile and an hour of bowling can burn 100 calories, and it can be a lifelong sport that promotes balance and coordination.
Those were the same reasons Watson’s teammate Carol Mesa listed when asked why she bowls.
“My husband died 17 years ago, and I needed something to do,” said Mesa, who turned 80 in December. It had been decades since she’d bowled, but a notice in her church piqued her interest. “I saw my parish participated in a women’s bowling league, and I joined. It was the best thing I ever did.”
Watson, who grew up in western Kansas during the Dust Bowl days, didn’t start bowling until she was in her 60s. Her husband, Norman, introduced her to league bowling. The pair were married for 54 years, until Norman died in 2014, on his 101st birthday. After Norman, a World War II vet, quit bowling at about age 97, Watson became part of the Rollabouts team. Watson, who had a career as an occupational therapist, is a Korean War veteran.
In Wichita, some retirees like Jim Grill hits the lanes more than once a week. Grill, 71, is secretary of The Alley’s senior league so he bowls in the center’s senior league day on Tuesday and then he represents the center as part of a traveling senior league on Friday. Participating centers rotate hosting the traveling league every Friday. The traveling senior league is split into men’s and women’s leagues.
Like the Watsons, Grill and his wife, Mary, found bowling was something they could do as a couple in retirement. Mary, 72, hits the lanes three times a week, twice as part of senior leagues and another day as part of a daytime mixed league open to adults of any age.
Generally, individuals can join a senior league even while the season is underway, Grill said.
“We almost always have an opening,” said Grill, who retired from a career with Dillons.
As he wiled away a Thursday morning at The Alley, watching his wife participate in the daytime league, Grill cited some reasons bowling is a great activity for seniors.
It’s a sport that develops great camaraderie among the various teams, he said. If someone participates in more than one league, “you might bowl on one team but then your team members might be on competing teams in another league.”
It’s also “one of those sports you can theoretically do forever,” Grill said.
Just ask Maggi Watson.
Contact Amy Geiszler-Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Amy Geiszler-Jones