LIMA, Peru - The Team USA bowling program is a brotherhood of sorts, where one generation teaches the next, and the players forever share a bond only they can understand.
Five-time Team USA member AJ Johnson is taking his leadership role this week at the 2019 Pan American Bowling Confederation Men's Championships very seriously, and he used a lead-by-example approach Wednesday on the way to the doubles gold medal with Team USA rookie Sean Wilcox.
Paced by Johnson's near-record 1,551 six-game block, the two shattered the PABCON Championships doubles record by 145 pins, posting a 3,062 total at the new Bowling Center of La Villa Deportiva Nacional (VIDENA).
Wilcox, a 20-year-old right-hander, was there every strike of the way, and his 258 final game helped secure the gold medal and their place in the record book.
He contributed a 1,511 total to the memorable effort that moved him and Johnson past hall of famers Patrick Allen and Walter Ray Williams Jr., who previously held the record with 2,917, rolled at the 2011 PABCON Men's Championships in Guadalajara, Mexico.
This year's silver medal went to Colombia's Santiago Mejia (1,470) and Manuel Otalora (1,398) with a 2,868 total, and Canada's Zachary Wilkins (1,399) and Mitch Hupé (1,367) held on for the bronze medal with 2,766.
"My whole outlook for this week, and anytime I travel for Team USA, is to help get as many medals for the team as possible," said Johnson, a 26-year-old right-hander. "The whole day, I just felt really calm and aware of everything, because I wanted to make things as easy as possible for Sean to not get too worked up. There's just something about team bowling. It's just different, and I truly enjoy helping a team find success. To break a record is just unbelievable to me. Just unbelievable."
The gold medalists started their block in a high-scoring meeting with Peru's Aldo Gibu and Kenny Kishimoto, both of whom started the opening game with eight consecutive strikes. Gibu finished with 279, while Kishimoto shot 265. Johnson and Wilcox had 278 and 244, respectively, and were able to maintain that pace throughout the block.
Johnson's performance included games of 278, 269, 269, 262, 269 and 204. He fell nine pins short of matching the PABCON Championships six-game record of 1,560, posted by Team USA's Bill O'Neill, also at the 2011 event. With three strikes in his final frame, Johnson would've finished with 1,561.
Johnson credits the guidance of players such as Chris Barnes and Tommy Jones for his own understanding and appreciation for what it means to bowl with USA on his back.
Barnes and Jones combined for nearly three decades on Team USA but chose to retire after 2018. The last gold medal they won together - in the team event at the 2017 World Bowling World Championships - also included Johnson, who is excited to share the things his predecessors taught him.
"I've always been an emotional guy, and I wear my heart on my sleeve, but I had amazing mentors in Chris Barnes and Tommy Jones, and I really tried to pay attention to how they handled themselves in different situations," said Johnson, who also earned an all-events bronze medal at the 2017 World Championships. "I had to dial a lot of my emotions back early on today, and I kept telling Sean to keep looking forward and stay on the gas. We needed to stay focused and save the celebration for when the job was done."
Both high-speed, high-rev players, Johnson and Wilcox see the lane in a similar fashion. That, along with great communication, gave them a clear picture and strategy during the six games Wednesday, and moves and ball changes came easily as well.
The two have been friends since Wilcox found his way into the youth spotlight in 2012, and those years of familiarity and friendship have helped make Wilcox's international debut a smooth and memorable one.
His contribution to the doubles win was steady and included games of 244, 277, 248, 227, 257 and 258.
"This is absolutely surreal," Wilcox said. "Being my first time on the team and being picked to travel already was a dream come true. Then, coming out and doing what we did today was amazing. I've known AJ for a long time, and he's been nothing short of amazing to look up to. We just worked so well together today, kept each other's heads on straight, talked through the moves and bowled to the best of our ability. To break a record and win the gold medal is just awesome. I've accomplished a few great things in my short career, but this is the one that's left me almost speechless."
Team USA's Darren Tang and John Janawicz set the bar with a 2,707 total on the day's opening squad. Tang, who earned the singles silver medal, led the effort with a 1,444 total, and Janawicz added 1,263. They finished sixth overall.
The final Team USA tandem on the lanes Wednesday was another pair of first-time participants, Nick Pate and Perry Crowell IV, who posted sets of 1,387 and 1,241, respectively, for a 2,628 total. They finished tied for 10th.
The United States entered the 2019 PABCON Men's Championships as the defending champion in the doubles event. John Szczerbinski and AJ Chapman claimed the gold medal at the 2016 PABCON Adult Championships in Cali, Colombia.
Competition at the 2019 event will resume Thursday morning with trios, and competitors will compete across two squads - 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Eastern. The doubles medals will be presented after the Thursday's first squad.
The Team USA trios teams will be Janawicz, Johnson and Tang on the early squad and Crowell, Pate and Wilcox in the afternoon.
Bowlers at the 2019 PABCON Men's Championships are competing for medals in singles, doubles, trios, team and Masters competition. Gold, silver and bronze medals also will be awarded in all-events based on the week's 24-game pinfall totals.
The event features countries from North, Central and South America and the Caribbean, including Argentina, Aruba, Bahamas, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.
This week's tournament is the first event to take place at the newly constructed bowling center, which is part of an expansive athletic complex that will be home to the 2019 Pan American Games this summer.
For more information on the PABCON Men's Championships, visit PABCON.org.
For more information on Team USA, visit BOWL.com/TeamUSA.
2019 PABCON MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIPS
Bowling Center of La Villa Deportiva Nacional (VIDENA)
GOLD - AJ Johnson/Sean Wilcox, United States, 3,062
SILVER - Santiago Mejia/Manuel Otalora, Colombia, 2,868
BRONZE - Zachary Wilkins/Mitch Hupé, Canada, 2,766