FOR SOME BOWLERS, the approach is a determined rush to the foul line. Others like to sneak up in a low crouch, as if to catch the pins off guard. But no matter how the dance is choreographed, the bowler depends on the approach to give the ball momentum.
Then there is Sonny Steward.
"I don't have an approach," says Steward, who does his bowling from a wheelchair. "I leave my bowling shoes at the counter."
With his wheels locked at the foul line, Steward lifts himself partially out of the chair with a huge right arm, then whips his ball like a softball pitcher going to the plate.
"He throws a wicked hook," said Jim Hodak, manager of Bowl America in Silver Spring where Steward bowls in a mixed 5s league Friday evenings.
"He's got a lot of ball," added Ronald Brown, Steward's best friend, teammate and former pupil. "He's got more ball in a wheelchair than most guys have on two feet."
Steward has been wheelchair-bound since he was wounded in the Korean War. He was forced to make frustrating adjustments in his active life.
Formerly a fullback for the semipro Washington Stonewalls, Steward took up ping pong and archery and began announcing baseball games at playground near his home in the Michigan Park area.
Ten years ago the Paralyzed Veterans Association sent him to the National Wheelchair championships in New York where Steward discovered bowling.
In 1968, he won the National Wheelchair Bowling Association championship and has not finished out of the top 10 since. He still holds the association record for high game (250) and high set (602).
Besides the Friday night league in Silver Spring, Steward bowls in a Tuesday morning men's foursome, coaches children Saturday mornings at Riggs Plaza Bowl and gives occasional demonstrations of bowling at the District's Veteran Administration hospital.
He and his wife Helen also belong to a bowling club, Strange and Unique, that plays in tournaments and holds raffles for charity.
"I think I have Mondays off," Steward chuckles. Monday is one of two days a week he helps coach the Capital Wheelers of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
But Steward's accomplishments have not been without struggle and his bowling style had to be developed by trial and error. His first lesson was the need for a lighter ball.
"I tried to roll with a 16-pounder and I tore all the muscles in my chest," he said.And he has had to content with flat tires, a broken wheel and brake failure.
Now he maintains a more than respectable 156 averages and a reputation for clutch bowling.
"I'll never forget the first time I met Sonny," said his teammate Brown at the Silver Spring league match. "I was kidding him and said if he shots a 200 I'd buy him a fifth of liquor." Six years later, Brown doesn't remember the brand of liquor he bought, but he does remember Steward's score was 244.
Brown, who was bowling an unremarkable 123 average at the time, eagerly accepted Steward's coaching lessons. Those lessons turned out to be worth about $3,000 in prize money and pot games that year. Brown said. He now averages 175.
Steward and Brown have been a team ever since, traveling to local and national tournaments like the one last year in Atlanta.
"We don't go for the money, it's a vacation, a social thing," said Brown.
The Friday night league at Silver Spring was as much social as a sport. Bowlers visited friends between frames, kids filled in coloring books on the carpeted floor and Steward's team, Trudy's Peoples, won three of four games from the last place Our Thing.
But Steward, who had bowled 141, 151, 168, was not satisfied.
"It was lousy. I put the ball everywhere I could think of but I couldn't buy a strike. I'll be over at Riggs tomorrow trying to figure out what I did wrong."