BATON ROUGE, La. - The last time Sylvester Thiel of Lake City, Minn., was at the Baton Rouge River Center, he celebrated 60 years of United States Bowling Congress Open Championships participation and earned his way into the tournament's elite 100,000-Pin Club.
Seven years later, the 89-year-old right-hander returned to the River Center and continued his climb toward the top of the event's participation and pinfall lists as he competed for the 67th time.
Thiel now is the active participation leader at the USBC Open Championships after breaking a tie with Les Berry of Wooster, Ohio, who also bowled in 66 tournaments, but isn't scheduled to compete this year. USBC Hall of Famer Joe Norris of San Diego and Bill Doehrman of Fort Wayne, Ind., share the participation record of 71 years.
"It's such an honor to be chasing after Joe Norris and Bill Lillard (active pinfall leader)," said Thiel, who made his Open Championships debut at the 1940 event in Detroit. "I just hope I can condition myself to reach 71. I feel that I'm in decent health, and I'll reach 92 or 93 years of age. I don't have any ailments, and the doctors say things are looking good."
Thiel entered the 2012 event eighth on the all-time pinfall list, but turned in scores of 362 in team, 332 in doubles and 309 in singles for a 1,003 all-events total and moved past Don Ellis (109,072), Glenn Allison (109,509), Doehrman (109,566) and Dick Weber (109,745) to fourth with a career pinfall of 109,942.
Norris tops the pinfall list with 123,770 and is followed by fellow hall of famer Bill Lillard Sr., who recently made his 65th tournament appearance (120,015) and Jimmy Schroeder (112,478). Schroeder, Ellis and Allison, also USBC Hall of Famers, all are expected to compete later in this year's tournament.
"Honestly, I just go out there now and think about bowling," said Thiel, who cherishes the opportunity to bowl doubles at the Open Championships with his wife, Phyllis. "I wasn't out there today thinking about reaching a pinnacle of any kind. At this point in my career, I don't feel the pressure anymore. I just try to make sure I practice more so I can be ready."
Although Thiel does not score on the lanes the way he once did, he still practices one day each week and bowls every Friday in a senior league that travels across southeastern Minnesota. He also is happy to share memories about when he was at his best, bowling alongside the likes of Lillard and Don Carter in Detroit-area leagues and tournaments.
With 67 years now in the books at the Open Championships, Thiel is focused on staying healthy and sharp, so he can log tournament No. 68 next March at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nev.
"I owe a lot of this to my friends and teammates," said Thiel, who spent more than 40 years as a ball driller and nearly a decade as a bowling proprietor. "I told them I'd quit, since I don't score very high anymore, but they won't have it. I admire and appreciate them for sticking with me."
Sponsors for the 2012 USBC Open Championships include Circus Circus Reno, Eldorado Hotel Casino Reno and Silver Legacy Resort Casino Reno. Other sponsors include the Belle of Baton Rouge, official brackets sponsor; Kegel, official lane maintenance provider; Humana, official registration sponsor; Bud Light and Budweiser, official beer sponsors; The Advocate, official publication sponsor; Brunswick, official lane provider; Steltronic, official scoring system; Storm Bowling Products and Nationwide Insurance.