The noise of bowling pins continuously crashing together upon being struck would keep most people wide awake. Melissa Bellinder can fall asleep to the sound.
“I don’t hear bowling pins in my sleep, but I have actually fallen asleep to the sound in bowling alleys,” said Bellinder, who teaches bowling in CSULB’s Department of Kinesiology. “To me it’s kind of soothing.”
That may sound strange until you know that Bellinder has always been around the bowling world. Her father Frank competed on the Professional Bowlers’ Association (PBA) tour from 1969-2006 and continues to own and operate the pro shop at Saddleback Lanes in Mission Viejo. Her mother was a competitive bowler and her two older sisters roll a pretty good ball, too.
“I just love it. I love the sport. I love the competition,” said Bellinder, a Bronze Certified Coach. “I started bowling when I was 2, sitting on the lane and just pushing the ball down there. I grew up at my father’s pro shop. Every day after school I’d go there, do my homework and then go practice. Nobody was telling me ‘you have to go bowl.’ My father was never strict at all with me; nobody ever pushed me. I just loved it. I enjoy it so much.”
In addition to her teaching duties, Bellinder has a second job – that of an aspiring professional bowler. However, what she once thought was surely going to be a life on the weekly professional tour has, for the time being, been replaced by teaching the sport and competing in stressful qualifying rounds.
Her childhood dream hit a major roadblock in 2003 when the Professional Women’s Bowling Association (PWBA) folded just a year before she graduated from Cal State Fullerton, where she bowled all four years and earned a degree in communications/public relations. Talk about bad timing.
“My goal was always to go out on tour as soon as I graduated from college, so that was very disappointing,” said Bellinder, who as an amateur competed in a few professional tournaments before the PWBA disbanded.
In March 2004, however, opportunity knocked again when the men’s tour opened up to women. Still, making the tour is not easy for men or women. There are a number of ways to earn tour exemptions, one by earning points based on your tournament finish, but as Bellinder points out, “if you’re not actually on the tour it’s hard to earn points.” Bowlers also can qualify for the tour by competing in regional tournaments. Another is through tour trials which are one week of intense competition where tour hopefuls bowl nine games a day for five days. At the end of the week, the 10 highest pin totals earn exemptions.
“Only a handful of women are trying to compete on the men’s tour right now,” said Bellinder, noting that only one has earned exempt status. Other bowlers such as herself can attempt to qualify weekly through what are called PTQs (pre-tournament qualifiers), which is what she spent the most recent winter break doing, just missing the cut each week.
If any woman is going to qualify, however, Bellinder seems to have as good a chance as any, although you may not think so by just looking at her.
“A lot of people think when they see me, because I am really small, that I don’t look like a bowler, but I use the heaviest ball you can, 16 pounds,” said Bellinder, who brings at least eight bowling balls when competing in tournaments and sometimes as many as a dozen. “Bowling’s really not about strength. It’s about right technique, having the ball fit you properly, having it drilled correctly. It’s really not about upper body strength at all; it’s really about lower body strength and using your legs.”
Based on her success, it’s hard to argue. Bellinder was the junior national champion at the age of 16 while competing against the best bowlers up to 21, has won international gold medals, averages in the 230s and has rolled a remarkable 18 perfect games. Her best three-game series is 869, the third highest ever for a woman in the United States, which came about in a PWBA regional event when she was 21.
Noting that bowling is her priority right now, she bowls nearly every day and practices at least four times a week. On weekends she competes in tournaments, usually in California or Nevada. Her goal, naturally, is to become a regular on the professional tour.
“That’s always been my dream growing up,” she said. “When I was 3 or 4, people would ask me, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I would always say ‘a professional bowler.’ That’s not what they expected to hear.”