Not-so-outrageous fortune: coming off of his most successful season yet, this two-time titlist is setting a lofty goal of dominating the PBA tour

Not-so-outrageous fortune: coming off of his most successful season yet, this two-time titlist is setting a lofty goal of dominating the PBA tour – Interview: Lonnie Waliczek

Lydia Rypcinski

AFTER SEVEN YEARS ON THE PBA tour 33-year-old Lonnie Waliczek finds people still often regard him as “one of the new guys,” due to his quiet reserve and self-effacing nature.

Those days of anonymity may be ending, however. Last season, Waliczek was one of only two PBA players to score more than one victory on the national tour; the other was Player of the Year Walter Ray Williams Jr. Waliczek cashed for a delicious $125,720 in 2002-03, 20th best on the PBA earnings list and almost double his previous best single-season effort.

What turned the Wichita State University grad from a “face in the crowd” to a face on TV and in the winner’s circle? We snared Waliczek between rounds at the 2003 PBA Miller High Life Open in Vernon Hills, Ill., in October to explore this topic and a few others in a frank and revealing discussion of one man’s odyssey from journeyman to rising star.

BOWLING DIGEST: You were the only bowler last year other than Walter Ray Williams Jr. to win more than once. How does it feel to be breathing such rarefied air?

LONNIE WALICZEK: That was an exceptional year, my best to date. I certainly don’t take it for granted, but it’s what I worked toward, and I think there will be more years like that.

BD: You came out on tour in 1997. Why did it take until last season for your “breakout year” to occur?

LW: I made some physical changes that were big for me. I got together with a trainer before the season started. Todd Stranghoner is a former strength trainer with the Chicago White Sox. He’s now a physical therapist in Wichita, where I live, and I met him through [Wichita State coach] Gordon Vadakin. Todd put together a bowling-specific program for me, and there’s no question that program made a big difference. I also started talking with Dr. Dean Henitz, a sports psychologist who works with a handful of the players on tour.

BD: What did your physical and mental training programs focus on?

LW: My cross to bear in bowling is posture and spine tilt. When I start leaning too far over with my upper body, my shots don’t stay on line. I have no doubts that some of that body-core strength training I did really helped in that regard.

Mentally, I had some confidence issues. A lot of guys on the tour have great physical games, but without exception, the top players don’t have much self-doubt. I did. It’s something I struggle with daily, but I’ve gotten much better at dealing with it.

BD: You certainly are one of the quieter ones out here.

LW: I’m wired to be a little more reserved. One of the things that’s been stressed to me is that every now and then, I’ve got to stick out my chest and say, “This is who I am and what I’m about.”

BD: You also came from a strong team program at Wichita State, and sometimes you have to submerge your ego for the good of the team.

LW: I’m a good person to have in a team format, because I can mix in well with a lot of different people. Now, though, I have to stand out a little more on my own.

BD: You came out a year earlier than the “bumper crop” of megabucks players such as Chris Barnes and Pat Healey Jr. What made you decide to take that leap when you did?

LW: I’m so glad someone noticed that! The megabucks were great, and I made quite a bit of money bowling in them, but I always felt that to become a great bowler, I needed to be on the PBA tour. It was important for me to advance my game and progress to the next level.

BD: You come from a bowling family, right?

LW: I do. My father has been in the bowling business my whole life. He started the bowling program at Wichita State and was a coach when Gordon Vadakin–who was my coach–was bowling at WSU. So it’s definitely in my blood. And my brother Brian is in his second year out here on tour. I also have a sister who’s an attorney in Kansas City.

BD: You and Brian filmed a bowling video when you were kids.

LW: We did “Teaching Kids to Bowl,” with Gordon and Mark Lewis.

BD: Whatever happened to that? Do you still get royalties?

LW: [Laughing] Yeah, on all 76 copies that were sold. Actually, that video shows up from time to time, and it’s embarrassing. I was 17 when that was made, mad you can just imagine–an oily-faced, goofy teenager, showing you how to bowl.

BD: Let’s hope ESPN never gets a copy to air during one of your championship matches …

LW: Right.

BD: Did your dad groom you to be a professional bowler?

LW: No, not at all. I can remember wanting to be a professional bowler since I was five years old. But if I had wanted to be an English professor, my parents would have said, be an English professor. It wasn’t anyone’s dream but mine to be a pro bowler.

BD: Did you model yourself after anyone?

LW: Yes, and some of these guys are bowling out here now. Norm Duke, Amleto Monacelli, Brian Voss–I wanted to be like them when I was a kid. And I’m as impressed with their bowling ability now as I was then.

BD: Do you think that’s something that your generation in particular has had to deal with, confidence-wise? So many of your childhood idols are still competing, and you have to get past being impressed with them in order to win.

LW: Certainly. You’re not just bowling that player’s ability, but also his history and your impression and memories of him over all that time. It’s simple to say, “Just put all that aside.” But it takes a lot of work to do so.

BD: Bowling is one of the few sports in which this happens.

LW: That’s also one of the beautiful things about our sport. A guy can really get into his prime in his mid-30s and be successful through to his mid-40s.

BD: That means you’re moving into your prime.

LW: I hope so. And I hope it’s a long prime.

