Nicholas Pate competes at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on July 27, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
LIMA, Peru – The venue may have looked and sounded familiar to anyone who fancies themselves a casual bowler. But make no mistake – there’s an underbelly to this misunderstood sport, a hidden world of strategy, lane conditions and equipment modifications that can mean the difference between a strike and a spare, a gold medal and a loss.
Those conditions were ripe for Nicholas Pate tonight, setting the foundation for his improbable upset of teammate and Pan American Games juggernaut Jakob Butturff en route to a gold medal in men’s singles.
Pate rolled a 275 in the semifinal match, catching fire with nine straight strikes to edge out Butturff by seven points. His final match would prove more difficult, however, as he and his opponent, Marcelo Suartz of Brazil, adjusted to new, challenging lane conditions.
The match came down to a single pin and a single throw. Behind by eight pins on the game’s final frame, Suartz lined up for a shot he’s hit hundreds, if not thousands, of times – one throw to knock over at least eight pins. The crowd waited with bated breath. Pate looked down at his shoes.
Suartz’s throw was pure, straight, striking the center pin with crack. Seven pins fell, and after a moment of disbelief, so did Suartz. He collapsed to his knees, ringing his hands through his hair while his coaches rushed onto the floor to surround him. They helped wipe away the tears from his eyes.
For Pate, it was a moment of shock, then jubilation. Hundreds of throws over three days of competition had all culminated in a single moment. With Suartz’s seven-pin score on the final throw of the game’s final frame, Pate secured his first Pan American Games gold medal by a score of 190-189.
“This is incredible. I feel like this could jumpstart my professional career,” said Pate. “This is my second year on tour, and I had a pretty good year out there. I think this will jumpstart it to bigger and better things.”
But let’s step back for a moment, back to that aforementioned “underbelly” of bowling – the seemingly endless depth of strategy and skill it takes to rise to the top of the sport.
“It takes a lot more thinking than a lot of people realize,” Pate said. “You don’t just go up there and throw a shot.”
A recent graduation of Midland University, Pate bowls his best on a fresh lane, when the oil applied to the lane is untouched and unaffected by the wear and tear of a bowling match. Oil patterns will affect the spin, speed and path of a bowling ball, forcing competitors to adjust their strategies between frames. A throw that leads to a strike earlier in a game could result in a dreaded split several frames later.
It was fresh lane conditions that helped Pate top teammate and gold-medal favorite Butturff, who broke three Pan American Games records in Lima. Butturff set 12-game records for both men’s singles and doubles play and also bested the six-game record in men’s singles, twice. But the oil conditions in the semifinals favored Pate’s playing style, and, with surgeon-like consistency, he executed his game plan.
The oil conditions changed as Pate moved into the finals, forcing him to adjust his throw on a frame-by-frame basis. That brought another variable into play – the bowling balls themselves.
Aside from adjusting the speed and spin of their throws, a bowler can swap the ball they use. Just as a golfer carries different clubs for different shots, bowlers customize a collection of three bowling balls, each with a different finger-hole arrangement, center of gravity and exterior material.
“We take balls with grit on them that pick up oil quicker,” Pate explained. “So, I can carve a lane to my liking [when the oil on the lanes is fresh]. And then in the second match, it got really ugly, so I had to use multiple bowling balls because [the lanes] changed really quickly.”
The best bowlers can put it all together, just as Pate did tonight. They have the awareness and strategic knowledge to understand their own tendencies, adjust to the ever-changing oil pattern of their lane, select the right ball, execute their technique and block out the splattering of applause echoing throughout the arena.
So, yes, it’s harder than it looks. And Pate, with a calm, unfazed demeanor, made it all look easy, like just another day at the local lanes.