Olivia Moyer was initially tepid on the idea of becoming a bowler.
"The middle school started a bowling team late in the year when I was in the eighth grade, and I was like 'Meh, I guess that's interesting,'" the Mascoutah High School freshman said. "It was so close to the end of the year, though."
But two things turned her on to the sport: a convincing sales pitch by the Mascoutah High School coach and inspiration from Fletcher Hopkins, a four-time state bowling champion who can relate to Olivia through the notable thing they have in common:
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"Fletcher gives me great support. He's an inspiration," Olivia said. "I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't my goal to win four state championships, too."
It's been less than a year since she first entertained the thought that she could be a competitive bowler, but she's already a quarter of the way to her goal.
Olivia won the wheelchair division of the IHSA Girls State Bowling Tournament last weekend in Rockford. She rolled a six-game series of 869, including a personal-best 185. Chenoa Stokes, a sophomore from Triad High School, placed fourth.
"Olivia is integrated into the regular bowling rotation during the season," said Steven Hopkins, a volunteer assistant at Mascoutah and Fletcher Hopkins' father. "She bowls right now with the (junior varsity), but with that 185 — if we can get her average round there — she'll start bowling with the varsity as a sophomore."
Wheelchair bowlers do not have to swing a heavy ball from the side of their chairs. Instead, they push the ball on a set of rails that guide it to the floor.
"The ramp just does what your arm would normally do," Hopkins said.
Lining up the trajectory of the ball and adjusting to lane conditions are still up to a wheelchair bowler. They can choose to throw the ball straight — as Olivia does most of the time — or even roll it so that it hooks.
"I line up the ramp from the center board. I have to move the back of the ramp a quarter or a half board and line up the front of the ramp with the dots I want that are on the foul line," Olivia said. "I use two hands on top of the ball and push. I don't push with a lot of force, just enough to get it going."
Momentum comes from the heft of her 15-pound ball, which is heavier than the 12- or 14-pound ball most high school girls use.
"We tell Olivia she has to roll the ball then hold the ramp, because as the ball goes down, the ramp will move off its mark," Hopkins said. "A real key is getting as much stability as possible in the ramp."
Olivia was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that can cause coordination problems, stiff muscles and trouble controlling movement. She's been in a wheelchair since she was 4 years old, she said.
Fletcher Hopkins was similarly affected by a rare genetic brain disorder. He was once strong enough to stand and bowl, but he eventually became too weak as he grew into an adult body.
Unlike Olivia, though, Fletcher had the advantage of coming from a bowling family. It was Steven Hopkins, a retired Air Force colonel and C-130 pilot, who introduced his wife and three children to the sport.
"We wanted to have some kind of activity where we the whole family could participate," said Hopkins, who has been an assistant coach and ROTC coordinator at MHS for 16 years. "I was already a bowler, and Fletcher — being in a wheelchair — could bowl, too. It was a good way for us to all get together and have some fun.
"All three of our kids have been bowlers at Mascoutah."
Fletcher, the middle child, was the most successful.
In IHSA history, 43 individual athletes have won state championships in the same event four times, most of them in either wrestling or girls track. Only Fletcher has been a four-time repeat in bowling, which he did the first four years the wheelchair division was offered.
Now 21, he'll soon be inducted into the Southwestern Illinois Bowling Conference Hall of Fame.
Steven Hopkins was the one who pitched Jason Moyer on the idea that his daughter, Olivia, could be a bowler.
"What did I know about wheelchair bowling? Not a lick. When Fletch was just 5 years old, we started him," Steven Hopkins said. "Olivia is in her first year of bowling and has done a great job. We're very proud of her. "But I don't know if she's told Fletch about her goal (to match his four state championships)."
Olivia has pursued other interests in high school. Now that the season is over, she says she wants to give the six hours a week she devoted to practicing her bowling to the school's chorus and Lifesavers Club. She still likes to get to Mascoutah Community Lanes when her schedule allows, however.
"I'm still just a freshman," she said. "I have enough to do."