CALI, Colombia – The singles event at the PANAM Bowling Elite Championships often serves as an opportunity for competitors to continue getting comfortable with a new venue, format or even international competition in general.
It marks the start of a long week that builds toward the coveted team event, with each day being a chance to learn about the lane condition, while also battling for a spot at the top of the podium in a variety of disciplines.
Canada’s Felicia Wong will be the first competitor to hear her national anthem this week at Bolera Departamental, where she outdistanced the 58-player women’s field Saturday to win the singles title.
The 35-year-old left-hander averaged nearly 209 for six games on the 38-foot Los Angeles oil pattern and claimed the first gold medal of the 2021 PANAM Bowling Elite Championships with a 1,252 total.
She was followed by Colombia’s Juliana Franco (1,238), while Aruba’s Kamilah Dammers-Naddall finished with a 224 game to surge from sixth place to the bronze medal with 1,211.
“I didn’t look along the way, to be honest,” Wong said. “My intention for this event is to stay in the moment, be present and see what’s in front of me. It’s also such a long week that it doesn’t feel like singles is its own thing. You’re just going along and pacing yourself and figuring out the approaches and the lanes and how they play from pair to pair. It has been surreal. I was just doing the work, then it was over.”
Gazmine Mason, who made her debut as a member of the adult version of Team USA, was passed by Dammers-Naddall in the final game and finished fourth with a 1,206 total.
Team USA’s Julia Bond and Breanna Clemmer finished tied for 10th place with 1,159, Lauren Pate was 14th with 1,152, Bryanna Coté was 17th (1,128) and Sydney Brummett finished 26th (1,080).
Coté earned the bronze medal in singles in Cali in 2016, while Team USA’s Missy Parkin took the gold medal.
“Some of the other players have been here and had some insight to offer about the center, then I used practice to find characteristics or trends or patterns I saw that would help us this week,” Mason said. “I had them in my mind but treated today like a new day and bowled how the lane was telling me to bowl. I did my best to make good decisions and move from there with the help of my teammates and coaches.”
As a member of Junior Team USA in 2015 and 2016, Mason had the opportunity to compete in the 2015 PANAM Bowling Youth Championships in Panama and the 2016 International Bowling Federation World Youth Championships in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she resided for college.
She earned 10 medals in those two events, including three golds.
“I felt more comfortable today because of my past experience with Junior Team USA, and it wasn’t too much different beyond just being in a new bowling center and atmosphere,” said Mason, a 26-year-old right-hander. “At the end of the day, it’s just bowling. I’m always going to do the best I can and make my shots. No matter where I am, bowling is bowling, and that helps to stay focused. We learned a lot today about the lanes and progression, and that will help us make the moves as the week goes on.”
Saturday’s win was not the first for Wong on the PANAM stage, but it was her first since helping Canada to the trios title at the 2010 event in Las Vegas.
That victory came early in her long career with Team Canada and was followed by a bronze medal in the team event, also in 2010.
There have been some close calls at other events in recent years, along with added top-tier competition on the Professional Women’s Bowling Association Tour, and Wong is excited to see the hard work pay off.
“It has been since 2010 since I’ve won a medal at this event, so it feels kind of validating,” Wong said. “I’ve worked really hard and put in a lot of time, and it clicked. This is motivation to keep doing the things. Looking ahead, it’s interesting how it can be different each day, so I’m going to stay open-minded, have fun and keep it light, while focusing on each day and event.”
The Elite Championships features bowlers from across North, Central and South America, plus the Caribbean, competing at the 20-lane center for medals in singles, doubles, trios, team and all-events.
Men’s singles also kicked off Saturday, with more than half of the 84 players bowling their six games.
Armando Batres of Guatemala is the man to beat after posting a 1,219 total Saturday night.
Defending champion Francois Lavoie of Canada is second with 1,216 and followed by Team USA’s Matt Russo (1,214).
Russo was looking to stay perfect in international competition. He claimed four gold medals in four opportunities in his Team USA debut at the PANAM Champion of Champions event in 2018.
The rest of the men’s field, including Team USA’s Andrew Anderson, Nick Pate, Kristopher Prather and Kyle Sherman, will take the lanes at 10:30 a.m. Eastern to see if they can catch the leaders. Total pinfall for the six games will determine the medalists.
Sunday afternoon at Bolera Departamental will feature the first of two women’s doubles squads.
There also is some motivation to perform this week in Cali, beyond just the medals and prestige that come with the Elite Championships.
For two men and two women from each country, their scores also are being used toward this year’s edition of the Champion of Champions event, traditionally a standalone tournament.
The top four countries, based on the combined 24-game pinfall totals in each gender classification, plus the United States, will qualify for the 2022 World Games. Because that event is being held in Birmingham, Alabama, the United States gets an automatic spot as the host nation.
The Team USA representatives for the Champion of Champions event are Anderson, Russo, Bond and Coté.
Additionally, total pinfall for all six bowlers in Elite Championships competition, in their respective gender classifications, will determine the four men’s countries and four women’s countries that will head to the 2022 International Bowling Federation World Cup.
The World Cup previously featured one man and one woman from each country, but a change to the format will allow more competitors to become part of a tradition that spans more than five decades.
For complete standings, visit PANAMBowling.com.
For more information on Team USA, visit BOWL.com/TeamUSA.