Like Mother, Like Son – bowling star/bowling instructor Virginia Norton has taught her young son to bowl

Paul Kreins

Virginia Norton, a youth bowling standout before her stardom as a pro, now devotes her skills as a coach to helping her son Scott travel the same path

VIRGINIA NORTON BOWLED for the first time at the age of nine in her hometown of Whittier, Calif. One day her parents simply told her they were going to do “something different.” She had no idea what they meant by different until the car pulled up in front of a bowling center. “From day one, I was hooked,” she says.

Her grandmother would take her bowling three or four times a week, and she would bowl five or six games at a time. Norton soon joined a junior league, and she earned extra money and picked up bowling tips by keeping score for the adult leagues on weekends. By the time she was 12 years old, she was averaging 165.

The youth bowling programs in California in the 1960s and ’70s were breeding grounds for bowling superstars, and Norton was fortunate to be a product of that era. “Without a doubt, I was lucky to be a part of all of that,” she says. She also cites another reason not usually credited, for the strong bowling programs in the Golden State: the weather. “During the summer,” she points out, “the junior programs in California were as good as they were in the fall.” It wasn’t until she was bowling professionally and having trouble finding bowling centers to practice in during the summer in the Midwest and Northeast that she realized how important a year-round bowling program was to her development as a top-level bowler. She also feels that the degree of talent and the caliber of competition in the California youth programs raised the skill level of everyone participating in them, including herself.

In high school, Norton’s interest in bowling took a back seat to other sports such as basketball, tennis, and her first love, softball. However, once in college at Long Beach State, she decided to try out for the bowling team because the school didn’t have a softball program.

Softball’s loss was bowling’s gain. Norton sought out and scheduled an appointment with the bowling coach, who also happened to be the assistant dean of students. Looking her over, he politely dismissed her by explaining that “the team was already set for the year.” Though disappointed, she said she understood and asked to be notified when tryouts were scheduled for next season.

As she was leaving his office, he casually asked, “So what’s your average?”

“One-ninety,” she replied.

Slightly stunned, but assuming she misunderstood his question, he gathered himself and explained that he wanted to know her average, not her highest game. She slowly repeated, “One-hundred-and-ninety.”

In 1970, few people averaged 190–particularly not attractive 19-year-old college coeds who looked like they’d be more at home on a California beach than in a musty bowling alley–and Norton recalls that the coach swallowed his pride, set aside his ego for a moment, and instantly told her she was on the team. Not willing to let him off the hook so easily, she reminded him, “I thought you said the team was full.” Barely able to look her in the eye, he sheepishly told her, “We’ll make room for you.”

“I was instantly the anchor bowler,” Norton says. She also helped recruit more good bowlers with whom she had bowled youth leagues. In no time, Long Beach State became a powerful collegiate bowling force.

However, by her third year of college, still uncertain about her major, she decided to try the pro tour on a full-time basis. It took her a few years to reach her stride, but when she won her first rifle, the 1975 Greater Akron Open, then followed up with a win a week later in Rockford, Ill., she began an impressive march straight to the Hall of Fame.

Norton won eight pro titles, six WIBC national titles, and three California state titles between 1975 and 1983. She was a five-time Bowlers Journal and WIBC All-American, and she was inducted into the WIBC and California Bowling Halls of Fame in 1988, and the Southern California and Los Angeles Bowling Halls of Fame in 1989. Though mostly self-taught, Norton credits Bill Guyette with coaching her during many of her years on tour.

She says her most cherished title was her first “because it was my first title,” but she actually considers her two runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open and a runner-up finish in the WIBC Queens most memorable competitive experiences. “You don’t get too many chances at the majors,” she says, “and those were always elusive titles.”

WHEN NORTON’S FIRST son, Scott, was born in 1982, bowling full time became a little less important in her life. Although she still competed as often as was practical, especially in the majors and in regional events, her priorities had clearly changed. Had she not already been doing the color commentary on the telecast, she may have cut back even more.

Simultaneously Norton was making a name for herself as one of the nation’s top bowling instructors. She served as a long-time Brunswick staff member; the company quickly recognized Norton’s value as a spokesperson and teacher, and kept her busy traveling the country doing clinics and exhibitions on its behalf. Perhaps without her realizing it, her life-after-bowling career–as an instructor–was beginning to take shape.

“Bowling has always given a lot to me, and teaching was a way I could give something back to the sport,” Norton says. Today, she is one of the country’s few full-time bowling instructors. She makes her living giving private lessons at Brunswick’s Rossmoor Bowl in Seal Beach.