BD: The PBA has undergone many structural and format changes since you’ve joined. What adaptations have you had to make in your approach to the game?

LW: I’m wired for sprints, for short, intense bursts, so this match-play format is something that’s easy for me to get comfortable with. I like the concentrated, focused, best four-of-seven matches. It was harder for me in the longer format to remain focused for a longer period.

BD: Do you think that’s generally true for people in your age group, as opposed to fellows in their 40s and 50s?

LW: The amateur world is certainly a sprinter’s world; it’s not for the marathon runner. I think, though, that each individual is different. Some guys who came out of the amateur ranks–like Brian Kretzer, Pat Healey Jr., or Chris Barnes–can bowl well under any format. All I know is that this format really suits me.

BD: In your opinion, how conceivable is it that a rookie or guest bowler could come out and win a PBA event right away, given the current format?

LW: It’s much more conceivable than it was live years ago, but it’s still not probable. There are so many environmental changes during the week. Someone who hasn’t been in a tournament before would have to have an out-of-this-world week to navigate through them.

BD: How far can sheer physical talent take you out here today?

LW: Sheer physical talent can get you into the top 40 or 50. However, the guys in the top 20 or 30 are doing things to be successful that a professional in any craft would do.

BD: Such as?

LW: Practicing. Working out. Paying attention to how they live their lives outside the bowling center. Spending time thinking about bowling beyond the nine games or the match they have to bowl that day.

BD: So the PBA is not just a traveling fraternity party anymore. It’s a business.

LW: Oh, yeah. The difference in the way I lived my life when I first came out here seven years ago and the way I live it now is like night and day. It was, as you say, a bit of a traveling frat party. Now, it’s so much more disciplined, regimented–professional.

BD: Is there anything you dislike about the changes that have occurred on tour?

LW: Honestly, no. I find the change going to an elite field of just 64 players next year scary, though. I agree with it, but it doesn’t mean I’m so brash as to think I’ll automatically be in.

BD: In a sense, you gain more control over your destiny, because your performance determines your ranking. In another sense, though, you’re losing control, because it will require more to compete than just paying an entry fee.

LW: Yes, I think Steve Miller said it best in our players’ meeting before the start of this season: “I’ll tell you why a lot of you don’t like this change: because you don’t know if your butt is going to be in the tournaments next year.” [Laughs] The only bad part I see is that, with such a limited number of available spots, any player could simply have a bad year and not make the cut. It’s going to [make it] an uphill battle to get back out on the big tour.

BD: A lot of other things already have been done to make the PBA tour more attractive to the public and TV audiences. Have you noticed any changes in the size and demographics of the crowds that come to watch you bowl?

LW: Definitely. When I came out in 1997, people bowling on the morning block were lucky to see anybody in the stands. There might have been five or 10 seniors drinking free coffee, and that was it. Now, we’ve got younger people, more people, in the building all day long. The building is usually packed for match play. People are coming in to see guys like Chris Barnes, who has become a kind of hero. The partnership between the PBA and ESPN has helped get the message out that this is the real deal.

BD: What is the most important thing you’ve learned, about either yourself or your profession, since you came out on tour?

LW: I’ve learned that I can be a champion out here. I always felt I had the talent to do it, inside me, but it was a straggle to get it out.

BD: Is it easier for you mentally to have your brother on tour?

LW: Yes, it is; I’m glad you asked. Last year was special for me. Not only did I get my first win, but I also got to spend the whole year with my brother, whom I haven’t really lived with in almost 10 years. He probably brings me more comfort than I bring him. He has a lot of the same mannerisms and personality traits as my father, but I never really noticed it before, not until last year.

BD: What would constitute a good season for you this year?

LW: I have outrageous goals and hopes, and goals and hopes that, when I go home in March, will let me sleep OK at night.

BD: What are the outrageous ones?

LW: I want to win five tournaments.

BD: That is outrageous.

LW: I want to win a couple of majors. It can be done. Walter Ray got close last year. At some point this year or next, I’d love to have a run like that and I think I could.

Goals I could be OK with include being a consistent, top performer out here–giving myself the opportunity to win a few times.

BD: That’s important. People don’t realize you have to create the opportunity and the environment in which to succeed.

LW: You always hear guys saying, “I gotta make a show. I gotta make a show.” But you’ve got to set your sights higher; you’ve got to make 10 shows if you want to be successful. I’ve been lucky to make about nine or 10 shows and get two victories from that.

Getting to the show is also only half the battle. Once there, you’ve got to win in a different environment. So you have to do all the preparation to take each of these steps as it comes. You have to make the top 32 first, to make match play. Then you have to know how to win matches. The next step is figuring out how to win on TV.

BD: Where do you see Lonnie Waliczek fitting into the PBA’s plans for the future?

LW: As long as the tour progresses and moves forward, I’ll be happy to be out here competing with a lot of heart. If I end up on a PBA poster, that’s great. If I just end up with a healthy bank account and can provide for my family, I’m perfectly comfortable with that as well.

BD: What would be the best advice you could give someone who wants to follow your example?

LW:. I would say make your dreams outrageous. Have amazing expectations of yourself. Regardless of what path you choose for yourself in life, just do it. Give absolute, utter commitment to realizing your dreams. That’s what I try to do. I think it’s just a good way to live overall.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group