Florida Feature by Nick Gandy, Florida Senior Games
For those unfamiliar with the geography of Florida, it stretches from the south end of the peninsula to the west end of the panhandle.
Most don’t realize it’s 5+ hours from the crossroads of Interstates 10 and 75 to Pensacola, which sits a bridge or two from the Alabama border.
The distance did not hinder nine Pensacola bowlers from making the effort to drive 10 hours from Northwest Florida to Southeast Florida.
“I had to stop and spend the night in Ocala,” said Lawrence Draeger, the patriarch of the group, now bowling in the 80-84 age group.
The group of nine who made the 651-mile trip includes athletes ranging in age from 60 to 85 and includes Tom Armstrong, Ginger Barbacovey, Ola (Kate) Briggs, Al Crockett, Lawrence Draeger, Ben Eaton, Theda Hicks, John Isreal and Robert Veit.
Draeger, the sage of the group because he’s been bowling for 68 years, lived in Pensacola since 1980 and serves as the First Vice President of the Pensacola Bowling Association and is a retired Navy veteran with service from 1961-1991.
Oh, and he’s one of only six bowlers to roll a Perfect 300 Game in the 30-year history of the Florida Senior Games, accomplishing the feat in 2011.
In the women’s singles events, Friday morning, Draeger was there to provide moral support for Ginger Barbacovey, Theda Hicks and Kate Briggs, before lacing up his bowling shoes for men’s singles in the afternoon.
It was the first National Senior Games for all three ladies and Briggs’ first venture into Senior Games Bowling. She began her journey at the Pensacola Senior Games last September and qualified for the 2021 Florida Senior Games, in December. Now she’s among the hundreds of bowlers at Sawgrass Lanes through next Thursday, also bowling in Women’s and Mixed Doubles in the 80-84 age group.
“This is a great group of people,” Briggs said before her singles competition. “I’ve been meeting some people in the lanes with me from different states, and no one is shy about talking to one another.”
Barbacovey and Hicks teamed to win a women’s doubles silver medal in the 60-64 age group at the 2021 Florida Senior Games, presented by Humana, and Briggs teamed with Draeger for a mixed doubles silver in the 80-84 age group.
At the 2019 National Senior Games, Draeger and partner Ben Heaton, bowled a gold-medal winning 1245 to establish an all-time best overall score in the 80-84 age group, 40 pins better than the previous high.
“I was just there with him,” Draeger said. “Ben did all the work with a 700+ series. I just filled in the rest.”
Draeger started bowling at 15 years old to “earn pocket money,” in Antigo, Wisconsin (120 miles northwest of Green Bay) , as a pin setter.
“It’s way out in the woods,” Draeger said of his hometown, which listed a population of just over 7,800 in 2018.
Between the 68 years he’s spent in bowling alleys and his 30 years in the Navy, as a Naval Education and Training Chief,” he’s bowled all over the world, including on a team in Japan.
“I was stationed there from 1970 to 1974 and found a bowling alley and just went in to bowl,” he said. “Next thing I know I’m on a team and we’re going from town to town for tournaments and I’m the only Gaijin in the tournament. We had fun.”
Drager is still having fun hurling his ball down the lanes, bowling at three different locations, four nights a week, in Pensacola. Same with Ola Briggs, who bowls in three different senior leagues in Pensacola. Same with Ginger Barbacovey and Theda Hicks, who traveled to Las Vegas recently for a national tournament.
Best of luck with that not so fun 651-mile drive back to Northwest Florida.