For Norton, however, the greatest benefit of being self-employed is the flexibility and freedom she enjoys that allows her to pursue her true current passion: traveling with, watching, and helping Scott develop into one of the nation’s stellar youth bowlers.

Scott Norton appears destined to carry on the family name in the bowling world. He was selected as the 2000 YABA Chuck Hall Star of Tomorrow, the 2000 California State Star of Tomorrow, and was the co-recipient of the PBA’s John Jowdy Scholarship award. Coincidentally, the other co-recipient of the John Jowdy Scholarship was another second-generation bowler, Robbie Spigner, son of PBA champion and longtime BOWLING DIGEST contributing editor Bill Spigner.

One would assume having thoroughbred bloodlines and a Hall-of-Famer as a coach would be a tremendous advantage, but Norton feels her son’s greatest asset has always been his love for the game. Even as a toddler using a plastic bowling ball and pins, Scott would imitate the styles of his favorite pro bowlers.

7″Scott would go down and practice until his thumb was bloody, then he’d want to bowl some more,” she says. “He worked very hard on his own on his form.” Norton always told her son she would not offer him advice unless he asked for it, and it wasn’t until he became a teenager that he sought Mom’s help. To this day, she only gives advice when he specifically asks for it.

She may be overly modest, but Norton feels Scott’s exposure to the top bowlers in the sport was as important to his early development as anything she may have done for him. “I think it makes a major difference when you see the proper bowling form as opposed to seeing just average league bowlers,” she says. Of course, the bowler Scott watched most often was his superstar mother, who has one of the most fundamentally perfect styles in all of bowling.

Scott, who also earned a President’s Scholar academic award, will attend Cal State-Fullerton this fall. In addition to being close to home, Fullerton’s excellent bowling program was a major factor in his choice of schools.

Norton’s plans for the future include traveling and coaching Scott as much as he wants her to, and helping her youngest son, 11-year-old Bryan, with his bowling and life goals. “There are no expectations that Bryan will go as far in bowling as Scott did,” Norton says, “but he’s a very competitive person, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him try to excel in the same way.”

IN A CAREER that has spanned three decades, the 48-year old Norton has seen many changes in the sport. She sympathizes with the pro shop operators who are forced to stock all the new bowling balls, and appreciates the difficult choices bowlers must make concerning their investment in equipment. As for teaching the game, she says the only area that may have changed significantly is how she teaches the release. Otherwise, she still teaches the basic fundamentals, body motion, and proper shot-making. She points to Walter Ray Williams Jr. and Norm Duke as players who have proved you can still be successful in bowling while throwing the ball relatively straight. “The key,” she says, “is to stay within your own game.”

Norton observes that more people are becoming more dedicated to excellence in the sport both at the professional and amateur levels: “I see a lot of dedication in people who just want to be better bowlers.” Consequently, people are seeking lessons and practicing more than ever.

Norton hopes the bowling industry will one day recognize the importance of good bowling instruction and see more centers hire house pros. She points out that some of the best instructors aren’t necessarily the top pro bowlers–“being a good bowler doesn’t always make you a good teacher,” she notes. As an example, she points to Vesma Grinfelds, her tour roommate, who was taught by her father, who never even bowled.

“There were several times when Vesma’s father helped me during a tournament because he knew my game so well,” she says. “Teachers require the ability to identify [or see] the problem and then to be able to communicate the solution.”

Norton will continue to teach the sport she so dearly loves. Her bowling will consist of competing in the major tournaments and regionals, and in a big-money scratch league with Scott. She’ll even find time to squeeze in some softball–she satisfies that passion by competing in a co-ed league with her husband, Rick.

In reflecting on her career, Norton cherishes the honors bestowed upon her and is thankful for the recognition. She also feels the kind of success she achieved requires a certain amount of good fortune as well. “It takes the right things happening at the right time,” she says. “A few shots here and there can mean the difference between winning 10 titles or winning one title.”

With a sense of pride she states, “You work your entire lifetime, and there are only a handful of people who get to that level.” Then, with the humility that defines the type of person she is, she adds, “Even when you get there, you kind of look at it and ask whether you even deserve it.”

As a competitive athlete, Virginia Norton has more than earned the honors bestowed upon her. She continues to give back to the sport by training new champions while also helping amateurs to simply enjoy the game more by becoming better players. And, her greatest legacy may yet be the accomplishments of her sons as they strive to follow in their mother’s giant footsteps.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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