RENO, Nev. - While many of the athletes at the Special Olympics National Unified Tournament take to the lanes to show off their skills and capture gold medals, a group from Mobile, Ala., not only looks to compete, but also is there to pay tribute to a fallen friend.
Cindy's Unified Bowling Buddies was formed in honor of Cindy Brannum, a bowler who suffered from down syndrome and died from a heart attack in 2010. To show their support at home in Mobile, bowlers wear patches in Brannum's honor. The patches feature two blue butterflies surrounding a bowling pin.
"Cindy was a bowler and a square dancer," said Robert McGhee, who competed as a unified partner on one of two teams from the Mobile area this year at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nev. "Even if she just knocked down a few pins, she was so proud of it. As long as she was out there and able to bowl, that's what she enjoyed. This is the third year we've made it to this event, and we always have the patch on our shirts in her memory."
This week, McGhee and his teammates helped celebrate the National Unified Tournament's 23rd-consecutive year as part of the opening-week festivities at the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships.
Nearly 350 bowlers from 14 states made the trip to Reno to compete in this year's tournament, an event that has shared the stage with the USBC Open Championships since 1991. Competitors were divided into four-player teams Wednesday and returned for doubles Thursday.
In all, there were 48 divisions, so no bowler went home without an award. Each team included two Special Olympians and their unified partners, which helps carry the message of friendship and camaraderie from year to year.
"It's very fulfilling to see the development of the partnership between the Special Olympics and USBC," said Special Olympics National Unified Tournament Director Marty Allen. "We get to come here every year to the championships and have a tournament held at some of the finest facilities in the world. For many of the athletes, it's a dream to come to a national tournament and participate as full-fledged members of the USBC and Special Olympics."
The first National Unified Tournament was held alongside the 1991 Open Championships in Toledo, Ohio, thanks to then Open Championships director Hal Kaminski and Bowling Ambassador for the Special Olympics, Jimmy Schroeder, a USBC Hall of Famer who will be making his 65th-consecutive Open Championships appearance on May 18. Schroeder remains a part of the event and was joined at NBS this week by fellow hall of famer Bob Hart.
"The Special Olympics and USBC continue to grow as partners, and this event serves as a showcase," said Eric Kearney, USBC Managing Director of Operations and Administration. "We are excited to bring the athletes and coaches together on one of the biggest stages in bowling. We hope to continue this tradition and partnership for many years to come."
As the National Unified Tournament finishes up, the first of more than 10,500 teams will make their way to Reno, excited for the 2013 Open Championships to begin its 125-day run at the NBS. The event will run from March 1 until July 7.
The "Taj Mahal of Tenpins" also will be home to three side events - the Storm Bowlers Journal Championships presented by USBC, the 900 Global Two-Game Challenge and Who's Got the Look Baker Bonanza presented by 900 Global.
The 2013 USBC Women's Championships also will be in town from April 12-July 1, marking the first time both tournaments have been held in the same host city. The Women's Championships will be contested on 44 specially-constructed lanes inside the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
Presenting sponsors for the 2013 USBC Open Championships include Circus Circus Reno, Eldorado Hotel Casino Reno and Silver Legacy Resort Casino Reno.