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Jason Belmonte: The Interview

When Jason Belmonte first used two hands to throw a bowling ball down the lane as a boy, no one could have foreseen that twenty years later he would light the bowling world on fire with an excitement that the sport has not quite seen since the days when Mark Roth tore through the Tour with little more than a plastic ball and a mangled thumb. It is an excitement that recently attracted hundreds of bowlers from around the country to participate in The Next Revolution, a USBC series of exhibitions and coaching clinics that showcased Belmonte's unorthodox style in Detroit, Chicago, Houston and Dallas. At the conclusion of the series in Dallas, Texas last weekend, Belmonte sat down to chat with about how far he has come from that boy who needed both hands to grab a ten-pound bowling ball off the ball rack, the validation that accompanied his first PBA title earlier this year, where he is headed from here and much more.

Not since Mark Roth has an individual created as much of a firestorm in the sport of bowling as yourself, Jason. How are you able to balance the pressure and attention that accompanies that celebrity with your job as a professional bowler on the PBA Tour?

JB: I appreciate you saying that, I really do. I think what has been the hardest is just being in the media spotlight-I get teased by guys like Chris Barnes about being a "media darling." It is hard to focus on the media and say the things I need to say and things that I feel, and at the same time I kind of fend those that I am talking about because I will see them in an hour. You know, I have to be honest with the media, because if you're not, it just takes a second for the media to pick up on that and then we're all in trouble. So I try to balance it by being as honest as I possibly can without trying to put myself in front of someone else or make it sound like I am talking bad about someone else.

When you are on the lanes, Jason, do you ever have trouble separating yourself from the "phenomenon" of Jason Belmonte? Do you ever get distracted by your own celebrity?

JB: No. When you're bowling on tour there are many more famous people on the lanes with you. I am the one whose jaw drops when Barnes is on my left and Pete Weber is on my right. I am the one who wants their autograph! There are times when the crowd starts to get right behind you and you obviously thank them for their support, but you can't get too involved in that. You have to focus on the job at hand.

How much busier has your life become since winning your first title up in Long Island earlier this year?

JB: Honestly, the media stuff happened all before that. Winning that title justified it to the masses who disagreed with everyone. For a long time I was considered a golden child and some people believed that all this was just because the media liked me more than any other player, and that the hype wasn't worth it. So to win allowed me to say to those critics and naysayers 'Hey, now I have proved you wrong. I can bowl, I can win at the elite level.' And all I want for them to say is 'Well done.' I don't want them to say 'You were right, I am wrong.' I am not looking for that. I am just looking for the congratulations, and then I'm a happy boy.

You experienced quite a bit of international success before joining the PBA Tour, yet it also seems that you were really looking for the PBA title specifically to justify the hype that your style had created. Is that the case?

JB: Of course. In terms of bowling, the PBA is our Mt. Everest. I did go all across the world, but it's the last feather in your cap to come out on the PBA Tour and win. And when you get to a certain level it comes closer to a reality. So when that last ball was thrown in Long Island and I had climbed that last step it was an extremely justifying moment. All the hard work I have poured into my life, all the sacrifices I have made with travel and practice, winning that title sent a little message to myself that it was worth it and that the hard work paid off. It sounds cliché but the harder you work the more likely you are to win, and I feel like I work just as hard as anyone out there.

Now that you've gotten to the top of that Mt. Everest, what is your goal at this point?

JB: Well, living in Australia and not having any ideas or goals to come and move to America with my family I really don't want to be that 20-year veteran. You know, 20 years on the American PBA Tour away from my family will not be easy. So I am thinking short term. I would like to win a couple more titles and be a multi-titlist. If I can ever get to 5 titles in my career I will be happy with my performance. There aren't many people out there who have won 5 PBA Titles. That is a very modest number, and I feel like if I can reach my potential I can go past that number. I do not mean that in an arrogant way. I just feel like if I keep working the way I am working then 5 is a good start.

Now that you're wrapping up this "Next Revolution" tour you've been doing with the USBC that began in Detroit and ends here in Dallas, tell me how the experience has been for you doing these clinics and exhibition matches around the country?

JB: It's been fantastic. The level of enthusiasm from the participants has really blown me away. They came here wanting to learn as much as they could, and whether it be about the two-handed style or their own games they really have been eager to learn. They wanted to do everything I said and keep trying, and from a coaching point of view that means a lot to me. Not only do students trust in me but they will give me 100% of their effort.

Sometimes when great bowlers are asked to explain their games to others they will say that they do not necessarily know how to explain it, they just do it-do you ever encounter that challenge when you're trying to teach your style to others?

JB: Well, yes and no. The thing about bowling is we have a large amount of feel and when I can feel what I am doing it is sometimes hard to put that feel into words. But the technology we have these days helps so much, because we're able to show people physically on video, but when I do something and someone says 'Teach me how to do that' I have to really break it down and think about it. I can't just tell them 'It's as simple as 1-2-3.' I have to say 'Look, I first do this, and then I work it out and then I do this and this, and we break it up into parts and then we can get something close.

