Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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May 10, 2013

Once a bowler, always a bowler

Sue Thornton sets record in state tournament.

Sue Thornton has broken her ankle and had both knees replaced. The 79-year-old walks with a cane and suffers from shooting pain in her hands.

But injuries and aches haven’t stopped Thornton from doing one of her favorite things in the world: bowling.

“You can’t let injuries stop you,” she said. “If you do, you might as well lay down and die.”

And Thornton said she isn’t ready to do that. She wants to keep bowling.

She did just that last month during the 86th annual Indiana State Women’s Championship Tournament held in Kokomo, where she competed against more than 2,000 woman from around the state.

The tournament started in March and ends Sunday.

It wasn’t the first time she’s bowled in a state tourney.

In fact, Thornton, who lives about 20 miles south of Kokomo, has bowled in 56 tournaments, making her the longest participating bowler in the annual competition.

She was inducted last year into the Indiana USBC Women’s Bowling Association Hall of Fame, where she was awarded a pin for her record-setting participation.

“It’s an honor,” she said. “But anyone can do it if you stick with it.”

And that’s something Thornton has done despite injuries, age and two pregnancies.

Thornton first started bowling in 1951 after she graduated from high school. She landed her first job at Haynes International and joined the company’s bowling league after her boss extended an offer.

“I’ve always loved sports. Period,” she said, noting she played softball and basketball in high school. “And since then, I’ve always loved bowling. Period.”

But it took her a while to get the hang of it. For the first three years, Thornton said, she held the ball with the wrong three fingers and bowled off the wrong foot.

It was Don Lowry, who founded the bowling alley of the same name in Kokomo, who finally informed her of the error.

“It took him all of five minutes to show me what I was doing wrong,” she said with a laugh.

Now, 61 years after first picking up a bowling ball, Thornton estimates she’s played over 20,000 games. And all that bowling has made her a permanent fixture in the Kokomo bowling scene.

She’s been a local, state and national team captain. For decades, she’s organized a four-team squad from Kokomo to participate in state and national competitions. For more than 30 years, she was the president of the Morning Stars League, which meets 30 weeks out of the year at 9 a.m. Wednesdays.

“Anyone who has spent any time in the bowling centers in Kokomo has probably met or heard of Sue,” said Dee Johnson, a member of the Kokomo Women’s Bowling Association. “Sue has been one of bowling’s greatest ambassadors. She not only promoted the sport of bowling, but membership as well — adults and youth.”  

Thornton took her advocacy for bowling a step further three years ago when she started an annual scholarship with her husband, Tex. Every year, the couple awards $500 to a graduating senior who participates in a local bowling league.

So what kind of bowler is Thornton?

She said she’s never been much for hooks or fancy moves. She just bowls it straight and that’s worked out well for her.

Thornton’s career high average is 175. Her high game is 264. And her high series score is 646.

In 1995, she won third place in the Women’s International Bowling Congress doubles event.

That’s pretty good, but Thornton is the first to admit her age has taken a toll on her game.

For example, she used to bowl with a 16-pound ball, but she can’t manage it anymore. She bowls with a 10 pound one now, which has added a sweeping hook to her throw.

“I used to be reasonably good at it. But anymore I pretty much just show up and pay my money,” she said with a laugh. “Anymore I just think ‘Lord, don’t let me fall down and keep my ball in the alley.’ ”

“I never was a big strike bowler, but I can stand to shoot spares with anybody in town,” she said. “I never miss spares. But I can’t knock down 10 pins worth a diddly-hoot anymore.”

But if pain and injuries haven’t stop her from bowling, Thornton said, a lower score isn’t going to, either.

“I’m one of these types that’s a competitor from the word go,” she said. “I really like to have fun, and if I can’t have fun doing it, then I won’t. With bowling, I’m still having a good time.”

And as long as she’s having a good time, Thornton said she doesn’t have any plans giving up her favorite sport.

“As long as I can physically do it and the girls will put up with me, I’ll probably be bowling in a wheelchair,” she said.

Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He can be reached at 765-854-6739, or by email at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.

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