Growing up in Mamaroneck, N.Y., Sagirah Wheeler didn’t exactly live in in the local bowling alley, but the place was like a second home. Her parents bowled competitively, as did her aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings.
As a child, she’d spend her Wednesday nights watching her mom compete at Bowlder Land lanes in the Bronx. In her prime, her mother bowled two 300, or perfect, games and won state titles.
“Bowling is a family thing for me,” said Sagirah, a semiprofessional bowler at the age of 24 and an academic program coordinator for Teach for America at the School of Education.
Today, she can be found four nights a week honing her skills and participating in league play in and around the city. Last year, she formed a local Baltimore team, the APEX Predators, and serves as its president. APEX is part of the Underground Bowling Association, made up of 165 teams.
“The UBA is different because it allows bowlers to have fun. Very often if spectators are watching a PBA (Professional Bowlers Association) event, it is very calm and quiet; this is not the case for the UBA. Bowlers are able to be loud, trash talk and be themselves. It brings more excitement for those who are not professional bowlers.”
Sagirah started when she was 4 and joined a league at 7. Since there wasn’t a girls team at her local high school, she joined the boys team her freshmen year. She made it to the sectionals, which required an average 170. In New York State, there are 11 sectional playoffs before the state championship. The following year, she helped organize a girls team and again made it to the sectionals. Upon graduation, her skills won her a $15,000 bowling a scholarship—half the cost of tuition at Morgan State University.
Her average is 205, and her highest game was 279. She also finished sixth out of 40 women in a recent singles competition and seventh out of 70 women in a doubles tournament. She owns five bowling balls and brings them all to a match. She uses two “benchmark” balls during warmups to assess lane conditions. If the lane has a heavy oil pattern, she’ll use a ball that absorbs the oil and grips the lane. The lane condition will also determine where she positions her feet among those arrowed thin strips, called boards.
“Some people say I just roll a ball, but it’s a sport, as well as a game,” she said. “It’s about geometry and science—playing angles.”
She uses a heavy ball at 15 pounds, 4 ounces (16 pounds is the heaviest), for her 5-foot, 4-inch frame, but she said that weight feels natural. She also rolls a fast ball—18 miles per hour as measured by a speedometer on the lane. Most bowlers roll a heavy ball slowly to ensure that it cuts properly to the pocket.
This Thanksgiving, when families across the country gather around the table for turkey dinner, Sagirah and her mother, two siblings and friends will find their way to Westbrook Lanes in New Jersey, lace up their shoes, and compete against each other in a friendly game or two. There will be loud laughter, a large helping of turkey—the put-down, not the food—and plenty of stories about her father, a great bowler in his own right, who died two years ago.
“The game means a lot to me for many reasons, but mostly it helps me to remember my father. The Rashee Wheeler Memorial League is named after him in the Bronx.”