Brittney Schnicke’s first thought as she stared at her limp, badly damaged fingers was not whether she would be able to keep them, or how the accident would affect her future.
And it wasn’t whether she would ever regain normal use of the fingers. It was whether she would ever be able to return to her beloved sport of bowling.
“My first words were that I was scared bowling was done,” Brittney recalled of the incident in her sophomore year at Caledonia High School.
She was far from done, as it turned out. Through surgery and arduous rehabilitation, a determined Brittney actually improved her skills. She scored an upset victory in the state high school championship in March, competed in U.S. Bowling Congress tourneys later this spring and looks forward to competing in Cleveland this summer.
She also looks forward to college and studying natural resources, after having graduated May 25. All this after having recovered from an accident that threatened to end one of her chief joys in life.
Grads with Grit is a series about students who have had to overcome unusual challenges and hardships to graduate this spring
It happened while she was pushing a piece of wood through a jointer saw in woodshop class. The wood got caught in a guard, causing two fingers on her left hand — the one she uses to grip the ball — to slip into the saw.
At the time — on a Friday the 13th, no less — after paramedics had rushed her from the school to the hospital, her fear wasn’t unreasonable.
Brittney’s ring finger had been severed to the first joint, while a second was also severely cut. Her mother, Michelle, met her daughter at the hospital not knowing how badly she was hurt, but assumed the injury was minor.
“I didn’t know how bad it was, then I was in disbelief,” Michelle recalled. “You don’t think this can happen to your child.”
A New Challenge
One piece of good news the family received was that doctors considered the cuts “clean.” Brittney underwent surgery in which doctors added a skin graft, and the procedure went well enough that they predicted she would be able to return to bowling. After gaining medical clearance to bowl, there was still one problem. And it was far from minor in Brittney’s mind.
A bowler since she was 7, Brittney had a promising future in the sport. Her father, Chuck, had worked diligently with her: not just how to hook shots and lift and speed up the ball, but how to master the mental side of being an athlete. He impressed on his daughter that athletes must not only conquer the physical part of sports, but must face down adversity en route to success.
Those were lessons that Brittney took to heart, said her coach, Eric Bottrall.
“She’s a special kid, a battler, but there were lot of tears,” Bottrall said. “I don’t think even she realized what she could do.”
The problem was that Brittney, hampered by the effects of the accident, wasn’t content to be an average bowler. She had qualified for the Michigan High School Athletic Association state meet as a freshman, while becoming arguably the best bowler in the OK Gold conference. Outside of high school, she bowled in more than a dozen tournaments a year from fall to spring.
“I liked the competition,” she said. “Head-to-head, that’s what I like.”
The family researched Brittney’s next step and eventually determined that her ball would have to be re-drilled to accommodate her fingers. She initially struggled with thechange, physically and mentally. At times she feared her best bowling days were behind her.
“I didn’t think I was going to be as good,” Brittney admitted. “I thought my average would go way down and I wouldn’t be able to help the team.”
The Power of Confidence
But then something strange happened. It turned out the surgery and re-drilling of the ball had left her with a new talent. She was able to throw her ball with a new hook that gave her shots more turn and lift. Her scores, instead of tanking, were actually raised.
“I was doing well and that gave me confidence. I practiced nearly every day and I got back in the groove,” said Brittney. “I had a lot of teammates supporting me, which helped me get better.”
Brittney wound up qualifying for the state meet as a sophomore, then won the regional but lost in the second round as a junior. Still, she insisted her comeback couldn’t be complete without winning a state championship in her senior season.
Brittney qualified for the state individual meet in March, but was seeded just 11th of 16 bowlers in Division 1. Stunningly, she upset the sixth and seventh seeds to make the finals in Sterling Heights against Natalie Klein of Brighton. She beat Klein, 440-404.
The win marked an incredible three-year turnabout for Brittney, from wondering if she would meander through life with severely damaged fingers to becoming just one of four individual state champs.
It was a comeback that left even Brittney stunned.
“I was surprised even to be there,” she said of the finals. “But I’m proud of myself to come back all that way.”
Bottrall insisted he was one of the few who, because of Brittney’s tenacity and talent, believed she could return to form. Brittney’s story is a lesson for those who don’t surrender to adversity, whose dreams refuse to be crushed, he said.
“I pictured she could do this,” he said. “She put a lot of time into it and we kept telling her, ‘Why give up now?'”
The end of the high school season made a small dent in Brittney’s schedule. She competed in the U.S. Bowling Congress’ city and state tournaments and in a Pepsi tournament in Muskegon. Brittney, who bowls in Thursday and Saturday leagues at Spectrum Lanes, also will compete in Cleveland in July’s Junior Gold tournament.
Michelle said her daughter loves the busy schedule. “She would bowl every day of the week if she could.”
A Bright Future
Brittney’s bowling career won’t end with graduation. She will attend Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska, where she will major in criminal justice and also bowl for the NAIA program. College will further her longtime dream of working for the Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s something I’ve always liked,” she said. “Being outdoors and making sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
After all she’s been through, Brittney said she couldn’t give up bowling. She’s confident she can compete at the next level.
“I’m excited to go out there, though I was nervous because it’s so far from home,” she said. “Some colleges’ programs are better than others. I don’t know if I can bowl (at a higher level), but I’ve worked with the coach and I think I have a good chance.”
As she begins making plans for college, Brittney said she looks back at what she went through and she’s thankful for the new chances she’ll have beginning in the fall.
“It definitely taught me about going through rough patches,” she said. “But you learn to strive to be better than you were before.”