West Central Valley High freshman Kayla Bartholomew discovered something right up her alley when she became Iowa’s first bowling adapted athlete and the first adapted bowling state champion on Feb. 2, 2023.
“I have seen more smiles on her when she bowls than I ever have,” said Sara Zimmerman, a teacher of the visually impaired from Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired (IESBVI). She, along with IESBVI co-worker Brian Werts, convinced Bartholomew bowling was a good fit for her. “She does not get discouraged- she will bowl all day to improve.”
Werts, an orientation and mobility specialist, and Zimmerman were looking for a school activity Bartholomew might join. West Central Valley had begun its bowling team again this winter; Bartholomew had some bowling experience with other students served by IESBVI and also with family at Stuart Bowl and Lounge. “Kayla was interested; so bowling seemed like a good fit and we ran with it,” said Zimmerman.
“Running with it” makes the accomplishment sound effortless. However, becoming the first adapted athlete in a sport also means rules regarding accommodations haven’t been written yet. West Central athletic director Ethan Calvert, IESBVI staff and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union collaborated to identify accommodations for a bowler who is blind. “It was important Kayla still had competitive integrity,” said Zimmerman. “The rules had not yet been determined, bowling season was about to start; so we just started working with her and fine-tuned later,” she said.
As the season progressed, Bartholomew was always the sole athlete in her division. As it became clearer she would advance to districts and then to state, she gained pride and confidence, said Werts. “Kayla has a lot of pride about being the first female blind bowler and the state champion,” he said. “She’s getting recognized now for the work she put in and feels a sense of accomplishment. She’s realizing the magnitude of the moment- she is a trailblazer.” The crowning realization of her accomplishment was when Bartholomew walked out on the basketball court with 400 other Iowa high school girls in the Parade of Champions for all sports, held during the state basketball 5A championship halftime in Wells Fargo Arena in early March. She was also recognized when her school held a send-off ceremony.
With Bartholomew paving the way for bowlers in Iowa who are blind, possible accommodations which are now in place include: having an adult or coach give verbal directions to help orient bowlers to the lane and also describe which pins are still standing, using a tactile map to know where the pins are and using a nylon rope as a tactile foul line, which coaches can put back into position if it becomes displaced. Bartholomew found her way to the nylon rope by running her hand along a 12-foot-long guide rail, also now an allowed accommodation.
The IESBVI staff commend Calvert and bowling coach Chad Pote for their willingness to work through establishing the IGHSAU accommodations and for providing extra time with Bartholomew. Typically other athletes just have one night a week to practice as a team; Pote was willing to provide an additional night of coaching with Bartholomew, increasing her success and confidence.
“This was a real stepping stone for Kayla,” said Werts “We are thinking of what school events we can get her to participate in beyond this. Having her part of the bowling team opened everyone’s eyes to the possibilities. They’ve (West Central Valley athletic staff) really been on board- it required calling the IGHSAU so much. They are trying to do what they can and break down barriers for Kayla.”
IESBVI staff hope Bartholomew’s notoriety will appeal to other Iowa students who are blind and visually impaired. Students served by IESBVI are spread throughout the state; however, with 60 some staff interacting with schools in the same manner as Werts and Zimmerman, students can practice extracurricular activities in their local schools and join their blind Iowa peers to compete against schools in the regional conference, North Central Association for Schools for the Blind. Bowling is a sport the IESBVI Rams hope to add to their offerings of track and field, swimming, goalball, wrestling, cheerleading and forensics.
IESBVI staff covers the state with teachers of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility specialists who are generally assigned to boundaries within one of the nine area education agencies. IESBVI works with teachers, students and families to ensure students can access their education. More than 650 students in Iowa are served by IESBVI in their local school districts.