DUBAI, United Arab Emirates –In most sports, you’re either the player or the coach, but not usually both. Sometimes, you start your career as a player and transition into a leadership role once your playing days are over.
For Bob Learn Jr., the month of November has been a rewarding whirlwind that has allowed him to wear multiple hats, and jerseys, while enjoying the many facets of the sport he has loved for a lifetime.
Two weeks ago, he was in Georgia coaching his Tennessee Southern men’s team to a win at the 2021 Bowlero Southern Collegiate Classic, the first Tier I title in the program’s history.
Now, he’s thousands of miles away competing for Senior Team USA in the 2021 International Bowling Federation Masters World Championships, where he has secured two match-play appearances in as many opportunities.
The 59-year-old right-hander averaged more than 227 over five games Saturday at the Dubai International Bowling Centre to advance to singles match play, which will take place Monday.
Learn’s 1,136 block Saturday nearly matched his 1,133 effort in Thursday’s opening round. His 10-game total of 2,269 was seventh in the 79-player field. Based on total pinfall, the top 32 have advanced to match play.
“I started off strong today but got into some trouble in Game 4, which cost me a few spots, but I’m glad to be moving on, and I hope it works out that we’re all in different pods, so we can maximize our chances at the medals,” Learn said. “I’m seeing the lanes well overall, but a lot of others are, too. It’s a very competitive field, but I like our chances.”
Team USA’s Chris Barnes, who is making his debut at the IBF Masters World Championships was the top qualifier with a 2,488 total, a 248.8 average for his 10 games, which included one of the day’s two 300 games. Sweden’s Stefan Yngstrom had the other.
Barnes had blocks of 1,193 and 1,295 to earn the top spot in the standings.
As a longtime member of Team USA, he became the first of two bowlers in history to roll multiple 300s at the IBF Men’s/Super World Championships, which came in 2010 and 2013, respectively.
Team USA’s Tom Hess and Parker Bohn III also qualified for match play Saturday in Dubai. They finished second and eighth with 2,473 and 2,263 totals.
Norway’s Tore Torgersen was third with 2,378, Yngstrom was fourth with 2,322 and Sweden’s Peter Ljung rounded out the top five with 2,288.
It took an average of 205.5 to make the top 32.
On the women’s side, Tuula Tamminen of Finland led the way with a 2,122 total, a 212.2 average.
Team USA’s Tish Johnson was second with 2,090 and followed by her teammate Debbie Ayers (2,081) and the Canadian duo of Lisa Morabito (2,080) and Jill Friis (2,066).
Team USA’s Sharon Powers was sixth with 2,065, and Tracy Calfee finished in 22nd place with 1,830. It took an average of 180 to make the cut.
As the veteran of the women’s squad from the United States, Johnson’s teammates have acknowledged how instrumental her leadership has been in their early success, and the left-hander always is happy to help others find comfort and success.
But, as much as Johnson wants to see her teammates do well, the mindset for singles will change now that qualifying is over.
“I threw the ball a lot better today, though I didn’t score as well, and I’m happy to be moving on to the next round,” said Johnson, who earned a singles bronze medal at the IBF Masters World Championships in 2019. “I’m glad the others bowled well, too, and I’m hoping it’ll work out that we’re all in separate pods for match play. But, as much as I’m a team player, when it comes to the rest of singles, I want the gold, and I’m going for it.”
Overall, Johnson is feeling comfortable on the lanes, even after not bowling as much in 2021 following surgery on her left knee.
Learn also has not been at 100%, but his tweaked back is improving each day, and he feels great overall.
After helping hoist the trophy at the Brunswick Southern Collegiate Classic and making the 14-hour trip from New York to Dubai, Learn’s first night in the hotel was spent on a rollaway bed, which left him feeling some discomfort.
He then tweaked his back while at the bowling center for official practice Wednesday.
Perhaps it was karma for all he gives to the sport of bowling, or for letting Barnes have the king-size bed in their room, Learn was able to get some relief from a chiropractor who happened to be in Dubai with one of the Team USA athletes from the Para Bowling World Championships.
Julet Hutchens, the wife of team member Eddy Hutchens, help Learn get back into bowling shape, just a few hours before the para athletes headed home to the United States.
Eddy Hutchens earned three gold medals and a silver medal at the inaugural Para Bowling World Championships, and the Team USA contingent still was in Dubai for a day of sightseeing.
Being able to compete and coach means the world to Learn, who gets support – both in life and in coaching – from his own wife, Stacey.
Finding a balance in his personal preparation and the success of his collegiate team takes strategy and time, but he’s hoping it pays off in gold medals this week in Dubai.
“We’ve got a really talented squad, including some who have been with me for a while, and they’ve worked incredibly hard at it,” Learn said. “We’re really at the point where I think we have enough experience and knowledge of the game that these guys believe it, and they’re performing like they believe it. Being able to coach and bowl takes balance, and coming here and bowling well makes it all worth it.”
Learn’s focus in Dubai so far this weekend is two-fold as well.
The spotlight will shift back to doubles Sunday morning for match play and the quarterfinals, and all four Team USA duos made the cut. The doubles fields were cut to the top 16 in each classification, also based on 10-game pinfall totals.
The singles match play, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals will take place Monday.
The doubles qualifiers will be divided into four groups of four teams.
Each group will include four teams, and they’ll all bowl three games of round-robin matches, allowing them to face everyone in the group one time each.
Points will be awarded for each win, and the top two teams in each group, based on points, will advance to the bracket-style quarterfinals.
The quarterfinals, semifinals and finals all will be one-game matches at the Masters World Championships.
Learn is bowling with Bohn, Barnes and Hess teamed up, Johnson and Powers are a team and Ayers and Calfee are the final tandem.
Doubles is using the Baker format, during which, the team members will alternate frames to complete a single game. Team competition this week also will feature a modified Baker format.
“We won doubles last time (Munich in 2017) and have always bowled well together, so I’m excited to have the opportunity again,” Learn said. “We have a good synergy, and I’d like to have a chance to repeat it. I think the way we bowled yesterday shows we definitely have a chance to do that.”
Singles will follow a similar format, with the 32 players being divided into groups of eight.
Two dozen countries are being represented at the 2021 IBF Masters World Championships, and they are competing across two age classifications – 50 and older and 65 and above. Team USA only is competing in the 50-and-older division.
Each country at the 2021 IBF Masters World Championships can have a maximum of four men and four women in each age classification.
IBF is providing livestream coverage and results at StrikeCloud.com.
This week, Team USA is looking to defend the men’s singles, men’s doubles and men’s team titles, as well as doubles and team on the women’s side.
The United States has swept the team gold medals for the last three editions of the event (2019, 2017, 2015).
For more information about IBF, visit bowling.sport.