Wheelchair bowling champion Alvin Uttecht has been inducted into four halls of fame
Paralyzed Veterans of America member Alvin Uttecht is one of the most decorated wheelchair bowlers in history
Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) member Alvin Uttecht is one of the most decorated wheelchair bowlers in history, but he almost never gave the sport a chance.
However, a response from California PVA sports director Sam Dwyer pushed Uttecht’s train of thought to a different direction. It changed his life, too.
A former high school football player and wrestler, Uttecht thought he was done with sports. Hit with shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade round Feb. 7, 1970, during the Vietnam War, the Army veteran had sustained a spinal-cord injury and was discharged at just 22 years old.
He returned to the United States, first to Letterman’s Army Hospital in San Francisco for a month before moving to the Long Beach Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in Long Beach, Calif., where he rehabbed for months.
Days before he left the hospital, Dwyer entered his room and asked him if he’d like to join a bowling league.
“I says, ‘You can’t bowl from a chair,’” Uttecht recalls. “And he said, ‘Well, we have a league and it’s been going on since (19)62 and they have been bowling since World War II.’”
Uttecht paused and told Dwyer, who also served as the bowling league’s secretary, to let him think about it. He wanted to finish his lunch before visiting and reaching a decision.
“So I was sitting there and if he says we can do it, we can do it, and I thought that’s a good way to see how other guys have adjusted to being in a chair,” Uttecht says. “So then I says, ‘Well, I’m going to do it.’ I joined the bowling league that September and have been bowling ever since.”
Uttecht, who taught himself to bowl left-handed because there are fewer left-handed bowlers, wanted to give himself an advantage. It’s worked out amazingly well.
Uttecht, 67, has recorded 113 total titles, including 13 national American Wheelchair Bowling Association (AWBA) championships and 13 AWBA Tournament of Champions titles. He’s earned seven AWBA all-events crowns. He’s also been inducted into the AWBA Hall of Fame, the Orange County Bowling Hall of Fame (1994), Southern California Bowling Writer Hall of Fame (1995) and in 2012 became the first wheelchair bowler inducted into the United States Bowling Congress (USBC) Hall of Fame. He’s still the only wheelchair bowler to have that honor.
Additionally, he also earned PVA’s Jack Gerhardt Athlete of the Year honor in 1994.
AWBA Board of Directors Chairman Wayne Webber, 64, remembers seeing Uttecht when he first started winning national titles.
“I was just awestruck, so to speak, to watch him bowl,” says Webber, a C-6/7 quadriplegic after sustaining injuries in a helicopter crash in Vietnam on Feb. 15, 1971. “He’s very consistent in his game and meticulous about making sure his game is the upper level.”
Webber has bowled against and with Uttecht before. Years ago, they faced each other in a scratch roll-off singles tournament. An Army veteran himself, Webber was ahead and even leading Uttecht in the 10th frame. That’s when Uttecht capitalized.
“I pretty much talked myself out of it,” Webber says. “I told myself all you have to do is throw the ball the way you’ve been throwing it. I threw a little slower, got bit by a split and he said, ‘Thank you very much.’ He gets up and strikes out on me. He hadn’t made a strike all game.”
Years later, Uttecht asked him to be his doubles partner in one of the national tournaments and Webber, who has been bowling for almost 35 years, was thrilled.
“Just the experience of bowling with someone of that caliber brings your game up. It just seems to be true if you’re not a very good bowler and bowl with someone of his caliber,” says Webber, a Palm Harbor, Fla., resident. “Even in singles events, you bowl a set with him, your personal game seems to improve.”
Friendships developed, too. While bowling turned out to be an important aspect of Uttecht’s life, he admits the relationships with others are just as valuable.
“When I bowled in my first national tournament, that’s what I saw from (the) association. You’re also competing, but it becomes a family,” says Uttecht, who served as an infantryman and also earned a Purple Heart. “You’ve got friends.”
PVA has helped Uttecht improve, too, especially in developing more friendships with other military members and learning more information about the VA.
“The PVA has been like an extended family,” he says. “When you need help or need a question answered, they are always there to help and answer questions regarding dealing with the Veterans Administration.”
That little conversation with Dwyer provided a major influence in Uttecht’s life. And that’s also what he remembers PVA for.
“Back when I was injured, actually there were three sports you could get into, basketball — which is big and still is big — and bowling and track and field. That was all that was available to you,” Uttecht says. “Now, there’s a bevy of sports. You name it, they do it. And bowling is one of the more difficult ones to learn and be accomplished at.”
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