PORT ORCHARD — When South Kitsap bowler Abigail Kay begins her approach, it is her smooth, fluid left-handed delivery that immediately stands out; and it is usually followed by the sound of ten pins falling down 60 feet away.
Kay is South Kitsap’s top bowler, and when she’s on her game, stringing everything together, capable of being one of the best high school bowlers in Washington.
But few know about the pain that comes with each throw. That’s because Kay bowls day in, day out with rheumatoid arthritis, a condition for which there is no cure, but can be treated medicinally.
It makes bowling especially difficult. Kay keeps ice packs nearby for her wrist and Tylenol for pain and inflammation. Even something as simple as her approach to the lane can, on the worst days, be incredibly arduous.
“It can be really rough sometimes,” Kay said. “My joints will stiffen up, and there will be times when it takes me a couple of hours in the morning to get out of bed because I’m so stiff I can’t move.”
Fortunately, some days are better than others, and over the past few weeks as the South Kitsap bowling team has rounded into form, Kay has been at the top of her game and the pain has been relatively manageable, something she hopes will continue this weekend as South Kitsap heads to the 4A state championship tournament at Narrows Plaza in Tacoma.
Kay rolled a 194 and 214 in a league win over Puyallup earlier this month and led South Kitsap to a win at the SPSL tournament and a third place finish at districts.
“Abigail has every chance [to win state],” said South Kitsap bowling coach Lee LaDeaux.
“If she can string everything together, we could have another one,” LaDeaux added, referencing South Kitsap’s 2017 4A state champion, Sarah Stolle.
Kay began bowling at the age of five, but did not take it seriously until high school. She had been a gymnast for a number of years while living in Spokane, but there was one problem — she kept injuring herself.
“I started noticing when I was around 10 or 11 that something wasn’t right because I was getting injured so much,” Kay said. “I was in so much pain all the time.”
Eventually, it came time to switch to another sport to stay active and perhaps lessen her chances of injury, and Kay returned to bowling.
“At that time, we didn’t know she had arthritis,” said her father, Scott Kay. “We thought maybe she’s not built for gymnastics and we should try something else.”
While bowling was easier on her body than gymnastics, it wasn’t a cure-all. Stiffness in the morning, difficulty walking and joint pain continued to be par for the course in her daily life.
Finally, about three years ago, doctors came back with an arthritis diagnosis; and with time and treatment, Kay has been able to better deal with her symptoms and excel on the lanes, though she still has her share of tough practices and matches.
“There have been times where I can’t really walk,” Kay said. “So I’m just going up there and roughing it out, throwing the ball and just hoping it stays on the lane at that point.”
It would have been easy to give up and quit, but instead, Kay has flourished as a bowler. As a junior, Kay finished 22nd among all bowlers at the West Central District III tournament to qualify for state despite battling a wrist injury. She improved at state, averaging a 161 score to finish 23rd overall.
And this year Kay has taken her game to another level — her average is well over 200 — despite suffering yet another wrist injury at midseason. She continues to practice and play as much as she can, showing dedication to the game and her team at every turn.
Kay didn’t bowl much in the days leading up to the state tournament, but it’s usually her coach that has to tell her to dial it down and take extended breaks to stay healthy.
“She never complains about it,” LaDeaux said. “You know it’s hurting her, but she never comes up to me and says, ‘Hey coach, it’s really bothering me, it really hurts, I need to stop.’ Never. I end up having to stop her.”
Kay isn’t too worried about waking up on Friday morning feeling worse than usual, even with a daunting six full games slated for that day, followed by 14 baker games on Saturday. It’s the biggest tournament of her high school career, and she’s more focused on performing at the highest level possible.
“I’m a little nervous, but that’s more because it’s a tournament and it’s my senior year,” Kay said. “The pressure of that is settling in, I’m starting to realize it’s my last year to do this.”
— Mark Krulish is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MKrulishKDN.