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O'Keefe perseveres, wins third PWBA Player of the Year award

  • 31 August 2022
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O'Keefe perseveres, wins third PWBA Player of the Year award

ARLINGTON, Texas - When the first event of the 2023 Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour season concludes, it will mark the 100th title presented since the relaunch of the tour in 2015.

So, what did we learn from the first 99 events over seven seasons?

By examining the numbers, it's easy to see that Shannon O'Keefe of Shiloh, Illinois, has been the athlete to beat on the PWBA Tour.

She's collected the most wins (15) and championship-round appearances (34). She's earned the tour's high-average award in both seasons it has been presented (2021 and 2022), and she capped the 2022 season by recording her third PWBA Player of the Year honor.

Numbers don't lie, but they also only tell part of the story.

The numbers can't quantify the heartbreak from her runner-up finish at the 2015 U.S. Women's Open and how that pushed her toward her first individual win on tour at the 2016 PWBA Sonoma County Open.

The numbers won't elaborate on her experience down the stretch of the 2018 season en route to her first player-of-the-year award and how it helped shape a new mindset and one of the top seasons in PWBA history in 2019.

In 2022, instead of keeping track of her single-digit finishes, the numbers were used to rank her pain levels from week to week as she fought through a left hip injury. 

O'Keefe has noted several times over her dominant stretch on tour that she prefers to look at her career as an entire body of work versus breaking things down season by season, but there's certainly a lot of pride in what she accomplished in 2022 - one win at the PWBA Twin Cities Open, seven stepladder appearances and a low finish of ninth place across 12 events against the top players in the world.

And despite what the numbers say in comparison to some of her other spectacular seasons, O'Keefe feels 2022 may be at the top of the list.

"It wasn't really until the season was completely over and people told me I won player of the year that I was like, 'Wow. How did I do that?' Dealing with the injury and the amount of pain I was in, I don't know how else I did it other than being mentally tough and compartmentalizing, not only day by day, but block by block, game by game, frame by frame.

"I believe this was my best season yet. It's probably hard for people to understand that since I won five times in 2019, but I feel like this was my best overall season based on finishes and the consistency of it."

Shannon O'KeefeThe hip injury that lingered during the 2022 season for O'Keefe traced back to the U.S. Women's Open in 2021. After just missing the show at the 56-game marathon last August, she visited her chiropractor and an orthopedic surgeon to examine the injury.

No structural issues were found, and a cortisone shot helped her conclude the 2021 season at the PWBA Fall Classic Series in Reno, Nevada, which included a fifth-place finish at the season-ending PWBA Tour Championship.

As the calendar prepared to turn to 2022 with the United States Bowling Congress Team USA Trials slated for early January, she reaggravated the hip injury. A second cortisone shot didn't offer the same help, however. She tried everything she could to find relief during the five-day event in Las Vegas, but things didn't get better as time passed and the PWBA season approached.

"It was right at the very top of my IT band at the base of my hip bone, and it hurt as I started to go into my finish position - not the ideal time or place for it to hurt if you're trying to bowl," O'Keefe said. "I was taping it constantly, using a Theragun, foam rolling, ice, heat, stretching - anything I could think of to manage to get through Team Trials.

"I rested it again, but the pain wasn't going away. I was able to get an MRI, but that wasn't until March, so we were closing in toward the start of the season and I had hardly been able to practice or do any workouts, so I was stressing out a lot. I remember trying to do release drills one day, and I couldn't even do that without massive amounts of pain. I remember crying. It was like six weeks before the tour started, and I told Bryan (O'Keefe) I didn't know how I could get through the season if I can't even do these."

The MRI results came back showing no structural damage, but there still wasn't a solution at the time to her exact diagnosis or a method to let her compete pain free.

A third cortisone shot offered temporary relief as the season got underway at the PWBA Rockford Open in May, but the drive back to Shiloh after making the CBS Sports Network final and finishing in fifth place proved challenging.

The next event - the USBC Queens - still offered plenty of pain to her hip as she managed to finish tied for ninth in the double-elimination bracket, but O'Keefe also came to the realization that a combination of heat and time allowed her hip to loosen up. It still wasn't an ideal fix, but it was a small step in the right direction.

"We started to notice that the pain was really terrible at first, but once my muscles and stuff around there loosened up, the pain somewhat subsided," O'Keefe said. "I thought a heating pad might be the best way to loosen it before a squad, so I started that about 30 minutes before the squad, along with all the other things I was doing. 

"Multiple times at the Queens, I was an entire game in and in so much pain that I was fighting to get through the game. It was frustrating, but the heating pad was helping, so this was going to be the way during the summer."

