Bill Miller attracts quite a bit of attention when he dominates the local bowling alleys near his home in Leesburg, Florida. Onlookers barely notice the C1-2 quadriplegic’s bulky power chair or the repetitive drone of his ventilator because they are too busy watching his ball crash into the pins, propelling them into the pit.
With a personal record of 255 and an overall average north of 150, Miller is the master of strikes and spares thanks to the IKAN Bowler, a device he invented with a friend that allows high quadriplegics to bowl at a competitive level. This isn’t the simple chrome ramp that kids use at your local lanes. The precision-crafted chute mounts directly to a power chair’s seating system, giving the user full control over the setup, approach, and release of the ball.
For more than 15 years, Miller’s IKAN Bowler has reinvigorated the sport of bowling for high quads all over the world. It’s rekindled their competitive fires and encouraged them to find community and support in the process.
Miller admits he wasn’t much of a bowler when he was growing up in Central Florida. Through his childhood he gravitated toward more traditional games before finding a passion for racket sports and weightlifting in college. That all changed in August of 1997. Just a few days before the start of his senior year at the University of Florida, the 21-year-old math major went to bed to sleep off a night of heavy drinking. Later that evening his roommates found him face down next to some exercise equipment. “They wound up putting me back in bed,” he recalls. “The next morning I woke up and I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t.”
The initial injury was a dislocation between C5 and C6, but inexplicable swelling over the next three days gradually brought his level up to C1-2, which meant he would need a ventilator for the rest of his life. Still, Miller found a way to put a positive spin on the diagnosis. “I oddly took comfort in being at the same level as Christopher Reeve,” he says. Knowing from a very early point that he wanted to do peer support, he saw using the ventilator as an advantage. “I felt if I was at the highest level, then nobody else could say, ‘What do you know? You don’t understand what it’s like.’”
Armed with that optimistic outlook, Miller and his family hatched plans for how to move forward before he was even discharged from Shepherd Center in Atlanta. But they were soon met with a grim reality.
“There were no real recreational or sporting opportunities for a vent-dependent quadriplegic like me at the time,” he says. “I’m not nimble enough driving my wheelchair to play power soccer, and it can unintentionally be a contact sport — which is not really good when you are toting a ventilator on the back of your chair.”
Miller found creative ways to occupy his time over the first few years, like reviewing movies for his local paper, but he was always searching for fun activities. After watching how well he operated his sip-and-puff chair, his stepmom, Donna, suggested he try bowling. “I navigated obstacles pretty easily, and didn’t mark up the walls in the house, so she knew there had to a way I could bowl with my chair.”
Listening to Miller describe the creative process that led to the IKAN Bowler, it almost sounds easy. In reality, the path from initial idea to final product took more than a year of experimentation and innovation.
Enter the Inventors
In January 1999, Miller practiced bowling in his driveway by pushing a basketball with his footrests toward whatever bottles he could find to act like pins. “Driveway bowling was a wee bit labor-intensive with no ball return or automated pin setter, but it was fun,” he says. Unfortunately, his technique didn’t translate well to the flat hardwood lanes at his local bowling alley. “It’s such a short runway — you can’t get up to speed,” he says. “That’s why we thought the ramp would be the best idea, so we could take advantage of momentum, inertia and gravity.”
Miller needed help to design a prototype. Enter Claude Giguere, a third-generation inventor and retired engineer who volunteered as a bailiff in the Lake County courtroom. Giguere was unfazed by the engineering challenge. “It’s just what we do,” he says. “We see something that needs to be fixed, we talk about it, and we make it happen.”
With Miller as the test pilot, the duo experimented with different prototypes. First up was a cumbersome wooden box with a contoured ramp strapped to Miller’s chair. Once the ball was placed atop the ramp, he positioned his chair to line up the shot, drove forward and stopped, allowing gravity to pull the ball down the ramp and onto the lane.
A seemingly endless string of gutter balls followed until Miller noticed the ball reacted differently depending on how it was placed on the ramp. As it turns out, most bowling balls have an oblong internal core to help generate extra spin. By aligning the finger holes in different positions atop the ramp, Miller was able to create a full professional hook right or left. “After we realized there’s a pancake-shaped weight block inside the ball, it made sense,” says Miller, about the game-changing discovery.
Once they settled on a functional design, Miller and Giguere built a streamlined model from custom-cut PVC, powder-coated aluminum and stainless steel that easily mounts to most power chairs. There is a pair of ratcheting clamp arms for chairs with swing-away footrests and, for chairs with immovable footrests, there are sleek mounting brackets that attach to the seating utility rails. Both models pop on and off with two quick-release pins.
