COLUMBIA — Their lime green T-shirts boldly declared the phrase "Set 'em up ... knock 'em down," and seemed to stand out amongst the swarming crowd of athletes inside AMF Town & Country Lanes on Sunday.
The 20 athletes on the NextStep For Life bowling team competed in the Special Olympics Missouri State Summer Games, which were held this weekend in Columbia. The Special Olympics has competitions in 21 sports for people with intellectual disabilities, ranging from alpine skiing and aquatics to track and bowling.
Coach Kathy Witmeyer said she chose the T-shirt slogan because she "wanted a competitive attitude to get them pumped up."
The alley had three flights of Special Olympics groups compete on both Saturday and Sunday, filling all 32 lanes with one team per lane on both days, employee Sam Nasci said.
If they weren't on the floor making strikes and spares, competitors sat watching the TV monitors for scores. As the scores were announced over the loudspeaker, bowlers applauded their teams with gusto.
Witmeyer has been coaching for 10 years and said that although the atmosphere of bowling in the Special Olympics is intense, it "not only really pushes the athletes to do their best, but it helps to boost their self-esteem and meet new friends."
Seasoned bowler Kathleen M. Cullen said that this year's opposition was especially tough.
"It's been pretty hard, pretty rough."
Although Cullen has been bowling since the eighth grade, she still experiences pre-bowling butterflies.
"The hardest part is getting nervous and freezing up," she said. She tried to relax and concentrate on the bowling, and she earned a bronze medal on Sunday.
Paul Burnett, the assistant coach of the NextStep for Life team, said how long and how much the athletes bowl is entirely up to them.
"Some bowl quite a bit and some not so much," he said.
The team tries to coordinate a practice about twice a month for four to five months before the Olympics, and Burnett rarely has to track down athletes to play for the team.
"Most of the bowlers come to us," he said.