health & sports
Out on the Field
Bowler has perserverance to spare
Published Thursday, 06-Mar-2008 in issue 1054
For the month of March, I will be writing about what I consider real bravery. I’ll be introducing you to amazing athletes who manage to compete despite pretty tremendous obstacles. In them, you will see optimism, courage and indomitable spirit. These people will inspire you, and their stories will move you.
James Riggins, 46, used to bowl with a 180-plus average, a decent mark for a regular bowler. From 1987 to 1992, he bowled mostly in a straight league with his Air Force buddies. He had even managed to develop what bowlers call a “hook,” a throwing motion that causes the ball to curve into the pocket between the one and three position pins at just the last second.
In 1993, Riggins stopped bowling, and it wasn’t until about six years ago, when his friend Loraine convinced him to come out and bowl with her in the gay league on Thursday nights, that he decided to pick up the sport again.
Since he’s been back on the lanes though, his average is about 100 pins less than what it used to be. Sometimes, Riggins said, that’s a little frustrating.
Then again, bowling in a wheelchair isn’t easy.
In October 1993, Riggins, then active duty Air Force, noticed he was having trouble walking. Soon he began stumbling and decided to see his doctor to learn why. In days, his condition worsened, and soon he had to use a cane to walk around. Within a month of his first doctor’s visit, Riggins was placed in a wheelchair, and he’s been in it ever since.
I sat down with him during bowling last week and asked him what his condition was called. His response threw me a little. “It’s some neurological, vascular, ‘something-something.’”
The more I talked to him, though, it became clear that his lack of specificity comes more from an attitude of acceptance than an inability to comprehend his condition.
“When the doctors talk to me about it,” Riggins said, “it just kinda’ goes in one ear and out the other. It’s not like it matters what I have. I can’t walk and have to use a wheelchair. That’s really all I need to know.”
Riggins’ matter-of-fact attitude may surprise some. But he’s made peace with his fate. “I accepted it and moved on.”
That isn’t to say he’s completely disinterested in his medical care. “I just ask the doctors ‘Am I OK?’ and ‘Let me know if I’m dying.’”
So it is with that attitude that Riggins decided to return to bowling. Watching him do it, though, is a far cry from watching your average bowler.
First of all, bowling alleys aren’t exactly accessible for people in wheelchairs.
To their credit, the Rainbow Bowling League, of which Riggins is a member, offered to be as accommodating as possible when it found out a wheelchair-bound player wanted to participate. This was welcome news for Riggins.
“I wasn’t sure they would let me even play,” he said.
Riggins said the league offered to make sure his team only bowled on lanes one or two, which are closest to the wheelchair ramp, essentially helping solve part of the access issue, but Riggins refused. He wanted no special treatment.
So every Thursday night, James Riggins wheels his way into Kearny Mesa Bowl, orders his dinner from the snack bar, and waits until it’s time to bowl.
When his teammates arrive, they help him down the one step from the spectator gallery into the bowling pit. This requires him to lift himself up out of the chair and lean all his weight on the railing while a teammate takes the chair down the step so that Riggins can set himself back down.
Then he wheels himself a few more feet to the lane he’s to bowl on and has to de-chair again to get into the actual pit. You see, the chairs for bowlers to sit in while they wait for their next turn are too close together for Riggins to navigate his chair through. He has to get up again and quickly slide into one of the fixed chairs by the bowling computer as a teammate collapses his chair just long enough to bring it through the tight quarters. The teammate then re-opens his chair and Riggins quickly pops back into it.
There is still one more step to conquer, though, and that’s getting up onto the lane itself when it’s his turn to bowl. As if the one step to get down into the pit wasn’t enough, there’s another step to get up onto the lane. For that, Riggins again gets a little help from his friends. He wheels himself right up to the step, pops a wheelie while a teammate pushes his chair forward and lifts up, so all four wheels are now on the lane.
He grabs his ball out of the collector, places it on his lap, gives the wheels on his wheelchair two shoves, and while his chair is moving toward the lane, he places his right hand into the ball. When it comes time to stop, his left hand grabs his back left wheel and stops it while the whole right side of his body leans over his chair as he rolls the ball down the lane. He has to quickly right himself, or the chair will topple over, and as he watches the ball roll down the lane, it still has that hook he learned when he could walk.
“I used to just go up to the line and lean over and roll,” he said. “But I couldn’t really get any power that way.” So now Riggins utilizes the rolling-start approach. Speaking as a seasoned bowler, he concludes in plain terms, “it gives me a little more power.”
Riggins’ bowling prowess isn’t going to send anyone running for the hills, however. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s made peace with that, too.
“I have fun bowling,” he said. “It breaks up the monotony of the work week. Sometimes the stress can get you.”
Outside the bowling alley, Riggins and his partner of 17 years, Randy, own a flower shop in Coronado. Even though Riggins doesn’t expect to be able to walk again, he is determined not to let his ailment send him quietly into the night.
While James Riggins can’t tell you what it is he has, he does know he’s not going to let it stop him.