The 93-year-old’s time on the tournament lanes has yielded him two priceless rewards – love and longevity – and he was recognized for the latter Wednesday at the National Bowling Stadium as he made his record-tying 71st appearance at the USBC Open Championships.
He is one of three bowlers in 113 years of Open Championships history to reach 70 years of participation and now sits atop the all-time participation list with USBC Hall of Famers Bill Doehrman of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Joe Norris of San Diego.
Doehrman competed in 71 consecutive tournaments from 1908 until 1981, while Norris competed from 1926 until 2000.
Thiel made his tournament debut at the 1940 event in Detroit, where he nervously hit the lanes armed only with one ball and some simple advice from 1939 Regular Team champion Charley Kotarski.
Thiel’s arsenal still includes just one ball, and as the sage veteran, he offered the same advice to 21-year-old first-timer, Ken Buxengard, whom he recruited to join his team this year.
“Charley was a great bowler and one of the guys who really taught me a lot back then,” Thiel said. “He gave me the same advice I gave Ken, and that was to just relax and bowl like you do in league. Don’t put any pressure on yourself or be afraid to try anything. You only get one shot at it each year.”
Thiel has had a memorable career with big scores and special accolades, but perhaps his biggest accomplishment at the Open Championships actually came off the lanes.
While at the 1965 event in St. Paul, Minnesota, Thiel met a young lady named Phyllis, who was handing out fliers to promote a tournament being held in conjunction with the Open Championships.
Within a few months, Phyllis moved to Michigan to help Thiel at the 70-lane bowling center he managed, and they’ve been together since. Before long, they had their own bowling center, a venture that lasted until 1977, when they sold it and moved back to Phyllis’ hometown of Lake City.
“When I got to Lake City, the bowlers there had never heard of the Nationals, and I couldn’t believe it,” Thiel said. “I was able to put together a team to take to the tournament, and we were able to find a companion team, too. Lake City became a bowling town. We’ve pretty much had the same core group since 1978, and we even used to take 32 bowlers to the Petersen in Chicago every year.”
Thiel gives his wife and dedicated teammates much of the credit for his return to the Open Championships each year, but he also jokes that his doctors are just as important.
“He had some health problems in December, and he was concerned he might not be able to make it, but here we are,” Phyllis Thiel said. “Now, he’ll go home and tell the doctor to keep him going for one more year because everyone’s really looking forward to Vegas.”
Thiel’s team includes Eugene Becker, who made his 36th tournament appearance, Bruce Ohlhaber, who competed for the 27th time and John Sexton, who made his 25th march down Center Aisle on Wednesday.
Phyllis will join the group on the lanes Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. Eastern, so she can bowl doubles with Thiel, as she has nine previous times since her debut in 2002.
Thiel is one of 17 bowlers in tournament history to eclipse the 100,000 pinfall mark, and he entered the 2016 event sixth on the career pinfall list with 113,344.
“Don’t let him tell you any differently,” Phyllis Thiel said. “This year’s event has been in the back of his mind for a long time, and he’s already thinking about No. 72.”
For more information on the Open Championships, click here.
Top 10 division leaders with hometown and pinfall
1, Wickliffe Lanes (Jason Bowles, Larry Strell, Matthew Zitnik, Robert A. Bures, Robert J. Bures), 3,202. 2, 5 ICT Bowlers, Johnston, Iowa, 3,128. 3, ND Roto Grip, Mandan, N.D., 3,072. 4, Bud Light, Sheboygan, Wis., 3,039. 5, Storm Products 2, Brigham City, Utah, 3,028. 6, Last Chance, Shermansdale, Pa., 3,001. 7, Total Bowling Dynamics, Monument, Colo., 2,977. 8, Tom’s Pro Shop 1, Fairborn, Ohio, 2,963. 9, Coach’s Corner, Lafayette, Colo., 2,924. 10, Racine Screen, Racine, Wis., 2,911.
1, Matthew Zitnik, Mayfield Heights, Ohio/Jason Bowles, Euclid, Ohio, 1,341. 2, Kevin Tatrow, Bel Aire, Kan./Will Barnes, Austin, Texas, 1,335. 3, Dan Peters/Jake Peters, Henderson, Nev., 1,306. 4, Steve Krabbenhoft, Moorhead, Minn./Kenneth Cummings, West Fargo, N.D., 1,258. 5, Robert A. Bures, Mentor, Ohio/Robert J. Bures, Painesville, Ohio, 1,255. 6, Steven Badovinac, Monument, Colo./Jason Duran, Littleton, Colo., 1,250. 7, Leanne Hulsenberg, North Ogden, Utah/Corbet Austin, Ogden, Utah, 1,232. 8, Josh McBride, Johnston, Iowa/Geoffrey Young, Keller, Texas, 1,231. 9(tie), Brandon St. Onge/Paul Campbell II, Zephyrhills, Fla., and Richard Voakes, Kaukauna, Wis./Samuel Sweet, Wisconsin Dells, Wis., 1,217.
