Republished courtesy of International Bowling Industry Magazine (March issue 2017)
For Russian bowling coach Alexander Gurkov, it’s both. The website for Kegel Training Center in Lake Wales, FL contains an article written by Gurkov titled “Jedi Bowling: Line-of-sight construction skill and the methods of its training.”
Does that make Gurkov, who is both a coach and an inventor, a Yoda of the pins? Kegel CEO Chris Chartrand acknowledges Gurkov’s wisdom but draws a different parallel.
Pictured above from left to right: Alexander Gurkov and Kegel CEO Chris Chartrant show off the Torch.
“We call him a Russian MacGyver,” Chartrand says of the man who came to Kegel last summer from Russia by way of Nashville. “He has a real knack for looking at things in new ways, and it has infused a wonderful sense of energy into our building. He has just been a real breath of fresh air.”
An entrepreneurial spirit, too. Gurkov was a highly awarded coach and trainer in his native Russia where he coached the Russian Youth National Team, taught at the University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism and operated the bowling school, Bowllab. His resume will need to make room for some new accolades.
In February of this year, Kegel shipped out the first lane targeting device that Gurkov invented to assist deaf bowlers in his native Russia. The device, which Chartrand envisions being swept up by bowling centers across the world, is called – appropriately enough – the Torch.
“Our logo is a phoenix, so we have always used fire as a theme in our marketing to connect to our brand and to our logo,” Chartrand said. “What does a torch do? It kind of shows you the way. So, that’s a pretty fitting name for this.”
A multi-sport athlete who came to the sport of bowling relatively late, Gurkov is likely one of the few bowling coaches you will find who has Masters degrees in golf and optical engineering and who actively uses those principles in his coaching. Life at Kegel agrees with Gurkov who, along with his wife Ella, hopes his American journey will continue.
“If 10, 15 years ago, someone had said to me that I would be working at Kegel Training Center, I would not have believed it. I would have said that person was mad,” says Gurkov. “Right now, this looks like destiny, and I am so happy. Right now, this looks like the best place in the world for me to realize my abilities.”
On a Sunday morning, Gurkov is speaking by Skype from his apartment in Lake Wales which has a view of the lake and an occasional alligator. Although his English is excellent, joining the interview via Skype from Nashville to lend some occasional translation assistance is Gurkov’s longtime friend Andrey Belous.The Gurkovs were visiting Belous in Nashville in the spring of 2016. As part of their vacation, Gurkov sought out a bowling center and discovered the 52-lane Smyrna Bowling Center, one of the largest centers in the state of Tennessee.
During his visit, Gurkov connected with the center’s pro shop owner, Michelle Scheerer Rakow, and he started sharing some of his ideas including the lane targeting light. Rakow, who grew up in Florida and knew Chartrand, decided to introduce the two men.
As luck would have it, Chartrand happened to be in Nashville allowing the two to meet in person. Chartrand looked at Gurkov’s bowling line device, asked permission to shoot a video which he sent back to administrators at the training center.“When you’re a company like Kegel, people pitch us ideas all the time and most of the time, these ideas are not promising,” Chartrand says. “Alex set up the tool, I saw it, and it was instantaneous. I immediately knew how much of a benefit this would be to bowlers.”
The Torch is essentially a bridge that straddles a lane with a vertical nine-foot pole placed above the lane – so the ball doesn’t hit it – at a strategic point on the lane. The pole is illuminated with LED lights and bowlers aim at it to improve their trajectories. As a bowler moves left or right, the light moves, and the angle of reflection changes. Correcting inconsistent arm swings are a common problem for trainers, but aiming for the light allows bowlers to work out their flaws.
Gurkov, who was working with deaf bowlers in Moscow, designed the device to help bridge some of the communication gaps between himself and his trainees. He discovered that the visual aiming system had applications to people who were both visual and tactile learners.
“My first degree in optical engineering really helped me. I know the rules of optics,” Gurkov said. “Every coach, every player when he bowls, he sees that vertical line from the back. When I worked in a bowling center, I saw the reflection of that vertical line as an aiming system. I thought if I could just make that line more visible, it would work.”
Gurkov fashioned the first aiming device out of a fishing rod, LED tape, and a ramp. Even when using the crude prototype, his students instantly began to understand the principles of breakpoint, exit point and launch angle, and their results improved dramatically.
Needless to say, the Kegel Torch has grown in sophistication over the course of its development and is now fully portable with a carrying case as well as a battery charger so it no longer needs to be plugged into an outlet. It retails for between $695 and $1,000 and Chartrand envisions applications for bowlers of all ages and abilities including children and bowlers with physical disabilities.
“Think Saturday morning with the kids. You’ve finished your league bowling and you put this out and let them practice. How easy is it to tell a 9-year-old, ‘just hit the line,’?” Chartrand says. “Since it can help so many bowlers improve, there’s no reason why every center in the world shouldn’t have one of these.”
As the Torch starts burning through the marketplace, its inventor continues to work at Kegel, helping his students and potentially developing new products. He has started to work with video mirroring technology and virtual reality.
“Bowling is a very unique multidimensional game,” Gurkov says. “As a coach, I enjoy finding that specific unique pathway for each of my students that we can work on to make him or her really great sportsmen.”