The youngest of his four children, Amy took to the game like — well, you know. “I never really found the sport to be difficult,” she said.
By 12, she had her trusty red-and-white ball, engraved with her given name. By 15, she had a junior-level reputation as a fierce competitor with the exceptional hand-eye coordination required to consistently knock down a stubborn last pin 60 feet away. The junior records piled up: highest game (262); highest three-game set (567); highest average (145).
She played softball at American International College in Springfield, Mass.; graduated with a degree in elementary education; and promptly joined the professional duckpin tour. Reaching the finals of her first tournament, at Perillo’s Bowl-O-Drome in Waterbury, Conn., she faced an estimable opponent, Lynne Heller, a Hall of Famer who had recently bowled a 200 game.
Into that cocoon she slipped. All business. She won the tournament and, soon, a reputation.
A couple of years later, she wound up being matched with another bowler through the entirety of a weekend tournament. At the end of it, the other woman said she was glad to have spent time with her, adding, “You’re not the bitch that people say you are.”
Bisson Sykes remembers the moment as if it were yesterday: at Pinland Bowling Lanes, just outside Baltimore. “Back then I probably just closed myself off to that,” she said. “I was just there to bowl. But I think people took me as cocky.”
The tournament wins and records kept piling up. Then, in 2007, she met Stephen Sykes, a financial adviser, through mutual friends. Coming from Pittsfield in the Berkshires, he knew little of duckpin bowling and nothing of the superstar status of the woman he was now dating.
They married and moved to Pittsfield, just 60 miles — and a duckpin chasm — away from her father’s alley in Newington. “I thought I could handle it,” Bisson Sykes said. “I didn’t think that it would have the impact that it did.”
She gave birth to her first son, Benjamin, in 2009. Returned to the tour in 2010 and was named female bowler of the year (one of at least eight such honors). Gave birth to her second, Nathan, in 2011. And was named bowler of the year in 2012.
That same year, her father died, unexpectedly, at 65. He took a cup of coffee to his work area at the back of the lanes, where all those Sherman Pinsetters were clacking and whirring, and collapsed.
And the next year, in the spring of 2013, her younger son, Nathan, was found to have a brain tumor. After two brain operations and who knows how many consultations — a neurologist, a neurosurgeon, a neuro-oncologist, a neuro-ophthalmologist — it was determined that the tumor, sitting on his brainstem, was inoperable.
These days, no news is good news. Nathan was undergoing magnetic resonance imaging every few months, but now he has yearly intervals between scans and is monitored by doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He attends preschool, sings, dances and trails after his older, protective brother.
“A goofball, a spitfire,” Bisson Sykes said of Nathan. “He lights up the room.”
As Nathan, 4, illuminated a room in the Sykeses’ house, and as Benjamin, 6, dueled imaginary demons with his Star Wars saber, their mother went down to the basement. There, inside several plastic tubs stacked in a far corner, were the trophies and plaques that state her case as the world’s best female duckpin bowler. Once on display upstairs, they lost out to the playthings of children.
Mourning a Fading Pastime
Reading through a couple of old newspaper clippings, Bisson Sykes mourned a pastime inexorably slipping into memory. Here was an article featuring T-Bowl, her father’s bowling alley. Closed last year, it is now a furniture store.
“So many places are closing,” Bisson Sykes said. “People just don’t come out to bowl. Where is everybody going?”
Bisson Sykes knows at least where she will be for the Memorial Day weekend: at Turner’s Dual Lanes, in Hagerstown, Md., for the first tour stop of the women’s 2016 season. She has already paid her $115 entry fee.
She will be wearing a rubber bracelet on her right wrist that says, “Nate the Great.” And in her travel bag she will have all the essentials for a duckpin assassin:
The red-and-white ball she has carried with her since she was 12. Two other balls. A pair of Dexter bowling shoes, with the toe bottom worn away on the right shoe from so many follow-through curtsies. And a gray bowling shirt adorned with 19 stars.
It’s not the same as it was, of course. When she turned professional 16 years ago, she’d see 80, maybe 100 women competing in a tour. Now, maybe half that.
But she will enjoy herself, catching up with friendly adversaries, visiting an outlet mall, going to dinner with a few close duckpin pals. And when it’s time, she will lose herself in the fading, therapeutic endeavor of throwing a ball to knock things down.