ARLINGTON, Texas - Every time Francois Lavoie returns home from an event on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour, regardless of how he fared on the lanes that week, he'll be reminded about the fact that he's living his dream.
The 26-year-old right-hander recently purchased a home in Wichita, Kansas, offering him a tangible representation of his success as a professional bowler, in a community he describes as rejuvenating and refreshing.
Though Lavoie hails from Canada and proudly represents his home country in international competition, Wichita has provided him with important skills he's used in both winning prize money and spending it wisely, along with confidence in the path he has chosen.
When his journey takes him to Sun Valley Lanes in Lincoln, Nebraska, as the defending champion for the upcoming U.S. Open, no one would blame him if all of those things were on his mind, potentially adding pressure.
However, as a fifth-year veteran of the PBA Tour, Lavoie is confident the things he has experienced and learned since his rookie campaign in 2016 will help him stay focused against the rest of the talented 108-player field.
The event will kick off Sunday with a pre-tournament qualifier to fill any remaining spots in the field, and official qualifying will start Tuesday at 9 a.m. Eastern.
"I was pretty unsatisfied with my 2019 season as a whole, so to be able to finish the way I did by winning the U.S. Open in October, made it so special and such a turnaround," said Lavoie, a four-time PBA Tour champion. "Early in the year, I was trying to change my game too much and mimic everyone else, rather than matching my own game to what I was seeing on the lanes. At the U.S. Open, I focused more on my own strengths, and that made all the difference."
Each player at the 2020 U.S. Open will bowl 24 games over three days (eight games each day) on three different oil patterns, with the top 36 performers bowling eight more games on a fourth lane condition, to determine the 24 bowlers for round-robin match play.
All rounds of qualifying and match play will be broadcast live at BowlTV.com, and the event will conclude with a five-player stepladder, live on FOX on Feb. 23 at 1 p.m. Eastern.
As one of 12 bowlers in history to win the U.S. Open on multiple occasions - he also won in 2016 on the way to being named PBA Rookie of the Year - Lavoie knows what it's like to put the prestigious title on the line, but this year will be a little different.
Last time, Lavoie had almost a year to let the accomplishment sink in, and he had just as much time to practice for the event, which is known for featuring some of the toughest lane conditions. Schedule-wise, the 2017 U.S. Open essentially was a standalone piece of the PBA Tour schedule.
Preparing for the U.S. Open meant bowling on flatter oil patterns and practicing special skills, such as speed control and different hand positions or ball rolls.
The tournament's move to February in 2020 means Lavoie only had a few months to prepare, and because it comes during a very busy time on the PBA Tour schedule, his preparation has been more generalized.
The 2020 PBA Tour season began in mid-January, and the U.S. Open will be the sixth event. February alone includes three of the season's five majors.
"Because we're in the middle of the season this time, my practice has been more about being sharp in general, rather than focusing on the traditional challenges of the U.S. Open," Lavoie said. "I like to make sure I bowl often, but not too much. There has to be a balance between practice and rest because it's a long season. The amount of time I spend practicing also depends on how each week goes, since we have official practice, qualifying and, hopefully, match play."
Through four events in 2020, Lavoie has a best finish of 20th, which came at the PBA Oklahoma Open, and while he's still searching for a breakout performance, he's also very focused on being patient and looking at the season as a whole.
These are viewpoints that have come with experience and maturity.
"Patience is a big thing this year that will keep me more level-headed and so I'm not living and dying with every event," Lavoie said. "I'm gaining more and more experience and getting more comfortable each time I find myself in different situations. I'm not as focused on the final results as I am with the steps and the process. Doing those things is the best way to get the results I'm hoping for."
Lavoie's recent decision to establish roots in Wichita only formalized a relationship that has been an integral part of his development as a competitor.
His time as a student-athlete in Wichita not only ended with a pair of collegiate national championships and a business degree, it also allowed him to build countless friendships in a centrally located city known for its bowling prowess.
Going home to a warm and familiar place allows him to recharge after an event, while the friends, coaches and other bowling resources help him stay motivated and sharp. That includes the opportunity to practice at the eight-lane Rhatigan Student Center under the watchful and talented eyes of the Wichita State coaching staff.
"Wichita is such a good place for bowling, it's where I went to school and it's where I learned a lot about the sport," said Lavoie, who was a champion at the Intercollegiate Singles Championships in 2014 and Intercollegiate Team Championships in 2015. "I have a really strong circle there, and it's an incredible environment to be in because you're constantly surrounded by people who know so much about bowling. Remaining in that environment has been incredibly helpful."
As Lavoie continues to live his dream of being a professional bowler, he can look back and appreciate each success. As a two-time U.S. Open winner, each victory resonates differently.
His win in Las Vegas in 2016 was the first of his four PBA Tour titles. He entered the five-player championship stepladder as the second seed and advanced to the title match by becoming the first bowler in history to roll a perfect game on a U.S. Open television show.
He again earned the No. 2 spot for the TV finals in 2019, and the win was an unforgettable redemption for a season filled with struggles.
The march to the trophy included a masterful navigation of four oil patterns ranging from 37 to 45 feet, and the $30,000 top prize accounted for the majority of the $42,300 he earned in 19 national events. He defeated top seed Sean Rash in the final, 221-172.
Heading into the 2020 event, Lavoie is looking to become the fifth bowler to win the U.S. Open three or more times. Only hall of famers Pete Weber (5), Dick Weber (4), Don Carter (4) and Dave Husted (3) have done so.
Only four bowlers - Andy Varipapa, Carter, Dick Weber and Husted have successfully defended their U.S. Open titles. Husted was the last to accomplish the feat, doing so in 1996.
For more information on the U.S. Open, visit BOWL.com/USOpen.