ISC finals profiles: Elise Bolton

EliseBoltonInsideYou might think Nebraska Husker Elise Bolton is just being figurative when she tells you she learned to walk in a bowling center. Think again.

“My husband bowled league twice a week, so we would go every week and just watch him bowl,” Bolton’s mother, Cheryl, explains. “Elise was just little then, and the other guys her dad bowled league with would tease her and say ‘Come here, come here,’ and one night she actually did. She took her first steps in the bowling center.”

No one knew it yet, but those first steps she took in a bowling center also were her first steps toward a career that would pay her way through college, send her around the world to represent her country, and land her on national TV, where she will compete for the 2012 USBC Intercollegiate Singles Championships title May 4 on CBS Sports Network at 10 p.m. ET.

And if it weren’t for three consecutive weeks of cancelled tennis practices, maybe no one ever would have known it.

“She started bowling because her tennis practice was cancelled three weeks in a row one July when it just rained and rained,” Cheryl Bolton explains of how the three-time member of Junior Team USA got started bowling at age nine.

All it took for Bolton to trade in her tennis racket for a bowling ball was the realization that they never have rain-outs in bowling centers. And all it took for her parents to realize that this was no ordinary nine-year-old was their first time out on the lanes together.

“The first time she threw a ball, she would not let us put up bumpers for her,” Cheryl Bolton says. “Bumpers were for babies.”

Bolton may have the rain to thank for nudging her away from the tennis court and into the bowling center; but it’s the people she met there that she has to thank for how far she has come since the day she swore off bumper bowling all those years ago.

People like former PBA Tour player Sandy Finkelstein, the general manager at Shore Lanes in Merritt Island, Fla., where Bolton grew up.

“I saw her potential right away,” Finkelstein recalls. “She had tremendous rhythm getting to the foul line; she just was a natural. I know bowling can get expensive, so I told her she was welcome to practice for free.”

But Finkelstein made sure Bolton knew the ground rules, too—no monkeying around.

“She never paid a penny to practice as long as she didn’t fool around,” Bolton’s mother says. “If she fooled around, she would have to pay. It was a huge help to us because this girl was bowling 25 to 30 games a day; and we never could have afforded that.”

People like local coach Tom Blasco, with whom Bolton spent as many hours talking about everything from how to play the gutter to how to deal with failure as she spent on the lanes.

“She was a sponge,” Blasco recalls. “She picked things up real fast and worked extremely hard to put herself in a position to succeed.”

But perhaps the person who did the most to help put Bolton in a position to succeed is ladies’ tour legend Kim Adler, who came home after the tour folded to discover the feisty girl at Shore Lanes who would sooner throw 10 straight gutters than bowl with bumpers.

“Kim Adler always taught me that you are your only friend on the lanes; you just need to worry about yourself and what you need to do and just get it done,” Elise Bolton says of Alder’s coaching. “All I try to do now is stay focused, stay in the moment and do what I know how to do.”

That may make the lanes seem like a lonely place to compete, and maybe they are. But whether she is bowling the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open, where she averaged nearly 230 for the tournament and finished higher than names like Carolyn Dorin-Ballard and 2009 champion Tammy Turner, or the 2011 PABCON Youth Championships in the Dominican Republic, where she won silver in the Masters event, Bolton always keeps Adler close by.

“When you watch the Intercollegiate Singles Championships show or see pictures from last year’s U.S. Women’s Open, you will see that Elise has on a gold necklace that has a little bowling pin and a ball on it. Kim gave that to her,” Cheryl Bolton explains. “Kim’s coach had given it to her when she was 13 years old, so when Elise turned 13, Kim gave it to her. Every time she bowls something big she puts on Kim’s necklace.”

No one really knows exactly what lights a fire inside a girl that takes her from a rainy day at a tennis court in suburban Florida to a medal stand in the Dominican Republic, but those people Bolton has to thank for helping her get there expect that fire to burn brightly for the Nebraska Huskers.

“I texted her after she got done bowling the Intercollegiate Singles show, and I told her ‘Now you’ve proven you’re a force to be reckoned with,” Finkelstein says. “You’ve proven you’re one of the top bowlers in the country. You just need to keep at it, keep improving, and you will win championships.’ And she will.”