In 2002, Miller, Giguere and another friend founded Manufacturing Genuine Thrills in hopes of marketing the bowler on a larger scale. The team quickly found production costs to be a big hurdle, driving the price of the device higher than they initially desired. Thankfully, the process has become more efficient over the years, and the price tag was pushed down to $795, which looks fairly reasonable when compared to other adaptive equipment that costs thousands of dollars — like quad rugby chairs, handcycles and adaptive skis. Still, Miller tries to help customers find ways to pay for the IKAN Bowler by identifying grants or providing a bowl-a-thon fundraising template.
That Competitive Edge
Jesse Collens, a vent-dependent C1 quad from a 2009 mountain biking accident, deals with chronic pain, depression and anxiety that makes it hard for him to leave his house in Federal Way, Washington. But the bowler gives him a reason to make the effort. “It’s a therapeutic activity that gets me out socially as well as competitively,” says Collens, who recently set a record score of 213 for chin switch drivers. “I now bowl better in my power wheelchair than I ever did before I was injured.”
Collens’ experience is not unique. “The first time I did it, I was hooked,” says Rhonda Reese, a C4-5 quad who struggled to find fulfilling pastimes after her 1991 injury. “It just made me feel so good after not being able to do so many things for so long.” Lilian Strandlund, 69, who was born with cerebral palsy, agrees. “For the first time in my life I am able to participate in an able-bodied event and be just as good as a nondisabled person,” she says. Reese and Strandlund were beta testers of the first run of IKAN Bowlers and founding members of Miller’s Central Florida Quad Squad, a group of as many as 10 adaptive bowlers who meet twice a month to take over their local lanes.
It didn’t take long for the Quad Squad to get really good, really fast — so Miller started tracking high scores for posterity. His website for dynamic wheelchair bowling records is broken down by gender, diagnosis and driving method. Reese holds the record for female sip-and-puff drivers at 195, while Strandlund has the overall record for women at 215. Miller’s 255 stood as the highest score for years until it was topped in 2016 by a 27-year-old man with spinal muscular atrophy from Finland named Timo Toivonen who uses a custom ramp inspired by the IKAN bowler that’s as high as his head.
Strandlund points out that, unlike most adaptive sports, there’s no need for a full team’s worth of equipment and a bunch of other players. The bowler allows the user to play right alongside friends and family. “Now my husband and I have a sport we can both participate in,” she says. “We bowl in three leagues together. In the travel league we are bringing home the first-place trophy for the second time.”
It is stories like these that bring Miller the most joy, because for him it was never just about making a profit. It’s also about spreading his love for the game and the independence it gives. The ultimate silver lining was how he parlayed his experiences in creating and marketing a product into two degrees. He graduated from the University of Florida in 2008 with a bachelor’s in business administration and from Western Carolina University in 2011 with a master’s in entrepreneurship.
Pro All Over Again
To say Curt Wolff, 55, was an enthusiastic bowler before his injury is an understatement. A regional pro in the mid-’80s, he hung up his bowling shoes to pursue a more stable career as a general contractor. Then, while prepping for a stint with the Senior Pro Bowling Tour in August 2012, he got bit by the wrong mosquito and contracted West Nile virus, which left him a C4-5 incomplete quad. “It’s more common than people realize,” he says about how he became paralyzed. “I was probably having a beer in the backyard of my home.”
Wolff spent three and a half months at Craig Hospital, where he was first introduced to the IKAN Bowler. “To be completely honest when they showed it to me, I said, ‘No. That’s not real bowling,’” he says. “There was just no way I was going to go from averaging in the 180s and 190s and have to start all over.” Then Craig had a mini-tournament about a month after Wolff was discharged. A friend he had been training with before his injury urged him to give it a shot, referencing the IKAN inventor’s record 255 game. “It gave me a challenge to at least get me to try it.”
It didn’t take Wolff long to recognize how the device’s capabilities replicated the same hooking dynamics with the ball that he once utilized as a pro. “It got to be more of a scientific challenge than anything else,” says Wolff. “It was all applied physics.” Soon he entered more tournaments and modified the bowler to help himself be more competitive. He extended the ramp length to increase the ball speed and reinforced the whole device with stronger materials for more durability when traveling.
Flash-forward to today, and you’ll find Wolff back in his element, averaging 182 in a competitive nondisabled league and serving as the national treasurer of the American Wheelchair Bowling Association. Last year he took third at the AWBA National Tournament in the Scratch Division in Fort Worth, Texas.
Wolff credits Miller and the IKAN Bowler for getting him back into the game and helping him find a supportive community — and even a new home. On a trip to Las Vegas a few years ago, he met other bowlers from Colorado and wound up buying one of their wheelchair-accessible houses. “It’s the camaraderie, getting out in the disability community, meeting new people, and building new friendships,” he says. “It gave me the chance to keep moving forward and live life again.”
** This post was originally published on http://www.newmobility.com/2019/08/opening-up-the-lanes/