Rita Johansen cannot see the individual pins at the end of her bowling lane, but lines herself up to a fuzzy white blob.
Feeling the weight of the 11-pound ball in her 93-year-old hands, she carefully calculates just how much force is needed, and with a finesse developed over nearly 60 years of playing the game, sends it cruising toward the center. The familiar sound of the heavy ball rolling on the wood follows a loud crash and her teammates erupt in cheers.
Mrs. Johansen, of Bullard, is legally blind as a result of macular degeneration but can distinguish the shadows on the pins. She turns to her teammates, who tell her which ones are left standing, and she lines up with the small dots on the floor at the end of the lane for another shot.
“I know about where the ball is supposed to go — it doesn’t always get there — but I try,” she said with a giggle.
Mrs. Johansen is a champion, and this month won her first-ever league championship in the Women’s Petroleum bowling league this month, a class she has played for the past 18 years on the Rounders team. It wasn’t the first time she won a trophy, but it was the first time she triumphed in this league without the use of her sight.
Team captain and longtime friend Peggy Simmons said Mrs. Johansen held her own in the tournament by catching a spare not once, but twice while facing the dreaded 3-10 split.
“That is hard to do, even those who can see don’t always get it,” she said.
Mrs. Johansen also boasts an impressive 127 average, with a high of 182 this year.
“We’ve been trying for 18 years together to win this first place,” Mrs. Simmons said. “When I told her, she cried.”
Almost a week later, and Mrs. Johansen still teared up thinking about the win.
“That makes me happy,” she said. “Everyone keeps telling me how amazing I am but I don’t see it.”
She discovered bowling in the 1950s when the game still involved manually setting pins. She said it was a form of therapy after she severely cut her wrist opening a window. Her hand went through the glass, slicing important tendons and ligaments. Bowling and golf were good therapy to help repair and strengthen her hand.
Mrs. Johansen’s husband, Roy, an aircraft mechanic and senior master sergeant, was stationed in Great Britain in 1956. It was there Johansen started bowling competitively.
“The first year I bowled I had a 135 average,” she said. “They had a tournament, and I won first place in singles, first place in doubles. … I won everything that first year I tried, which was nice.”
After moving back to the states, the family eventually settled in Tyler and Mrs. Johansen began playing at Green Acres Bowl in 1963.
When her eyesight began to fade, Mrs. Johansen considered giving up the game she loves, but her family and friends refused.
“She taught us to never give up,” her daughter, Babs Rinehart, said. “I said, ‘If you’re going to give up, I’ll put you in a nursing home,’ and she said, ‘oh, no.’”
Mrs. Simmons said after the diagnosis, Mrs. Johansen asked her if the team would still play with her.
“She said, ‘No one will want an old blind lady to bowl with them,’” Mrs. Simmons recalled.
“Then I said, ‘I can’t see,’” Mrs. Johansen chimed in. “They said, ‘it doesn’t matter, you’re going to bowl.’”
Mrs. Johansen said she was upset at first, but now she’s glad they put their foot down. Bowling is still a bright spot in her week, and she practices each Tuesday and plays in three leagues. She is a vibrant figure, joking and laughing and having a good time.
“I just want to enjoy life, and as long as I’m here I’m going to be enjoying life,” Mrs. Johansen said.
She is a local celebrity at Green Acres Bowl.
“She’s an inspiration to all of us, even those who aren’t on our team,” Mrs. Simmons said. “All of the people in that league are in awe of her. They can’t believe she’s 93 and still bowling. The rest of us want to be able to live that long and still be able to pick up a bowling ball.”
The only real limitation Mrs. Johansen will concede to is that she can no longer drive.
“If I could drive, no one would ever see me,” she joked.