ARLINGTON, Texas - Stefanie Johnson of McKinney, Texas, was a terrific youth bowler, but the day she asked MapQuest to safely guide her on her 240-mile journey up the Florida Turnpike from her home in Miami to Orlando, Florida, she also set out on a path to becoming one of the sport's most familiar faces.
Of course, when most people from outside the Sunshine State talk about the Orlando area, the conversation is about a small slice of imagination known as The Happiest Place on Earth.
As it turned out, Johnson's trek north led her to a life- and game-changing happy place called Boardwalk Bowl, an 80-lane bowling center built inside of an old Walmart, that became her home away from home for the next six years.
Now, 15 years since leaving home, the 33-year-old right-hander will return to the place she truly fell in love with bowling, literally as a different person, and no doubt as a more versatile competitor, to take to the lanes at Boardwalk Bowl for the 2017 Professional Women's Bowling Association Orlando Open.
"I think it all really started for me at the (University of Central Florida) and with (United States Bowling Congress Hall of Famer) Pat (Costello) as my coach," said Johnson, who was a two-time First-Team All-American and 2005-2006 National Collegiate Bowling Coaches Association Most Valuable Player, while at UCF. "My college years is when I really started to see my potential as a bowler, and it helped me become the competitor I am."
Competition at the PWBA Orlando Open will take place Friday and Saturday, as nearly 70 of the best female bowlers in the world battle for one of four spots in the event's stepladder finals and a shot at the $10,000 top prize.
The TV finals will be taped for delayed broadcast on CBS Sports Network in conjunction with the U.S. Women's Open at Plano Super Bowl in Plano, Texas, during the first week of August. The show will air Aug. 15 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Johnson's visit this week will serve as a dual-homecoming. Her return to the place that shaped her as a bowler also will be her return to the PWBA Tour, marking her first event of the 2017 season. Qualifying for the finals would bring it all full circle, as she now lives just 16 miles from Plano Super Bowl, also her place of employment.
Known during her collegiate days by her maiden name, Nation, she now is married to 2004 Professional Bowlers Association Tour Rookie of the Year Chris Johnson. The two recently welcomed their daughter Kenzie into the world, sidelining Johnson from the first eight events on the 2017 PWBA Tour schedule. Their son, Levi, is 3 years old.
While away from the PWBA, Johnson may have a child in each arm, while also maintaining her role as a group sales manager at Plano Super Bowl, but she also has kept a close eye on her competition, watching the weekly events on Xtra Frame.
Sure, it has been difficult not being out there doing what she's passionate about, but there's comfort in knowing she's been away doing things she loves unconditionally and in a different way.
Don't be mistaken, though. Johnson's name might not be on the 2017 PWBA statistics page, but she definitely has been getting the games in.
She is prepared for her return to competition and has every reason to expect to be as much of a threat as she was in 2015 or 2016. She may even be a little more motivated to succeed.
"It all has been an interesting balance lately, but I'm very motivated, and I do get to practice a few days a week, which is my personal time to work on spares, targeting, working with new equipment - anything really," Johnson said. "Being out there will be fun. But, now, it also will be work. I have a family to support, and I think that helps motivate me, too. It's not just a leisurely trip, it's now part of my job."
When the PWBA Tour relaunched in 2015, Johnson quickly established herself as a dominant player, collecting a Tour-leading 10 match play appearances and 10 cashes, plus her first PWBA Tour title (2015 PWBA Wichita Open), all en route to a rookie-of-the-year award of her own.
She's excited for the chance to regain that momentum, and while her life may be different than it was 10 years ago, or even two years ago, she sees many similarities, too.
The support staff Johnson found in college, and in her time as an employee at Boardwalk Bowl, was there to give her a push to chase her competitive dreams and goals after college, rather than just work in the bowling center.
Now, she has a loving family and a supportive boss in Jamie Brooks, an award-winning proprietor and talented bowler.
"So many people were there to encourage me, and when the PBA Women's Series came about, they made sure I didn't miss the opportunity," said Johnson, who won two PBA Women's Series events. "Back then, I'd work all day then practice when I got off, but that's what you have to do to compete against the best. Now, I have another incredible support system in my family and in Jamie Brooks at Plano, and it's a similar situation. I am grateful for the support, and it makes me want to succeed for me and for them."
All competitors at the 2017 PWBA Orlando Open will bowl 12 games of qualifying Friday, before the field is cut to the top 32 for Saturday's six-game cashers' round. Their 18-game pinfall totals will decide the 12 bowlers who advance to round-robin match play.
Match-play competitors then will be split into two groups, with the pinfall leader in each group after 24 games, bonus pins for match-play wins included, automatically qualifying for the championship round.
The second, third and fourth bowlers in each group will advance to simultaneous group stepladders, with the winner of each also qualifying for the TV finals.
All qualifying and match play rounds of PWBA Tour events are carried on Xtra Frame, the exclusive online bowling channel for the Professional Bowlers Association. Go to XtraFrame.TV for more information.
Schedule (all times Eastern)
Thursday, June 29
4:30 p.m. - 6 p.m.: Official Practice
7 p.m.: Pro-Am
Friday, June 30
9 a.m.-10 a.m.: Official Practice
Noon.: Qualifying Round 1 (fresh oil) (six games)
6 p.m.: Qualifying Round 2 (fresh oil) (six games)
Saturday, July 1
8:30 a.m.: Cashers' round (fresh oil) (six games)
1 p.m.: Round-robin match play (fresh oil) (six games)
5 p.m.: Group stepladder finals (fresh oil)