Knocking Down The Pins of Life with Wheelchair Bowling Champion Kenneth Hill
Editor’s Note: Fifty-year-old Kenneth Hill from Plainfield, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, is on the board of directors of the American Wheelchair Bowling Association (AWBA). When Wheel:Life asked Kenny about his greatest victory ever, we were surprised at his answer.
On October 10, 1985, I was at home with my wife Carolyn and our three children – 3-1/2 year old Kenneth Jr. and our 4 month old twins, Denise and Diane. At 3:00 am, I smelled smoke. I jumped up to find that our apartment was on fire. The fire had started in the apartment below us.
Our escape through the front door was blocked by flames, and I realized the only way we could escape was out the windows.
I bundled Denise and Diane in blankets, went to the window, saw a gentleman on the ground and yelled, “Catch my babies.” I dropped one of my twins wrapped in a blanket to that gentleman, and he caught her. He was placing that baby on the ground when I dropped my second daughter. But I had her so well wrapped up that even though she hit the ground, she wasn’t harmed in any way. I believe God protected them.
Next, I brought Kenneth Jr. to the window, held his wrists as I lowered him out the window and leaned out as far as I could without falling. Then I threw him into a bush to break his fall, and he was unharmed. When Carolyn saw me throwing the children out the window, she passed out. I lowered her down as far as I could before I dropped her on some grass, but she did sustain a laceration to her liver. Once I had all my family out of the apartment, away from the fire and on the ground, I crawled out on the window ledge, held on to the ledge and got my body out of the burning apartment. When I released my hold on the ledge and hit the ground, I broke my spine at T-11.
Luckily, we had some neighbors who took care of our children while Carolyn and I were in the hospital. When our family arrived, my mom and dad took Kenneth Jr., and my wife’s family took Denise and Diane. My sister-in-law, Crystal, just had had a baby, so she was able to nurse Denise and Diane.
I stayed in the hospital for a month. Then I went to rehab as an inpatient for 2 months. Carolyn was in the hospital for 3 weeks. At the time of the fire, I was a police officer. Six months after my injury, I was allowed to go back to my job as a police officer – but not in a patrol car. I was transferred to the investigation division for about a year. Then I went into communications as the manager of the 911 center. Twenty-two years later, I retired from the police department.
How I Started Bowling
I wasn’t satisfied with just working, coming home, going to bed, getting up the next day and returning to work. I wanted some type of recreational activity that Carolyn and I could participate in together. Finally, Carolyn said, “Why don’t we try bowling?” One of the things I learned from bowling was even though I was in a wheelchair, I still could compete with standing bowlers. I could make the same shots that standing bowlers made, and my score would be calculated the same way as standing bowlers’ scores were calculated.
Bowling is not like wheelchair basketball. In wheelchair basketball, you have to have five other players on your team. Even then, you can’t compete with a standing basketball team. Bowling levels the playing field for people in wheelchairs. I liked the idea that I could compete with anyone. I didn’t just have to compete with people in wheelchairs. At the time of this interview, once the interview ends, I’ll be going to a tournament to compete against standing bowlers.
The first time I went with Carolyn and a couple of friends to the bowling alley, they beat me so bad it wasn’t even funny.
I probably bowled about a 64. I’d always been competitive, and I didn’t take losing lightly. So, I started going to the bowling alley by myself to learn to bowl better in order to become more competitive. Carolyn and I kept bowling together with friends. When Carolyn saw how competitive I was, she told me, “You need to bowl in a league.” So, I became a league bowler and competed against standing bowlers. In bowling, my wheelchair was not and is not a factor. I can compete with any other bowler at any bowling alley and in any tournament.
After I learned to bowl and began competing, I learned about the American Wheelchair Bowling Association (AWBA) and Richard F. Carlson who had started it in 1962, when there weren’t opportunities for wheelchair bowlers to compete against each other. Carlson also met with the United States Bowling Congress, which today recognizes wheelchair bowlers as competitive bowlers.
How Richard Carlson Started the American Wheelchair Bowling Association and My Involvement
For any organization or movement to form, there has to be a need for that particular group. With the AWBA, that person was Richard F. Carlson. In the spring of 1962, Richard of Huntsville, Alabama, came to Louisville, Kentucky, to bowl in the annual Southern Bowling Congress Tournament. What was unusual was that he bowled from a wheelchair – a rarity in most sectional tournaments. His participation also provided him an opportunity to expound on the concept of creating a national organization dedicated to growing the sport of bowling from a wheelchair, an elusive dream he and a few cohorts had toyed with for some time.