As you were growing up as a boy and developing this unorthodox two-handed style, did you have any idea back then that that style would someday light the sport on fire as it has?

JB: No way, not in a million years. I still remember when bowling was just fun and it was to keep me out of my parents' hair. That's what its job was, to keep me happy and out of their hair, and to say now when I look back on where it started in a small country town in Australia, just a kid not knowing what he is doing, to say it turned into something that I'm extremely proud to be an ambassador of, it is shocking how it came from nothing to this. I am extremely proud to say I helped the two-handed style become legitimate.

Some people think that the two-handed style takes such a physical toll on the body that they do not believe you will be able to keep throwing the ball this way 20 or 30 years from now, and yet I understand that Walter Ray Williams Jr., who officially became a senior bowler this year, is himself experimenting with the style. Is the two-handed style accessible to people of all ages in your opinion?

JB: That is a really good question because I am not a physician, I can't tell you what's happening to my body, but from my experience I can tell you that I wake up every morning with a clear bill of health. I have no pain in any part of my body. You know, I have been doing it since 18 months old, now. But if I bowl one-handed for a game my thumb, my wrist and my shoulder hurt. It is hard for me to say what I am doing isn't hurting someone because it doesn't hurt me. Of course, plenty of people have proven that you can be successful with the one-handed style for a long time, but I can't because I get pain after a game. It is very interesting to see. I think what will happen is my generation of two-handers is basically the guinea pig, we're the crash test dummies, and if we are still competing at 55 or in a wheelchair at 41 I will let you know.

Forty years ago Mick Jagger was asked if he could see himself on a rock 'n roll stage in his 60s, and he said yes. What about Jason Belmonte? Will we still see you out there competing decades from now?

JB: Yes, without any doubt I will be 72 yrs old and I will still be bowling in the doubles league at home. It is in my blood, I love it to absolute death, and if something happened and I couldn't do it the way I do now I would still find a way.

Switching gears to the World Series of Bowling up at Thunderbowl in Detroit earlier this year - you made one telecast and were pretty competitive week in and week out. Now that the World Series is over and you've had time to reflect on the experience, tell me what it was like to participate in that unique event in PBA history?

JB: I think it was very rewarding. Not many people will be able to say they competed as an exempt player in very first World Series of Bowling. Was it perfect? No. Was it awful? No. And that's the thing about these events is no one expected it to be perfect but, you know, in 3 years' time it bloody well better be close. And I think that's the greatest thing about the guys at the PBA is they are willing to roll the dice a couple of times, and in my opinion it paid off this time. But like I said it wasn't a jackpot, but you know we got our money back plus then some. In my opinion in the future we will have more ideas that will boost bowling into a new era, and I am just very fortunate to be a part of that.

The frenzied schedule of events up there seemed to take a physical and mental toll on some of the bowlers-we saw Rhino Page withdraw from one tournament and Amleto Monacelli was having a lot of pain in his bowling arm toward the end-what did it take to survive the strain of such a demanding schedule that crunched so many tournaments into so little time?

JB: Well this goes back to your other question about my style taking a physical toll on the body. I was actually fine the entire way. I wasn't tired. Mentally tired, yes. But physically tired, no. I felt the first ball I threw was as strong as my last ball. Maybe that is why I got better as the weeks went on, and let's be fair, the progression of the patterns favored my game too, with the longer patterns coming later on.

We saw a couple of veterans like Brian Voss and Amleto Monacelli get exemptions for this season-Brian for the whole season and Amleto for the World Series itself, and they both competed at just as high a level now as they did 20 years ago. What is it like to see those players competing at just as high a level now as they did when they were in their 20s?

JB: It shows you their determination. I think the greatest show that you can see is someone who has done it before do it again and want it even more than they did previously. You can see that when you look in Brian Voss's eyes, or Norm Duke's eyes or even Chris Barnes's eyes. These are guys who have been there hundreds of times before and yet if they open to lose it kills them, and when they strike to win they are the happiest guys in world. That's what inspires me about them. I think Voss has bowled now in 600 tournaments and each time he loves it as much as the last one.

Has competing on the PBA Tour proven to be any harder than you thought it would be?

JB: The competitors I have known for a long time and knew how good they were so I expected their toughness. What I wasn't quite prepared for was the grind. I didn't know if it would be as hard as they said it was. It is hard to travel every week, and even though Detroit was one city it is very hard to wake up and do the same thing over and over again even though you love it. It's a grind, and that is something I will have to deal with.

What is it like competing as an exempt player this year versus competing as a non-exempt player last season? Was there much of a difference between those two experiences?

JB: Oh, of course. Apart from the fact that you get seeded straight into the main event, for me now the 'gimmick' is gone. I am an exempt player. Cassidy Schaub who is also a two-handed player is exempt. Osku Palerma was exempt for the World Series of Bowling. I feel like we are welcomed, and we have a place on the Tour now. And that's very important for me to say that when I go to work, I feel like I am a part of it.