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Career dreams still coming true for Liz Johnson

This is the third in a series of stories profiling the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2015.

By Owen O’Brien

News Sports Reporter

What did you want to be when you were 5 years old? Maybe an astronaut, professional dancer or cowboy? Most likely, you’ve gone in a different direction from those childhood dreams.

Not Liz Johnson.

Johnson has been a professional bowler since 1996. She continues to not only live, but excel in her dream job. On Nov. 4, she will be inducted to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

“I’m one of the luckiest people in the world,” Johnson said. “I get to do what I love and love what I do and make a living at it.”

Johnson’s career accomplishment list is rather long. She’s a two-time U.S. Amateur champion, three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion with seven regional titles, 14 national titles, more than 60 perfect games and a gold medal as a member of Team USA. In 2010, U.S. Bowler named her “Female Bowler of the Decade.”

Johnson comes from a bowling family. With an older brother and sister, Johnson’s parents would often take them to Beverly Lanes in Niagara Falls, a mile away from their home. Johnson said bowling is all she did throughout childhood.

She knew at a young age that she had a knack for the sport. Johnson averaged 200 at 13 years old. When she bowled in high school and junior programs, Johnson was beating boys and girls four and five years older.

“We kind of always knew there was some kind of talent there,” Johnson said. “I was very fortunate that bowling was just a very natural sport for me.”

Johnson grew up watching Professional Bowlers Tour matches on TV on Saturday morning and watched women’s tournaments Wednesday nights.

It didn’t take her long for her to become one of the featured competitors.

One of her standout moments is in 2005 when she became the first woman to compete in a PBA men’s show in Grand Rapids, Mich. The match was shown on live TV and Johnson came in second, behind legendary bowler Tommy Jones.

Said Johnson, “That show always gave me big chills and I was super excited for that.”

Bowling also gave her the chance to travel the world. Johnson has competed in Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Columbia, France and Denmark. She’s also competed in Germany three times.

In 1994, at 20 years old, she won the gold with Team USA at the World Tenpin Team Cup in Malaysia. It was a five-person team and each bowler bowled two of the 10 frames. They bowled 95 games total with that format.

“It may not be physically draining,” Johnson said, “but mentally it’s one of the most exhausting tournaments you will ever bowl.

“It was a pretty amazing event to be able to be on the team with the gold medal team, bowling against the best bowlers in the world.”

As a professional, it’s a lot more of a grueling sport than one may think from watching it on TV. In the 2015 tour, which Johnson was a part of over the summer, she would bowl 12 games in qualifiers, followed by another 16 games and match play before the championship matches shown on TV, which could be anywhere between one and three games. She was bowling 30-50 games a week, on average.

But Johnson, 41, continues to love her job. She wants to keep her career going as long as her body can keep up. She’s had some knee issues and soreness in the past, but nothing she wasn’t able to play through.

“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to do this for a long time,” Johnson said. “And hopefully I’ll be able to continue to bowl for a living.”

She’s humbled by her induction to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, calling it a “great honor.” Johnson went to a ceremony two years ago, so she knows what it’s all about.

“I understood the importance and the fact that there was all the great, not just bowling, but all the sports from Buffalo in the past,” Johnson said. “I mean you got to Buffalo Sabres, Buffalo Bandits, Buffalo Bills, it’s just the greatest athletes that come from the area or who participate in the area, so yeah, it’s a great honor.”

Johnson has fulfilled her childhood dream. And she has no signs of slowing down yet.

The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony is Nov. 4 at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. Tickets are $95 each, $850 for a table of 10 and includes a 25th anniversary book. RSVP by Oct. 19 at www.gbshof.com.

email: sports@buffnews.com