1, Robert J. Bures, Painesville, Ohio, 815. 2, Matt Smallin, Glenburn, N.D., 785. 3, Will Barnes, Austin, Texas, 764. 4, Jerad Schmitt, Fargo, N.D., 729. 5, Ryan Utterback, Clinton, Ill., 704. 6, Mark Stenger, Washington, Ill., 703. 7, Tyronn Dyess, Racine, Wis., 683. 8, Eric VanRite, Waukesha, Wis., 682. 9(tie), Jason Bowles, Euclid, Ohio, and Robert Clements, Plymouth, Minn., 681.
1, Robert J. Bures, Painesville, Ohio, 2,122. 2, Matt Smallin, Glenburn, N.D., 2,060. 3, Jason Bowles, Euclid, Ohio, 2,042. 4, Will Barnes, Austin, Texas, 2,023. 5, Steven Badovinac, Monument, Colo., 1,929. 6, Jake Peters, Henderson, Nev., 1,925. 7, Scott Salinas, Racine, Wis., 1,923. 8, Robert A. Bures, Mentor, Ohio, 1,915. 9, Kevin Tatrow, Bel Aire, Kan., 1,909. 10, Austin Corbet, Ogden, Utah, 1,898.
1, Wickliffe Lanes (Jason Bowles, Larry Strell, Matthew Zitnik, Robert A. Bures, Robert J. Bures), Mentor, Ohio, 9,598. 2, 5 ICT Bowlers, Johnston, Iowa, 9,488. 3, ND Roto Grip, Mandan, N.D., 9,461. 4, Storm Products 2, Brigham City, Utah, 9,175. 5, Money Talks Breedlove Team, Johnston, Iowa, 8,955. 6, Total Bowling Dynamics, Monument, Colo., 8,952. 7, Budweiser, Sheboygan, Wis., 8,773. 8, Storm Products, Brigham City, Utah, 8,644. 9, ND Storm, Mandan, N.D., 8,571. 10, Tom’s Pro Shop 1, Fairborn, Ohio, 8,544.
Top 10 division leaders with hometown and pinfall
1, T-Rays (Jim Ryan, Kevin O’Meara, Michael Kvislen, Terry Wibstad, Terry Gruchalla), Jamestown, N.D., 2,607. 2, Plato Woodwork 1, Gaylord, Minn., 2,531. 3, Malad Gun Club, Malad City, Idaho, 2,529. 4(tie), Tom’s Bowling Center, Gibbon, Minn., and BV Construction, Lake Park, Iowa, 2,455. 6, Mel’s Diner, Calmar, Iowa, 2,447. 7, Zack’s Pro Shop, Canonsburg, Pa., 2,430. 8, Young Explosives 2, Williamson, N.Y., 2,424. 9, A-Team Cambridge, Minn., 2,420. 10, We Are Family, Orange, Calif., 2,413.
1, Randy Robinson/Crystal Forkner, Higginsville, Mo., 1,118. 2, Chris Witthus/Robert Kaytor, Glencoe, Minn., 1,096. 3, Dee Maccario, Farmington, Conn./Mark Baranski, Newington, Conn., 1,094. 4, Julie Wahman/Gregg Wahman Jr., 1,085. 5, Lyle Maly, Weston, Neb./Tom Mensik, Morse Bluff, Neb., 1,070. 6, Elizabeth Langhoff, Lakewood, Colo./Frank Neumann, Cheyenne, Wyo., 1,065. 7, Joyce Krcil, Hutchinson, Minn./Michael Witthus, Glencoe, Minn., 1,051. 8, Efrain Rodriguez/Edwin Pastrana, New York, 1,048. 9, Darren Tripp, Malad City, Idaho/Lana Tripp, Malad, Idaho, 1,038. 10, Al Wagner/Chris Nygaard, Montevideo, Minn., 1,036.
1, Greg Kokanour, Highland, Calif., 595. 2, Roger Porto, Kerman, Calif., 590. 3, Maniram Basdeo, Bronx, N.Y., 588. 4, Michelle Massard, Miramar, Fla., 574. 5, Tom Meinsma, Sabula, Iowa, 565. 6, Cameron Zens, Redfield, S.D., 562. 7(tie), Richard Arredondo, Kerman, Calif., and Gary Heinz, Morton Grove, Ill., 557. 9, Leon Fosheim, Webster, S.D., 553. 10, Amanda Johnson, Burlington, Iowa, 545.
1, Roger Porto, Kerman, Calif., 1,634. 2, Greg Kokanour, Highland, Calif., 1,612. 3, Tom Meinsma, Sabula, Iowa, 1,604. 4, Robert Kaytor, Glencoe, Minn., 1,599. 5, Scott Tracy, Redfield, S.D., 1,592. 6, Richard Greathouse, Sarcoxie, Mo., 1,574. 7, Randall Nelson, Blair, Neb., 1,572. 8, Michelle Massard, Miramar, Fla., 1,566. 9, Richard Arredondo, Kerman, Calif., 1,563. 10, Maniram Basdeo, Bronx, N.Y., 1,559.
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