By Chad Ruiz

What makes a champion?  Athleticism?  Intelligence?  Perseverance? All of the above?  Ask professional bowler Shannon O’Keefe, and she’ll tell you mental prowess played a role in her recent championship.

These girls were younger than me, and I thought ‘maybe I don’t have it anymore.’  I broke down.  I felt like I was mentally broken,” the 38-year-old said of her recent Smithfield Tour Championship played in Richmond, VA.  After completing a few rough matches leading up to the finals, O’Keefe began doubting her abilities and wondered if she’d ever land an elusive major bowling championship.

“I’ve been knocking on the door of winning a major for like a decade.  I finished second so many times.”  O’Keefe leaned on her husband for inspiration when her thoughts got the better of her.  “He gave me some incredible words of advice.  He told me to ‘control what you can control.  Once the ball leaves your hand, there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

With her recharged attitude, O’Keefe continued winning, eventually facing six-time major champion Kelly Kulick for the title.  With the event streaming live on the CBS Sports Network, she knew she would need to remain mentally tough. 

“The actual physical act of throwing the ball takes about three seconds.  So it’s really less than a minute that you’re actually physically moving [during a game].”  During the other 30 to 60 minutes, O’Keefe says, you’re in your head, worrying about the next throw or beating yourself up.

Not this time.  O’Keefe corralled her negative thoughts, ignored the mounting pressure and defeated Kulick by a 222-203 margin.  Of her long list of achievements, this one ranks near the top.  Her accomplishments now include: six Professional Women’s Bowling Association (PWBA) titles, a PWBA regional title and a host of minor championships.

The bowling star is also a mainstay on Team USA, entering her 13th year and earning over 30 medals, 21 gold.  “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” O’Keefe says.  The group represents the best of the best bowlers in the nation who travel the world competing against teams in other countries.  “To wear that red, white and blue and hear our national anthem in another country, is nothing short of a blessing.” 

Although she’s visited a number of cities in about 15 countries and enjoyed all of them, she says Hong Kong is her favorite.  “The city was incredible.  The people were amazing.  Plus, we won the team event at the world championship there.  It was the first time in 24 or 27 years the women’s team won the world championship.  It meant a ton.”

The Bowling World Championship takes place every four years and pits dozens of teams from different countries against one another.  The teams comprise of only 36 men and 36 women from each nation.  The 2017 World Championship took place in Las Vegas.

The actual physical act of throwing the ball takes about three seconds.  So it’s really less than a minute that you’re actually physically moving [during a game].

When she’s not winning titles on the PWBA and Team USA circuit, she’s recruiting, coaching and inspiring the women’s bowling team at McKendree University in Lebanon, IL alongside her husband who directs the men’s bowling team.

“We’ve struggled with having our own children, but God put us in a position to care for so many other children. I guess giving me one wasn’t the best use of my love and knowledge.”  O’Keefe’s team of 28 girls inspires her every day to be the best coach, bowler and person.  “It’s really important that I set a really good example for them…stay true to our integrity and who we are.”

“Teaching bowling is the easy side,” inspiring them to be great in all their endeavors is the hard part, O’Keefe says.

The United States Bowling Congress reports that over 69 million people bowl at least once each year, making it the number one participation sport in the country.  O’Keefe credits bowling’s growing popularity to its physical, mental and social benefits. 

“I met my husband because of bowling.  I met my best friend on Team USA and get to travel the world with them and share memories.  Bowling is unique because it’s fun and anybody can do it at any skill level and at any age,” she explains. 

Additionally, bowling is a great low-impact exercise.  Depending on your weight, an hour of bowling burns between 200 and 300 calories, which is more than an hour of walking.  Plus, throwing a bowling ball exercises just about all muscle groups including the back, abdomen, legs and arms.  To maintain her professional bowling physique, O’Keefe says she focuses a lot on cardio and endurance training.

“When we’re bowling a regular season event, we bowl 12 games per day plus all the practice sessions.  So I run a lot because running is great for the core, endurance and legs.”  She also works out with her team during weight-lifting drills.

But don’t let O’Keefe’s training scare you away from bowling.  She advises anyone planning to bowl for fun to simply find a ball “that’s not too heavy or too light” and maintain strong body posture when lifting and throwing the ball.  For those of you wanting to bowl competitively, O’Keefe says “it’s really important to find a pro shop to drill a ball specific for your hand.”

The former all-American high school softball player and current PWBA champion plans to continue reaching for the stars and inspiring young athletes near and far.

Bowling is unique because it’s fun and anybody can do it at any skill level and at any age.

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