No Look Rhonda Leads The Way

By Spencer Morgan
Founder and Chief Community Officer

(Youth Bowling Opening Ceremony at Huntsville USBC with Rhonda(center), Merril (85) and Alastor (4).)

Every Tuesday night at 6 p.m., in Huntsville, Alabama, 88 familiar faces gather under the neon lights and the comforting soundtrack of rolling balls, scattering pins and the clank of bowling machines doing their business. It’s league night, an American tradition, alive and well at Redstone Lanes. Twenty-two teams of four – many have been bowling together for years – pair up every week and do battle for three games. League bowlers roam from lane to lane, visiting with old friends. There may be a husband on one team and a wife on another team. They’ll go back and forth and tease, “Why did you bowl that?” And, “I saw that, uh-huh.” If there’s a birthday or an anniversary, somebody will bring in a cake or cookies and balloons.

“My team, we always bring a little bit of candy,” says Rhonda Swaim, the Redstone Lanes Mixed League Director and Huntsville USBC Association Manager, who also rolls on Tuesday nights. Her team is called the Pin Pushers this year. The same group has been the Kings & Queens; they’ve been the Strikeouts. They’ve got the shirts to prove it. “Folks will come down, ‘Oh, can I have some of those jelly beans?’ Sure, no problem.”

Some weeks back Merril Holloway, 85, the oldest bowler in the league, missed a Tuesday. When he returned the following week, he was besieged with questions. 

“We’re almost just like family,” Merril tells me. “When you don’t see someone they’ll say, ‘Why don’t you call me, why didn’t you let me know you were sick?! I might have been able to help.’” 

(Come on, Merril!) 

Snacks and small talk aside, there’s plenty to see strolling the lanes. People have their special pre- and post-roll routines. Nathan will rub the bottom of both his shoes, then tug at his shorts and mess with his hat, and then get up there and roll the ball. Rhonda has a subtle bend to her knee in her approach, and, most notably, when she releases the ball she doesn’t wait to see its path. Instead she turns around and walks back to the group. They call her “No Look Rhonda.”

“Everybody’s like, ‘You just turn around, you’re so confident.’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t see it, so why look at it?’”

Rhonda is legally blind. She has a genetic condition known as dry drusen disease, a calcium buildup on the optic nerve. She has no peripheral vision and her distance is not good either. She hasn’t been able to drive a car since 2016.

“On average, most people don’t develop it until their 80s,” Rhonda tells me. “But I was fortunate to develop it in my 20s. So I’ve had a long time to be prepared for it, the effects of it. But it’s still hard because you got to give up a lot of freedom.”

She says one great thing about league bowling is that it’s not limited to just real athletic people or real young people. Any age, any ability. The group will support you. It stands to reason that the support everyone else feels from the Huntsville bowling community is, at least in part, a function of the heart Rhonda has put into it.

“I told my husband it’s all his fault that I’m involved as much as I am because he introduced me to something that I could do,” she says. 

Rhonda’s journey into the world of bowling began in 1986 in Germany, where her husband, Mike, was stationed with the Army. There wasn’t much to do on base. Mike came home one day and said, “We’re going to go bowling.” Rhonda had never bowled before, didn’t even know anything about it. Rhonda took to the game. Their son Jon was 5 at the time. He loved it. Suddenly they had a bunch of new friends. Rhonda started coaching and teaching kids to bowl.

“We came back to the States in 1991 and we started at one of the older centers that was here in Huntsville,” she recalls. “And I went in there and we started bowling leagues. And I got certified as a coach. And so I was coaching and bowling. And at one point, I actually went to schools and taught bowling in the school to the students during PE and became a board member for the local bowling association board, both the youth and the women, and that was way before USBC.”

The United States Bowling Congress is the national governing body of 10-pin bowling, comprising roughly 3,000 local associations, each with dozens of leagues – there are 60 leagues in Huntsville USBC alone, and 1.4 million sanctioned bowlers. It was founded in 2005 as a merger of the tapestry of governing acronyms that were in operation when Rhonda began making her name as an elite bowler, instructor and leader in Huntsville bowling politics. 

