Most people think preparing for a bowling tournament begins and ends with lots of practice. That is because most people are not Stefanie Nation.
Oh, sure, you will find Nation polishing up her spare game any night of the week, experimenting with different hand releases and layouts, putting her game to the test on Sport shots. But you also will find her running a 26.2-mile marathon out at Disney World, completing any number of 5K and 10K races in between, dragging herself off to the gym at 5:30 a.m. for another round of cardio and weight training.
Maybe that is not quite the sort of thing the word “practice” typically brings to mind. But if Nation’s success is any indication, maybe it ought to be.
Nation, an eight-time Team USA member, is one of just two people to win the North Pointe Junior Gold Championships three consecutive times (2003–2005). She remains the youngest girl to qualify for Junior Team USA (age 15). She became a world champion in 2009, winning singles gold at the World Women’s Championships. Oh, and she also won two PBA Women’s Series titles.
“With the physical training comes mental training,” Nation explains of her grueling fitness regimen. “To know that I can lift that much, or that I can run that far, that also helps your mental game just as much as it may help you get stronger or healthier, because you are pushing your body to places you never thought you could. And with that comes that ‘Aha!’ moment when you think ‘I can do anything.’ The more you work, the more you can do. It’s a constant yearning for challenge.”
But as any great player will admit, the only way to learn how to win as much as Nation has is if you first learn how to lose.
“Yeah, it’s been quite a journey, but it’s by no means been an easy one,” Nation says. “People only see your successes—they see you bowling for titles on TV or whatever—but they don’t see the trials that got you from one success to the next.”
Few tournaments exemplify the trials Nation speaks of more than the USBC Queens, one of the few events Nation has yet to win. Last year, she crushed the field in qualifying—leading the tournament after the first block with a 247 average—and quickly proceeded to blister her first opponent in match play with a 761 series capped by a 299 game.
But that’s the thing about the USBC Queens, where qualifying scores count for exactly nothing once you enter match play, where you find the look of a lifetime on one pair and then can’t find your way to a 160 game on the next.
“You can be on an extreme high and then you get a bad pair and all of a sudden you’re out of the tournament and you’re like ‘What just happened? I’m going home?’” Nation says of Queens competition. “You blink, and it’s over.”
Last year, Nation blinked. She followed up that 761 with a pair of 560s and found herself asking that same question all but one player asks themselves at the Queens each year: “What just happened?”
But if you think this is where a great player laments that elusive major title and wonders what others might think of her career should it never come her way, you’re reading the wrong story.
“I don’t relate my success to wins,” explains Nation, who works as Tournament Coordinator for the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America. “For me, it’s about the entire experience. I work in the industry, so even just something as simple as paying it forward by inspiring young kids to bowl is as important to me as winning a tournament.
“There is no doubt I want to win. I know that I am one of the best. I have experienced winning, I have bowled against these ladies and I know I can beat them, but all I can do is prepare as hard as I can and then when the lights go on, give it my all. And if it’s written in the stars that day, fantastic. If not, well, that can be detrimental to a lot of people. But for me, the glass is always half full. It’s about embracing opportunity, living in each moment. You just have to embrace everything with a good attitude, and when I do that, I usually find that everything works out the way I want it to.”
Another way to ensure things work out, of course, is to know how you want things to work out. That has never been a problem for Stefanie Nation.
“She was very hard-headed when she was young; she was set in her ways. She would tell her coach ‘I don’t have to do that,’” Nation’s father, Frank, laughs from his home in Miami, Fla., where Nation grew up. “Well, she finally found out she did. But all while she was growing up, I knew she was going to be a leader, not a follower.”
When that hard-headed Miami kid heard the jeers of better bowlers in the local bowling center, Nation decided she would not just become as good as they were, but better.
“When I started bowling, there clearly were people who were better than I was, and there were people who kind of put me down. That lit a fire in me,” Nation says. “Who are you to say I am not good enough?”
When the girls’ bowling team at Palmetto High School ran out of players who could bowl, Nation decided not just to bowl on the boys’ team, but to anchor them into the state championships.
And the thing about people who know what they’re after is that success is not only something you seize; it also becomes something you just start stumbling into. Like that 865 series Nation shot in league last May, when she discovered she had tied legend Anne Marie Dugan’s record for highest series by a woman in the state of Texas—a feat she describes as “ridiculous.”
Nation would not mind experiencing a little more ridiculousness when she heads off to bowl the Queens again this year. But don’t expect her to be counting on it.
“I am hoping—cross my fingers—that I have a better story next year,” Nation says as she looks ahead to the Queens. “Of course, I’d love to add that to my resume, but it will not make or break me if it never happens. You always have to take the positives out of your defeats and work that much harder to not be in that place again. I know I am doing everything I can, and that there always will be bumps along the road, and people telling you ‘You can’t, you can’t.’ But I will do anything I can to prove anybody wrong.”