Friendship and cheer to spare


Pat Atkins holds up a photo album filled with pictures of her new grandchild. It's hardly what you would expect to see at the Brunswick Columbia Lanes for a competitive game of bowling. But not for the Gems of Columbia.

The all-women's league, with about 100 players and 24 teams, is a mixture of bowling and a social club. And it's a connection that has kept members returning for more than two decades.

"It is a social outlet - you keep in touch with everybody in Columbia. You know their families, and the good and the bad," said Jackie Zipf, a member of the Knit N Pearls team and a Columbia resident who has bowled with the league for more than 25 years.

"There's so much more going on than just the bowling," said Othella Rogers of Columbia, a 12-year member and Zipf's teammate. "It's like a therapy session with your psychologist. We talk about husbands, children, family issues, work issues - the bowling is like a sidebar."

Though the league has some of Columbia's more serious bowlers, it's open to all skill levels, ages and athletic abilities, and has average scores ranging from 80 to 180. But even the serious bowlers have fun.

"We're not a typical league that's out for blood. If somebody throws a gutter ball, we just laugh at it," said Mary Ellen McGrath, member of the Golden Nuggets team and president of the league.

As longtime secretary and treasurer, Barbara Deming is viewed by her teammates as their lifeline. For Deming, bowling has become a large part of her life.

She started on the Gems with her mother 23 years ago. About four years into bowling, she was offered a job at the Brunswick Columbia Lanes and has been there since, now as sales director.

Although Deming has watched the league change from stay-at-home moms to working mothers and retirees, the women have always represented a wide range of ethnicity, backgrounds and religions. "We have women in their 80s and women in their 20s," Deming said. "That's the nice thing about bowling - people of all ages can participate."

Martha Bradley is one of the mature league members who moved to Columbia 31 years ago. Now in her 70s, she bowls three times a week and maintains a strong average score of 165 to 170.

"You don't need to worry about your average," Bradley said. "I want seniors to know this is a good type of exercise, and we do have fun."

Bradley is getting more than just exercise, however; she is also winning trophies. She and her team, Crystal Lights, have reigned for two years as league champions.

"Yeah, senior power," Marilyn Pontell said about the Crystal Lights, whose four members are seniors.

"I wanted to call us the Antique Gems, but they wouldn't let us," added Bradley, the group's self-proclaimed jokester.

While league members share each other's cheer, they also feel each other's pain.

"Three years ago, I lost my son and some of these young women were so supportive in getting my spirit back," Bradley said.

"A lot of us have had a lot of sadness in our lives," 15-year teammate Pontell agreed.

Pontell has lost two sons since 1989 - the second at the Pentagon terrorist attack last year. "The girls were so wonderful and so caring with flowers and calling," she said, "little things that made you feel like you weren't alone.

"Many days I don't feel like getting out of bed, but on Thursdays - I'll tell you! We just laugh and it's like an oasis in the middle of a desert," Pontell said. "We leave our troubles in the trunks of our cars and come inside and have fun. I love my girls."

The love and the friendships the women share beyond the walls of the Brunswick Columbia Lanes are what, members boast, distinguishes them from other leagues.

"A lot of teams don't see each other outside of bowling," said Susie O'Toole, a 20-year member of the Sapphire Stars. "We go to the beach, we went to Las Vegas, we go to lunch every Thursday, shopping, baseball games - we do a lot of things together."

The women also look forward to their year-end banquet, when they receive awards, cash prizes and wrapped gifts with clues on the boxes about the contents. "It's like a Christmas party in June. Our league is a family, it's a community, it's a support system," Deming said.

"The Gems - it's a great name for a great league," Pontell said. "They really are gems."

Some teams have openings; contact Barbara Deming at 410-381-7750.

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