Split Decisions: Jamie Phelan on Balancing Bowling in the USA and Life in Australia

By Matt Stevens
December 2, 2023

Returning home after an enriching stint in the United States on a bowling scholarship at Monmouth University in New Jersey, Jamie Phelan has brought with her not just skills honed on the lanes but also a wealth of maturity, experiences, and insights.

The South Australian’s journey is a testament to the dedication and passion required to excel in the sport of tenpin bowling. In this exclusive Q&A, Jamie shares her reflections on her time abroad, the transition back to Australia, and her plans for the future. Her story is not just about strikes and spares; it’s about growth, adaptation, and the relentless pursuit of excellence.

The current NTS Open athlete is ready to get back into the swing of things on home soil at the upcoming inaugural NTS Trials. With the Open NTS Women being incredibly competitive, Jamie knows it won’t be easy going and hopes the trials will allow her to start 2024 off with a bang.

“I’m really looking forward to being a part of the event,” shared Jamie.

“I think it will be a great opportunity for all bowlers to get out there and fight for a spot in the team. Seeing as it is the first time TBA are hosting something like this.

“I’m really keen to see how this plays out and wish all fellow athletes the best of luck and high scoring”, added Jamie.

After spending a few years in the USA on a bowling scholarship, what are your initial thoughts and feelings about being back home in Australia? Is it good to be home!?

I’m really happy to be home! Covid kept me from coming home and seeing my family and friends as often as I wanted, but I had great friends in America, letting me become part of their families when I couldn’t be with mine. I definitely miss how much I bowled and how easy it fit into my schedule, but nothing beats home.

Can you share some highlights from your time abroad? What were some of the most memorable experiences you had while bowling in the United States?

My most memorable experiences have to be bowling on TV. 2020 and 2023 were the years Monmouth made our MEAC Conference matchplay finals (both times versus NCA&T), which was aired on ESPNU. It was surreal seeing myself on TV, and I think will always be the highlight of my career. Also, becoming friends with Team USA Coach (and NCA&T coach) Kim was pretty cool, my dad raised me on her USBC Coaching videos. 

How do you think your time in the USA has influenced your approach to bowling and your overall perspective on the sport?

It tested my discipline in the sport – I had to show up every day, regardless of whether I wanted to or not. I had to show up not only for myself but for my team because I expected them to show up for me too. Coming back home and not having the same discipline has been a hard adjustment, but it is something I want to get back eventually. My commitment and ability to show up definitely reflects in my bowling. 

Being a seasoned bowler with international experience, how do you see the Australian bowling scene in comparison to what you’ve experienced overseas?

I think it’s going to take some getting used to coming back into the Australian bowling scene, purely because my US experience was entirely team-based competition, which I inevitably got used to. Back home, it’s more individual performance-based, with the opportunity to represent a team throughout the year. Not having a team to rely on in the majority of my tournaments is going to be an adjustment, but of course it’s nothing I haven’t done before!

What were the main reasons that led you to pursue a bowling scholarship in the USA, and how do you believe it has impacted your personal, educational, and athletic development?

A big part of why I went over was because of Emily and Dennis Rigney.

I was able to get in contact with Monmouth because of Dennis, and I’ll always be grateful he saw the potential in me to pursue something like that!

The experience helped me mature much quicker than I intended to – moving to a different country, having a strict schedule and basically fending for myself for the first time. But it taught me a lot of life skills that I’ve been able to bring home and use as I begin life outside of college. 

Were there any challenges you faced while being away from home and competing at a high level? How did you overcome them?

My first year in America, I wasn’t able to compete due to academic ineligiblity. Missing out on a year of bowling was hard, but it allowed me a whole year of progression and adjustment before hitting the lanes in 2020. It was also a challenge not having any family there to support me in person. I’ve been accustomed to having my parents at every event, instead they watched every tournament at 2am from an unreliable livestream for four years. The entire bowling team and their families accepted me like their own though, so I always had family behind me in some way. 