“I was actually on the transition board for the local and the state board that went from ABC, WIBC and YABA to one organization,” she recalls. In 2016, Rhonda was awarded the USBC Helen Baker Award for Outstanding Association Service for her service in local and state associations for more than 25 years and reviving the youth program at two centers. It’s been 34 years now that she’s invested in this community.

But your average league bowler, who doesn’t have ambitions to bowl in regional or national tournaments, doesn’t necessarily appreciate the value of the structure that USBC provides.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Well, what do we get?’” she marvels. “And what I tell them is, with Nationals [USBC], you get a governing body that has the rules that everybody has to go by. And this puts everybody on the same level. And not one group is doing this this way, the way they feel it’s right.” 

She knows from experience that without order and sound process the community suffers. As an example she offers a story of an older couple that loved bowling together in one of the Huntsville leagues. The husband died in February, but a few months before his passing he’d earned his first 300 score, which means  an honor score ring. The wife and family wanted him to be buried with his special 300 ring. That’s how important bowling and the league was to this family. But they had not yet received the ring. 

“The wife called me yelling, screaming, ‘Where’s my husband’s ring?’” Rhonda recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, let me look up my information, see what I have,’ because I get so many, I don’t know who’s what. And I looked it up and I said, ‘Oh, no, no, this was already given to the league secretary.’ The league secretary took it upon herself to hang on to it till the end of the league, which would have been in May.”

The league secretary hadn’t followed the established process of distributing the honor rings as soon as they’re received. Rhonda allows that the ring story pertains primarily to local Huntsville USBC administrative procedures. But you get the idea. The national structure with leagues filtering up to local associations, filtering up to states, and on up to the national – all of those people and processes, the sanctioning of members and tracking of scores, that whole volunteer-led infrastructure is what allows a community to flourish. 

And, at least in Huntsville, Rhonda says league bowling is on the increase. They’re on track to break last year’s 1,800 member mark. Huntsville is the second largest association in the state after Birmingham. Birmingham USBC has about 2,000, which doesn’t sit well with Rhonda.

“I go, ‘Come on, guys. Let’s get those places filled!’” she jokes. 

At a national level, league bowling has experienced a period of decline for the last two decades. Proprietors have been struggling to make up for the lost revenue that was once provided by league play. I asked Rhonda why she thinks her bowling community remains vital.

“For the new and for the old, I think that feeling of togetherness has really helped in that,” she tells me. Yes, she allows, they’ve benefited from the influx of people moving to Huntsville and Madison. And, sure, having the Redstone Arsenal military base there is a factor in why the 60 leagues in her district account for a bustling league night practically every night of the week at most every bowling center.  

Older members have been through a lot together. Like when the tornado came in 2011 and whirled away people’s homes, belongings, cars. League members leaned on each other to put the pieces back together. 

And these new arrivals get sucked in because the volunteers of Huntsville USBC have worked hard to make bowling centers a center of life events for all generations. After prom, the kids go bowling. Folks pass away, there’s a celebration of life at the bowling center. Rhonda is at the center of it all. When she walks into a random bowling alley, the league directors will look up and wonder what they did wrong. And some youngster is bound to ask if Coach remembers him from grade school. 

For opening night of the season this year, Rhonda orchestrated a special ceremony. She had their oldest bowler Merril and their youngest bowler, Alastor, 4 – roll out the first balls. It was an auspicious beginning.

Merril bowled in three different leagues this season. “I just turned 85 and I’m trying to get 100. I walk 3 miles everyday and I bowl three nights a week.”

His most memorable moment this season was when he slipped on the lanes on account of forgetting to take the plastic shoe covers off his shoes. “You go to the restroom and you put on these covers and then you fall on your dale!” he says. Everyone was rolling with laughter. “I get mad, I said, ‘You saw me, why didn’t you tell me they have those covers on?’”

With friends like these, how could he not be excited for next season? 

(Oh, and yes, USBC dues are covered for eligible members through its partnership with Grouper. Because league bowling is healthcare.)