By Susan Harman
Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – Kalen Rios’s keychain jangled as he dropped it on the table before practice at Colonial Lanes. Attached was a miniature bowling pin and a new adornment, the medal he won as the boys individual champion at the state-qualifying meet last Tuesday in Cedar Rapids.
Rios’ improbable rise from a 130 bowler to a contender for a state championship has come in a shorter time than it takes this country to elect a President.
The West High senior appeared to be on a different athletic path as he grew up.
“He always played baseball in the summer on traveling teams,” said Kalen’s father, Justin Rios. “And basketball when he was younger too. He never really showed a lot of interest in bowling.”
However, Kalen’s transfer from Regina to Class 4A West High short-circuited his baseball career as a sophomore.
“I really thought he would be playing baseball,” his dad said. “When he was at Regina he played on the freshman team and the JV team. I think he was really looking to replace that void with something.”
What to do?
“When I didn’t make the baseball team (my dad) said, ‘Well, you should do a sport,” Kalen recalled.
Although he was quick he had little endurance, and track didn’t appeal to him. He didn’t have the size for basketball. Dad suggested bowling. Kalen said he wasn’t very good but had a high game of 205 just goofing around with friends.
“(Justin) said, ‘that’s pretty good; how’d you do that?’ And I said the kid next to me was making faces and so I (had six strikes) in a row,” Kalen said. “I get very competitive.”
So Kalen decided to give it a whirl, not really knowing what he was doing.
“Rumor had it that when he first started bowling here he picked a ball off the rack and it had four holes in it and everybody laughed at him,” West coach Mike Mellecker said. (For the uninitiated, three holes are customary.)
“He told me a year ago he was going to try out for the West High bowling team,” Justin said. “I didn’t really know he could bowl. And then when he told me he had an opportunity to bowl on the varsity I kind of joked with him and said, ‘Well I don’t think your team is probably very good if you’re going to be on the varsity and you’ve never really bowled except maybe two or three times a year.’”
Justin was a multi-sport, all-state caliber athlete at Regina and is also a champion bowler, called “the golden arm” somewhat facetiously within the family. He uses a conventional one-arm swing delivery, but Kalen developed his own two-handed style.
“I didn’t start out very long ago, and I always bowled one-handed with a straight ball,” Kalen said. “Then my friend and I went to the bowling alley and I threw two-handed, dinking around, and it worked out.
“My dad said, ‘Well, you’re not terrible like that.’ My grandpa gave me this pair of really old white shoes. They call me Willie “White Shoes” Johnson.” And he was set.
The two-handed style was popularized and legitimized by professional Jason Belmonte. It produces a hook with great rotation and speed.
“I got to see him in his first meet using the two-handed style, and I thought there’s a lot of potential there,” Justin said. “So with some time and with some coaching and with his grandpa too, he’s come a long way in a short time. I’m proud of him for that. I still tell him he’s got a long ways to go.”
Last season, his junior year, was his first as a high-school bowler. Kalen admits he bowled a 132 in his first meet. But even then he committed himself to practice, after meets, in his spare time and in youth leagues.
He eventually improved enough to compete for the sixth spot in the six-man varsity rotation. As a junior he averaged 168 with a 203 high game, still a far cry from this season, where he set the school record with his 523 two-game series at the state-qualifying meet.
Kalen’s improvement, while extraordinary, is no mystery.
“He worked real hard over the summer. He’d come in daily over the summer,” Mellecker said.
Kalen got a job at Colonial Lanes and as a perk he bowls for free. With the help of his father and grandfather and the constant practice, he remade himself as an athlete.
“There’ s more to it than just grabbing the ball and throwing it down the lane,” Justin said. “That’s where he was in the beginning. Now working at a bowling alley, being around bowlers all the time, being able to discuss it and understand it, he’s understanding the mental part of the game.”
The mental and emotional aspects of the game came slower.
“Bowling is a mental game also,” Mellecker said. “He had some problems as far as getting focused and what to do. Just like any other kid he lost focus. One game he’d do really good and the next game he didn’t. But this year he’s got everything together.
“He takes it seriously but he has some fun with it. He finally got it out of his system to not get mad at it.”
Kalen had to learn to rein in his natural outgoing personality. He’s a talker. Some people speak in sentences; Kalen speaks in chapters. While coaches don’t want to suppress that kind of enthusiasm, they try to channel it so it’s not a distraction. He has learned to control his emotions while competing.
The other thing that’s helped in his meteoric rise is his internal drive, stoked by a junior season in which he had to earn the last spot on the team.
“I’ve never felt like I was the guy here,” he said. “I have the mentality that I’m not guaranteed anything.”
He’s earned his spot in Wednesday’s 3A state tournament in Des Moines with the second-highest qualifying total. He’ll have two games to see if he can approach the magic he found at the state-qualifying meet.
“This year bowling has been exciting,” Kalen said. “I told my grandpa and my dad when we went out to eat after (the meet) it didn’t really set in that I won until we sat down and started eating and started talking about it. I just smiled, and I was like ‘Wow, I did it.’ I still don’t understand how I did that.”