Returning from a scholarship in the States is a significant transition. How do you plan to apply the skills and knowledge you gained to benefit your bowling and your workforce goals?

Right now, I have a job that pays the bills and is helping me build my savings. I am still deciding what I want to do with my degree and which direction I want to take the skills I’ve learnt. For bowling, I want to continue interstate tournaments and pursue NTS and international tournaments, so I aim to have a structured training routine as the year closes out to help me best reach my goals. 

During your time abroad, did you develop any particular strategies or techniques that you’re excited to introduce or share with other Australian bowlers?

I know this isn’t new, and that it’s starting to be incorporated into more NTS trainings etc. but I really like the concept of Baker bowling. I’d never really bowled a proper Baker game until I went to the US, and we would practice those types of games constantly. It really made me aware and conscious of the type of shots I’d make, seeing as I only had two frames to show up for my team. This conscious behaviour became integral in my overall game, and it was one of my favourite practice drills. 

Bowling involves continuous improvement. How do you plan to build upon the progress you’ve made during your time in the USA to further enhance your performance?

I don’t want to let myself completely fall off the wagon, so I aim to keep up my strength and fitness by going to the gym as often as I can. Now that I am home and I have a job that takes up my days, I don’t have as much time to practice. I’m saying this, it allows me to be more conscious and thoughtful with my practice sessions, so I want to get into a steady routine by the end of the year to give me the best start to 2024. 

Are there any specific tournaments or competitions you’re looking forward to participating in now that you’re back in Australia?

I was looking forward to bowling in the NSW Open before my flight got cancelled 😂 I’m hoping to participate in the NTS Trials, as it is the first year they’re doing something like this, I think it will be interesting to be a part of it. And the Vic150 in 2024, as I have never bowled in it before. 

Your journey might inspire other young athletes to consider studying and competing abroad. What advice would you give to those who are contemplating a similar path?

Do not be afraid to reach out – to fellow bowlers abroad, coaches, or anybody who can help. It is such an exciting opportunity, and the more Aussies who can showcase their talent overseas, the better! There are no consequences in trying, so go for it. 

Balancing academics, sports, and personal life can be demanding. How did you manage your time effectively during your scholarship years, and how do you plan to do so now?

Division 1 schools hold athletics and academics to a high honour, so being able to balance both was a testament to your character. With Monmouth being D1, I struggled to adjust in my first year (as many first years do), but found my footing in my Sophomore year as I began competing. Balance isn’t always pretty either – I pulled a lot of all-nighters and sacrificed sleep-ins to do my homework or put in extra hours in the gym. But it was all for the best, sometimes balance looks like late-night studying and sleeping in the next day for extra rest, or going to bed early to wake up at 5 am for the gym with my teammates. 

Can you reflect on the differences you’ve observed between the bowling scenes in the USA and Australia? What do you think each culture brings to the sport?

The US bowling culture felt more intense. I think because you spend so much time with your college team – eat, sleep, practice, repeat with the same people day in and day out – you feel more connected on the lanes and you understand each other’s game just as well as your own. 

Are there any particular Australian bowlers or mentors who have supported you throughout your journey, and how have they influenced your development?

Emily and Dennis Rigney were the reason I went in the first place, so they will always have a special place in my journey. 

Bernie Grueso Jr. was also a great support and friend during my time over there, as was Bek Commane, checking in constantly. The South Australian bowling community also checked in with me, having my home base behind me was great. My family were my biggest supporters overall, they were the ones who stayed up and watched my games at ungodly hours and never missed one. There were times I felt defeated, or home sickness took a toll, but I wanted to set an example for bowlers back home and to everyone supporting me from afar. 

Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations in the world of bowling? Are there specific achievements or milestones you’re aiming for in the coming years?

I want to represent Australia again, of course, and win an Open Title. I think one day I’d like to go back to the US and bowl on the Queens Tour, but I want to get settled back into the Australian bowling scene again before I set off again! I also want to get my coaching accreditation soon, to get more involved in the South Australian bowling community with it.