Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
By Alexa Stanard
Here are a couple of fun facts about Detroit: It’s the Mecca of the bowling world, and home to the all-time best female bowler in the country.
Aleta Sill, the first female bowler to earn $1 million in prize money in the sport, is in seven halls of fame. She’s the only bowler, male or female, to win the sport’s Triple Crown twice.
“My grandparents were league bowlers and they took me with them one night (when I was five),” Sill said. “They let me throw a ball afterwards. I was hooked from that point.”
Sill started touring right after she graduated from high school in 1980. Soon she was knocking out up to two dozen tournaments a year. At the end of 1998, the Professional Bowlers Association alerted her that she was on track to earn $1 million in prize winnings.
Katrina Hancock, a sports reporter for WDIV, featured Sill on “Sports Final Edition” in 2008 when she was inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame. She ran the story because “Winning over a million dollars in sports as a woman is huge. It’s something you don’t see very often,” she said. “She’s a good role model for ladies. You don’t have to be in basketball or volleyball or track. You can make a good living in bowling.”
Not long after her big feat, Sill met Michelle Mullen, who won several national titles and is one of five gold-level female bowling coaches in the world. Like Sill, Mullen, a Chicago-area native, was introduced to bowling by her grandparents. By high school she was on a team that won the state title. At the University of Illinois she became a collegiate champion and began to tour after she graduated.
Mullen’s heart, though, was in coaching. She learned the craft while on tour and founded a coaching company with a partner, touring the country. She heard good things about Sill’s coaching and invited her to coach a bowling clinic with her in Chicago.
“We had known each other on tour but we barely spoke,” Mullen said. “We just both are quiet.”
The women found their voices during the weekend spent coaching together. Sill and Mullen became so engrossed in conversation at the airport that Sill missed her flight home. It was the last one of the night. By the next day, the two had another visit planned for the following weekend. A year later, Mullen moved to metro Detroit.
“We’re having a great time, getting to know each other,” Sill said.
The beginning of the women’s relationship coincided with a decline in Sill’s career. After hitting the $1 million mark in 1999, bowling equipment began to change, which made it hard for Sill to stay competitive without making significant changes in her game.
“There just wasn’t enough money for me to stay out there and make changes and try to make a living,” she said. “You’re paid on how you perform. If I didn’t bowl well that week, I didn’t get a check. 2001 was a very bad year. At the end I’d just had it. When you play at a certain level… and get your butt beat every week, that was enough for me.”
She retired from professional bowling and began to focus on coaching. She and Mullen started Your Bowling Coach with two partners and based the operation out of Country Lanes in Farmington Hills. They coach on-site and travel to clients, using software that records players during their game so they can scrutinize their technique. Sill and Mullen eventually bought the company. Now, they give about 800 private lessons a year in addition to summer camps and clinics. In 2003, they opened a pro shop at Country Lanes called Aleta Sill’s Bowling World.
The women’s successes haven’t inured them to discrimination or being underappreciated. Despite Sill’s iconic status, Hancock was the first TV reporter to run a story on her.
During their professional careers, the women kept their private lives private. Colleagues knew they were a couple, but it wasn’t discussed openly.
“Anything that mattered to me I pretty much kept to myself,” Mullen said. “Besides, I don’t think being a professional woman bowler or a professional coach as a woman was the most ‘in’ thing 25 years ago.”
Even today, being female and gay can pose obstacles.
“We worried when we opened (the store), Will guys want to come to us because we’re girls?” Sill said. “And one of our competitors has been making [homophobic] remarks to our customers. Like I can’t throw a bowling ball because I’m gay.”
“You just have to try to be better,” Mullen said. “You try to treat people right.”
But it’s also the community that’s helped make the game fun again for Sill. After a hiatus of several years, Sill returned to bowling when a couple of friends invited her to join a gay league. “It’s strictly for fun,” she said. “I just go to socialize. I was in adult leagues at 15. I didn’t do collegiate bowling. There were times when I was bowling three nights a week and I started at 9 at night. Bowling was fun, but it was a job. It was all about money. Now it’s different.”
The couple also sponsored the International Gay Bowling Organization’s annual Motown Invitational Classic this year. It was their first time getting involved in a public LGBT event; Sill said the experience “was really good.”
The couple, who own four cats and four dogs (all rescues), also are enthusiastic supporters of animal welfare organizations. They host a yearly fund-raiser, Bowl for Animal Rescue, which benefits the Dearborn Animal Shelter and the Michigan Animal Adoption Network, and they also collect animal supplies for the Animal Care Network.
Hancock, who has broadcast live from Bowl for Animal Rescue for the past three years, said Sill and Mullen deserve to be appreciated for their accomplishments and commitment to metro Detroit.
“Sill is a pioneer in the sport,” Hancock said. “She definitely has had an impact on young women getting into bowling, and she’s teaching them now, along with Michelle. That’s the main thing – she’s now giving back to our community. She’s made her money and now she’s doing something with her talents to give back. They both are doing that.
“They’re good people, that’s the bottom line.”