Carlson’s vision was grand – he wanted to conduct the First Annual National Wheelchair Bowling Tournament. He took his ideas to the Greater Louisville Bowling Association, explaining that while the task was challenging, his commitment and dedication to the sport was up for such a challenge. With the support of local businesses, Richard set out to draw as many as 10 or 12 people to the First National Wheelchair Bowling Tournament with Louisville as its first site. A pleasant surprise was that he received 30 entries from 13 states to compete in the inaugural outing in June, 1962, to form the American Wheelchair Bowling Association.
I first served on the American Wheelchair Bowling Association’s Board of Directors in 2013, after being elected by the voting members of the AWBA. Directors served a regular term of office for 3 years. Then I was reelected this year to serve on the board. I’m in charge of publicity and media relations for the AWBA, and I also oversee its publications.
After I retired from law enforcement, I started working for a nonprofit, Open Doors, founded in 2000. This organization worked to train people in hotels, motels, airports and restaurants how to better serve people with disabilities. I had a great life until March 2012, when Carolyn passed away with cancer. We had been married for 30+ years and had three children, and then she was gone.
How I Overcame My Most Difficult Challenge
I’m often asked, “What is your greatest victory in bowling? My greatest victory really had nothing to do bowling. It was overcoming one of the most difficult challenges I’d ever faced in my life – losing my wife Carolyn in March 2012, to cancer.
As I went through the grieving process, I stopped bowling for some time. I started back bowling to try to get some type of normalcy into my life. I decided to go to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to bowl in a tournament in August 2012, by myself. Usually, I went with my wife or someone else. Because I was going by myself, I only took one bowling ball with me. Usually, I took three or four bowling balls with me, but on this trip, I narrowed the number of balls down to one. I’d found that different balls were best suited for various situations in bowling.
Sometimes I needed to throw a ball straight down the lane, and sometimes I needed a bowling ball that hooked into a pocket. For example, I’m a right-handed bowler. If I was throwing to make a spare, and a pin was on my right-hand side, I’d need a ball that would roll straight down the lane. But if I had left pins standing on the left-hand side of the lane, I’d need a ball that would hook to the left, so I could knock those pins down.
I just took one ball with me, mainly, because I didn’t want to have several balls to carry on the airplane, especially since no one was with me. I’d made the decision that I’d compete in this tournament with only my straight ball. I finished the tournament fourth, which put me in the top five bowlers of my class. We had an elimination tournament. I bowled against the fifth-place bowler and won.
Next, I beat the third-place bowler. Then I won over the second-place bowler. Finally, I beat the first-place contestant and won the tournament. I bowled a 187 to beat the number one bowler.
For the first time since my wife passed away, I didn’t feel alone.
I was overwhelmed with appreciation for God letting me know He was with me. Winning the tournament in my division was a very emotional victory. After that win, I realized that the grace of God was sufficient to meet all my needs and all my losses in my life.
That tournament was the catapult to get me back into bowling and it helped me get restarted in a new direction for my life.
How God Restored Me with a Good Life and a Good Wife
When I went to visit my daughter Diane, she introduced me to a lady in her church named Elena. Every time I returned to Diane’s church, Elena would come over and greet me, or I’d go over and greet her. I started dating Elena in 2015, and we were married in 2016. Today, I really have a great life. God has been so good to me. He has restored me with a great life and a new wife.
Elena and I bowl together now.
One of the reasons we bowl is because bowling is a very social sport, and bowling has been a big part of my life for many years.
Many of the people who are significant in my life have come from the bowling community.
What’s My Future Purpose – Reestablishing Wheelchair Bowling in Chicago
I’m often asked, “What do you see in your future?” I really don’t know. I see life as an evolving process. Right now, I’m hoping to reestablish wheelchair bowling in the Chicago area. At one time, wheelchair bowling was big in Chicago. Then the popularity of the sport died off some, just before I started bowling. One of the reasons I want to reestablish bowling for people in wheelchairs is so that people with disabilities will have more sport options and have more ways to compete – not only against other competitors in wheelchairs but also against standing bowlers. As I’ve mentioned earlier, bowling is not just a competitive sport but also a very social sport.
Bowling allows people with disabilities to enjoy social lives and provides a group of people to become friends with as well as individuals to compete against.
If people want to learn more about how they can get involved in wheelchair bowling, they can go to the website. If you go to http://awba.org/contact-us, you can learn about all the different bowling opportunities available to you. You’ll also find the board of directors’ member who lives in your area and can help you become involved with some bowling opportunities. When you hit the Contact Us button, that information goes directly to me or my secretary, and we’ll get back to you and help you find other people in wheelchairs who bowl and places where you can go bowling. AWBA also has a Facebook page.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.