With a plan in place, she recorded her 15th career title at the Twin Cities Open the next week, running the ladder at Cedarvale Lanes in Eagan, Minnesota, for her second win at the 32-lane center (2019).

The following three weeks included a sixth-place finish at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Open, seventh at the Long Island Classic, a pair of third-place finishes at the BowlTV Classic and BVL Classic and fourth at the U.S. Women's Open.

At each event, O'Keefe understood she had to bide her time as her hip loosened up, giving her mental toughness the opportunity to shine.

"It took a lot of patience and having a really strong mental game to realize and tell myself it's OK to have a few bad shots," O'Keefe said. "I pride myself on shot execution, so it was a mental struggle at times. With all those months of not being able to physically practice, I shifted my focus to the mental side of things, and I'm grateful I did. I have a strong faith in God, and I just believe every obstacle is an opportunity. I feel like the obstacle of my hip allowed me to focus my energies in a way I may have been lacking in other seasons, so it was an opportunity to dive into that side of things."

At the conclusion of the U.S. Women's Open, O'Keefe was at the top of the season-long points list, which determines the winner of the PWBA Player of the Year each season, and had more than a month until the next tour event on the schedule.

She had one Team USA event on the radar in early July (World Games) during the break. Prior to winning gold in singles and silver in doubles with fellow PWBA Tour champion Julia Bond at the World Games, O'Keefe received some encouraging news on her hip from her chiropractor.

"After I got home from the U.S. Women's Open, I sat down with my chiropractor, and he said that while I was gone, he was recertified in active release techniques through his mentor in Colorado," O'Keefe said. "They also talked specifically about my case and looked at all of my results from the MRI. The last thing they could come up with was that we needed to work my psoas and stretch my hip flexors.

"Before the World Games, we were working on my hip flexors and psoas, and it relieved so much of the pain. I still notice it, but with the stretches my chiropractor gave me, along with the foam rolling and other stretches I do, I was able to get through the rest of the season without really any issues. It was crazy to go through that whole thing for it to possibly only be a shortened hip flexor due to my lack of flexibility, but at the end of the day, it's nice to know there's no major structural damage."

With the new outlook on her hip, O'Keefe took care of business to lock up player-of-the-year honors at the PWBA Dallas Classic Series in early August. She made two more shows and just missed another, finishing third at the Dallas Classic, sixth at the Pepsi Classic and fifth at the Tour Championship.

Following her time at USA Bowl in Dallas, she headed to Rio de Janeiro to put the finishing touches on her career as part of Team USA, earning a medal in each event and claiming a pair of golds at the PANAM Bowling Champion of Champions.

It marked the end of an 18-year stretch as part of the program dating back to 2005, which will allow her additional time to focus on her position as head coach of the women's bowling program at McKendree University, cheer on her husband, Bryan O'Keefe, in his role as the head coach of Team USA and continue to put the work into her game to find success on the PWBA Tour.

Bryan's presence, along with the chance to reunite with Storm's Shawn Ryan and Jim Callahan and work with Matt McNiel, played a big part in her success and comfort on and off the lanes during the 2022 season.

The journey to reach the end of the year and finish at the top offered a different path compared to her other player-of-the-year campaigns, but when it's time to look ahead to the next challenge, O'Keefe knows she can't stand still based on that previous success.

She's motivated by the athletes she sees on the collegiate level looking to join her on the PWBA Tour and is constantly pushed by those who already have ascended to the professional ranks.

"I'm so grateful that we have such talented, young players," O'Keefe said. "I see how hard these girls work, and it's a continual reminder that I can't let up. What worked this year no longer is good enough for next year, so I'm going to have to elevate what I'm doing. I'm grateful for all these young and talented girls that constantly keep pushing me and don't even realize it. The tour is bright, and these young girls are good and going to win a lot. It's really cool to be able to watch."

O'Keefe's third PWBA Player of the Year award allowed her to join Lisa Wagner, Wendy Macpherson and Liz Johnson as the only competitors to win the postseason award three times since its introduction in 1983. Macpherson is the only player to win the award on four occasions.

While the numbers may be something O'Keefe reflects on at the end of her career, her spot alongside the likes of Wagner, Macpherson and Johnson is something she doesn't take lightly.

"When I was a 17-year-old little girl who decided she wanted to bowl, my dad and I would watch the PWBA on Thursday nights," O'Keefe said. "I remember watching all of those women and thinking they were amazing. They were my idols, and I wanted to chase those dreams over the years. I never would have thought as a 17-year-old girl that my name would be in the history book with those women, and it's truly humbling."

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