When Mini Tvaska started bowling, she did it in her stocking feet and threw a 16-pound black ball. Young boys, not automation, righted the pins after each frame by tossing them into the holes in a metal pin-setting contraption and then pulling a lever that lowered them back onto the lane for the next bowler.
The year was 1936 and 18-year-old, 5-foot-petite Mini Tvaska — she was Mini Brazas then — didn't know it yet but she was embarking on a lifelong journey.
You see, Mini's memory lane is literally a lane, well, actually, a series of bowling lanes stretching from one end of the United States to the other.
On May 21, Mini, who is 94, will be in Reno, Nev., competing in her 67th straight United States Bowling Congress Women's Championships tournament. She holds the women's record as the longest running consecutive participant, an extraordinary feat under the best of circumstances but a triumph for Mini, who can no longer see. She's not completely blind but her world is a white splotch surrounded by blur. The pins at the end of the alley appear to her as an obscure clump. After she throws her first ball, someone has to tell her what pins are left standing and she relies on a lifetime of experience to know what to do. Sometimes she misses the pins completely but most of the time at least some of them topple.
Mini has macular degeneration, a disease that has slowly taken her vision.
Mini is a fearless competitor who never let her size or gender get in the way. During World War II, she and her younger sister, Anne, answered the call for women to join the workforce and got jobs in a Detroit Ford factory that made B-24 bombers. Move over, Rosie, Mini was a riveter, too.
When Fordson High School in Dearborn, Mich., announced it was having a contest to select one female to join the all-male cheerleading squad. Mini tried out and made the team over the hands-down, odds-on favorite: the girlfriend of the captain of the football team.
Mini still has that varsity letter. She pulled it down from a shelf in her bedroom in an assisted living facility on the north side of St. Petersburg to show it off on a recent afternoon. It's one of the few mementos the woman who never had any children still has.
She sat on her bed, her feet not touching the floor. She wore a blue shirt and a blue cap — she always wears a hat to keep the sun out of her eyes since she started losing her vision — and a pair of gray pants speckled with grease, for which she apologized, from the KFC lunch she and her best friend, Jean Caputo, had earlier in the day.
Jean, who is 91, sat on the bed next to her friend. Mini held tightly to her most prized bowling honor, a Lifetime Achievement Award plaque.
Mini met Jean in a bowling alley in 2001, right after Mini moved to Florida from Michigan. Jean, who's been in Florida since 1973, is a former physical education teacher and golfer as well as a bowler, a perfect companion for the similarly sports-minded Mini.
Mini keeps her bowling treasures in a suitcase at the foot of her bed: two plaques, a Syracuse University basketball shirt and stuffed doll a representative from the school presented to her for her 65th consecutive tournament appearance in 2011 when the tournament was held there, and a weathered 16-pound black bowling ball that she used as a lawn ornament for years.
'She lights up' events
While some things have changed — she uses an 8-pound ball and her 150 average is now 114 — others have not. She still reaps bowling honors. Last year, she got an award for making a 7-8-10 split (the two far left pins and the one far right), which is one of the toughest pickups in bowling.
And she still continues her yearly trips to the USBC tournaments.
"Mini has displayed admirable dedication to the sport of bowling, and we're glad to have her as a representative," said Matt Cannizzaro, media relations manager for the USBC Open and Women's Championships. "She lights up the event as soon as she walks in."
There's just something about bowling that she has always enjoyed, Mini said. She liked it when she was one of the few women in the bowling alleys filled with smoke and beer-drinking men; she liked it for the 49 years her sister bowled with her; she liked it when she bowled with her husband, when the women bowled with the men in mixed leagues, together but on separate lanes; she liked it all the years she was captain of the four-person team she gathered to take to the tournaments; and she likes it today — it keeps her active and she gets to socialize with her friends.
In this year's tournament, Mini will be bowling with the Sunshine Gals, the same group of women she's bowled with in the past several years. They are Kati Hendricks from Seminole; Cindy Geischen and Sue Cook from St. Petersburg; and Nancy Nelson, Mini's niece from Michigan. They are all in their 50s and 60s.
Imagining the pins
On a recent morning at Sunrise Lanes in St. Petersburg, Mini squared her toes on the line, took a couple of steps, bent over and released the ball.
Nine pins down. While she waited for the ball to return, Jean got up and said something in her ear, detailing the remaining pin location, no doubt. This time, Mini lined up on the right side of the lane.
She threw the ball directly at the lone pin. Going, going, ooh, it whispered just to the left of the standing pin. So very close. She smiled and sat back down.
Is it frustrating not being able to see those pins like she used to?
"It was but now I'm grateful for what I can see. I do the best I can."
Patti Ewald can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746.