By Randy Kindred

Bowling has found its way to Sam Angelo’s heart. The 20-year-old from Wheaton has immersed himself in the sport, faithfully attending practices with the Wheaton District 200 Flying Tigers and bowling regularly on weekends.

The dedication led to Angelo’s participation Saturday in the Special Olympics Illinois State Bowling Tournament. He was among more than 250 competitors at Peoria’s Landmark Lanes, placing fifth in the M10 division.

His first trip to state had him smiling from ear to ear.

“I was just excited,” he said. “I was just glad that I made it this far. I didn’t get first place, but making it to state is good for me. There’s always next year.”

Angelo was the lone state qualifier among the Flying Tigers’ 15 bowlers at regional competition. He has improved steadily, recently rolling a personal-best game of 159.

Saturday, he had games of 99, 104 and 80 with his parents, Jim and Dawn Angelo, and his coach, Dana Eden, cheering him on.

“It (bowling) is challenging,” Sam said. “On a bunch of Saturdays, I went bowling with friends. When I started on the bowling team, my average was 70. But lately, I’ve been getting over 100.”

Repeatedly Saturday, Angelo held his fingers an inch or two apart after narrowly missing a spare and said happily, “I was this close.” His outlook remained upbeat throughout.

That was no surprise to Eden.

“He’s a joy to be with and always stays on the positive side, not dwelling on the negative,” she said. “He’s a very focused bowler, but he has so much sportsmanship. Every time we’re bowling, he’s cheering someone else on. He sets the best example that way.”

Angelo was on the tennis team at Wheaton North High School and played Special Olympics basketball in the past. Bowling is his sport now, in part because of the individual aspect of it.

“He likes that he depends on himself,” his father said. “He doesn’t have to worry about anybody else, he doesn’t have to worry about anybody judging him.

“In a basketball game, you have a referee judging what’s going on. Here, there’s nobody judging him. You can’t take something away from him. That’s what he likes the most.”

Sam is independent in many ways. He has worked for two years at Mariano’s, a grocery store a half-mile from his house. He often drives himself there. Among his duties are bagging groceries, gathering shopping carts and, on occasion, emptying trash cans.

“Doing the trash cans … I hate that job,” he said, smiling.

You also should know this. Sam is, in his father’s words, “a root beer aficionado.”

“He can tell you which ones are the good ones and which are great ones,” Jim Angelo said. “I don’t think he’s had a bad one.”

“He knows his root beer,” Dawn Angelo added. “He wins the competition every year at school. They do a contest like, ‘Which is which?’ It’s like Pepsi and Coke (Challenge), that old thing. He knows which one it is.”

Sam Angelo didn’t win Saturday. Yet, with a kind heart, warm smile and giving spirit, he’s winning in the ways that matter.

“We are so lucky to have him,” his mother said. “He is just wonderful.”

College Athletes Lend Hand

Volunteers from the Eureka College and Illinois Central College athletic programs helped with the tournament. Eureka College softball and baseball players assisted bowlers in the morning shift, while athletes from ICC did so in the afternoon.

The event was rewarding for Eureka College’s Alayla Thornton, a sophomore softball player.

“I love it, especially because I’m an elementary education major and a special education major,” she said.

“It gives me more experience and it’s so exciting to see the smiles on their faces when they do well. Even when they don’t, they’re really happy to be here.”

Teammate Klaire Morris, a senior, said the Red Devils “love doing this kind of thing.”

“Just being out in the community and helping out … we’re big on that,” Morris said. “We do a lot of different things with the team. It really helps us as a team and helps our community.”

Click here to learn more or see results from the 2023 State Bowling Tournament.