Saturday, July 16, 2011

Smalley bowls them over in Athens

Phenom bowler Jilli Smalley of Hermiston has returned from Athens, Greece, where she competed in the 2011 Special Olympics.
She brought some hardware home with her, too.
Representing the United States, Smalley was awarded a silver medal for her second-place finish in bowling at the 2011 games, which makes her the second-best Special Olympics bowler in the world.
Smalley and her mother, Kristi, were at Desert Lanes bowling alley Tuesday to present Jilli’s coach, Leonard Myers, with a T-shirt from the Athens games.
Jilli, who has autism, has always been a bowler. She started when she was nine years old. Like any beginner, she wasn’t very good, but she kept practicing and practicing and practicing. Now she’s 20, averages a score of 143, has a career-high of 226 and is one of the best bowlers around.
“Bowling is the only sport she can compete in with her peers,” Kristi Smalley said.
She’s the best bowler in the family, Kristi admits, and whenever friends have an open spot in a competition for a player, they want Jilli. And they usually win.
“I think half the time she carries them,” Myers said.
In high school, Jilli competed with her peers at state and districts. Myers says that experience really helped her in Athens.
“It was a culture shock at state,” Myers said, referring to the amount of spectators and the noise they made. “But it didn’t affect her bowling. It probably affected me more than her.”
Myers, who has been Jilli’s coach for a year, said she’s the easiest athlete he’s had the privilege of working with.
“All I had to do was encourage her,” Myers said.
Jilli has her own style, too. She has a personalized ball, and if you were lucky enough to get a close-up look, you would see the image of SpongeBob SquarePants on the side.
The right-hander has unorthodox form, planting with her right foot as she releases the ball. One might think she loses power with the technique — until they hear the ball strike the pins, almost like thunder.
Jilli is level-headed, as well. Nothing gets her too excited or too down, no matter how she’s playing. And Jilli likes to play fast — real fast. If she had it her way, there would be no waiting between shots — for anyone playing.
The best part of her game is picking up spares. Rarely does she leave split pins.
Jilli’s U.S. team brought the largest number of athletes, along with their parents, to Athens.
“There was so much support,” Kristi said. “It was really positive.”
After her two-week stay, Jilli brought back all the U.S. gear she needed. She was given shirts, jackets, hats — everything that comes with being a world-class athlete. Each participant also received a sun, the games’ mascot, Apollon, which came with the motto, “I’m in!”
Kristi said Athens was quite the experience for  Jilli and the family, one they will remember for a long time.
But Jilli is glad to be home in Hermiston. She had missed it.
“She couldn’t wait to be back here to bowl, and have a cheeseburger,” Kristi said.
It’s likely Jilli will keep bowling. She’ll keep playing as much as she can, whether it‘s in a tournament across the world, or in a Hermiston league with her dad, Mark (who she will beat).
The great thing about the Special Olympics is that there is no age cap on the events.
Jilli will most likely return to the games in four years, where she’ll have a chance to turn her silver medal into gold.


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