Michelle Smith (B.S. ’91, M.S. ’92) hadn’t even planned to go to the 2017 U.S. Bowling Congress Women’s Championship in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – much less win the 79-day tournament. In fact, she had no idea that her team was even in the lead until after the first two games, when she turned around and saw the crowd that had begun to build behind her.
“We were completely clueless – really, until they asked to interview us and take our pictures, we didn’t have any idea we were in first place,” says the College’s director of institutional research, who was asked to stand in for a member of the Big Ticket 1 team of Columbia, South Carolina, at the last minute. “The tournament still had another month and a half, but all the international and touring professionals were there that week, so at that point, we knew nobody could catch us. That was pretty much a whirlwind of a trip that turned into a lifetime accomplishment for me.”
Truth be told, Smith has plenty of lifetime accomplishments out there on the lanes. A member of the Greater Charleston USBC (United States Bowling Congress) Association, she has been bowling for over 40 years and has held several South Carolina USBC titles and awards, including the high season average in 2007, 2008 and 2009, maxing out at a 225 career high average, and high season series in 2005–2006 and 2009–2010. She’s on the state women’s scratch travel league and has been the captain (that’s the highest person on the team) of the Greater Charleston All Star Team all but two years since the 2008–2009 season, when the local association began recognizing women. Smith has four perfect 300 games and three 800 honor series – and she is the only woman in Charleston to have multiple 800 series. She was inducted into the Charleston Women’s Bowling Association Hall of Fame in 2006 and the South Carolina Bowling Hall of Fame in 2014.
“The Hall of Fame is based on a points system of accumulated achievements and honor scores, so it is a lifetime thing,” explains Smith, who practically grew up in a bowling alley and, as a high school senior, held the state record for the highest average during the 1987–1988 season and 12 Youth American Bowling Alliance medals for games over 225 and series over 600. “When I was a kid, my sister and I kept score at the tournaments on [Charleston Air Force Base] for tips, and my dad used to make me change into something really nice and play the national anthem on the saxophone. Not the coolest thing to do! So, when I was 16 or 17 years old, I didn’t have too many friends my own age.”
What she did have, though, was the distinction of being the first female to bowl a 600-series at Starlifter Lanes, Charleston Air Force Base’s bowling center. Being valedictorian and an accomplished youth bowler, she also had Charleston and South Carolina Annual Bowling/Academic Scholarships when she attended the College of Charleston and transitioned from youth to adult bowling.
“I really struggled those first two to three years,” she says, crediting the pro-shop owner at Ashley Lanes, Art Harris, with keeping her in the game. “My nickname back then was the ‘Machine’ because he could tell me what to do, where to stand, where to roll the ball, what speed, and I could walk up and do it.”
She may be the Machine, but Smith brings a lot of heart to the game, as well.
“I think one thing that sets me apart from other competitive bowlers is that I don’t ‘shut down’ and stop talking to people that I’m bowling against – I always cheer and clap for everyone,” she says. “I am always a good sport; my philosophy is if you beat me, you beat me because I didn’t perform as well.”
Besides, Smith knows that the more she thinks about winning, the less likely it is.
“If you can clear your head, you just bowl better – I wish I’d realized that when I was younger,” she says. “I’ve learned to relax and just have fun over the years – I go into every competition with a lot of confidence, but zero expectations.”
Which makes winning a national tournament a pretty sweet surprise.