The distance from the foul line to the head pin in a bowling lane is 60 feet. For Christine Rebstock, that distance represents what drives her.
The 53-year-old Meriden, Conn. native has made a name on the lanes in New England from her college days and as a touring amateur. ‘Amateur’ is defined as a player not holding a Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) card.
Rebstock is a member of four bowling halls of fame in the region. She competed in two of her sport’s major tournaments, the U.S. Open and the USBC Masters. Yet a small tournament on the morning of Thanksgiving Day 2020 loomed just as large for her.
Two weeks ago, Rebstock posted her coming out as transgender across her social media. The 28th annual Thanksgiving 9-Draw at Lakewood Lanes in Waterbury. Conn., was her first tournament as the woman she has always been.
“It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulder,” Rebstock told Outsports. “I’ve competed against some of these people for well over 30 years, and all of a sudden you come out as your true self. It’s a bit of a culture shock, yes.”
When she arrived at the bowling alley to play that morning, owner Charlie Lanza welcomed her warmly. Throughout the warm ups, many of the other competitors who had read of her coming out stopped by to chat and offer congratulations. As she warmed up to to get ready for her qualifying games, there was a look in her eyes that suggested she was looking forward as well as looking back.
Rebstock was nervous, but focused as she studied her lanes. A new chapter was set to begin in the next 60 feet.
“I always felt different”
“Growing up I always felt different from the other boys,” Rebstock recalled. “‘She’ was always in there, but bowling kept me focused and kept things locked in.”
She locked in on trophies in the youth ranks and built up skills on the lanes that earned her a place on a college team. As a freshman at Erie Community College in upstate New York in the fall of 1985, Rebstock was under the tutelage of head coach Kerm Helmer.
The 2012 USBC Hall of Fame inductee was building the ECC Kats into “giant killers.” Their team beat a field of larger universities to win it’s first national championship in 1982. The expectations were high.
“Our first official team meeting: first he wrote ‘Houston, Texas’ on a blackboard,” Rebstock remembered. “He said that it was site of the 1986 national collegiate bowling championships. He told us, ‘Either way, I’m going to be there. It’s up to you guys if you are going to be there. From now on, bowling will not be a recreation to you.’”
Rebstock learned lessons that would pay off in tourney wins and prize money years later. Perhaps the most important lesson was the one on poise that Helmer taught her early on.
“You never wanted to get called into Coach Helmer’s office,” she noted. “I remember a tournament where I just struggled. My ball didn’t go down the lane well and I chirped and complained about it and he was right behind me saying ‘It’s not the center’s fault.”
“At practice, he used some choice words for me,” she continued. “He basically told me to grow up, which I needed to hear.”
The team composed entirely of young freshmen and sophomores grew up fast. They won their conference and their regional tournament to earn the trip to Houston for the 1986 United States Bowling Congress Intercollegiate Team Championships. Led by 1990 PBA Rookie of the Year Brad Kiszewski, and aided by clutch play by Rebstock, Erie Community College defeated West Texas State in the championship match to win the national title.
After college, Rebstock balanced a career in sports media in Connecticut with bowling for trophies and the checks that go along with them. She became a fixture in New England Bowling Association tournaments. The highly competitive regional slate is considered just a pencil stroke below the PBA.
“I was playing at world-class level then,” she said. “Between 1997 and 2000, I had made over $200,000 dollars in regional tournaments. I can remember a couple times when the car needed a water pump or new tires, so I went out and won on a weekend and was able to pay for it.”
Of all her experiences playing in those early days, she cites as a high point the 2004 USBC Masters, one of the five “majors” of the sport; It’s one of the tournaments where PBA pros and non-tour amateurs could compete together. In the opening qualifying round of the tournament, she fought back from a rough start, and ended the night at the front of the field. Her effort would have been big news in New England, if not for another bit of sports history that very same night.
“For that one night I was the best bowler in the world,” Rebstock chuckled. “But it was also the night the Boston Red Sox won the World Series and lifted ‘The Curse’, so nobody knew it.”
She fought through two match play eliminations the next day, with the stepladder and a national television appearance in sight. In her first elimination on that Saturday, however, Rebstock had to bowl against the 1999 Masters Champion and her tournament roomie. Brian Boghosian won and wound up making the televised stepladder finals, but Rebstock did walk away with a little history of her own. “I had the highest losing score in the eliminations,” she said with a smile.
Ups and downs
At the Thanksgiving Day tournament last week, Rebstock eyed that first frame, a first frame of a new beginning, thinking of at least getting nine pins. In nine-draw, leaving one pin standing still counts as a strike.
Due to a back injury, she takes a shorter approach to the foul line than most bowlers. She takes one step as her left arm and wrist propel her cranberry red ball down the lane.
The ball took a gentle arc from left and right and zeroed in toward the gap between the head pin and the 2 pin. Rebstock’s coming out tournament started with a thunderous strike! She left not a single pin standing.
Her playing group gave her socially-distanced elbow and fist bumps. You could see her focus and her joy through her face mask.
That first game ended with her scoring 277. A strong start, but she wasn’t satisfied with her mechanics. “That was embarrassing, that first game, even if the score was good,” she groused. “Too many ‘seeing-eye singles,’ and too many balls off the glove.”
She grumbled through the next game as well, but rolled a 278. Halfway through qualifying, Rebstock was in the hunt to reach the tourney’s stepladder finals.
The mechanical woes she worried about caught up to her in her third game. The score: a dismal 224. In a nine-draw tournament, a perfect game of 300 is easier to achieve, and given the level of competition in the draw, you need at least one perfect game among your four to make the cut.
It was a difficult situation, even for a person who has 25 sanctioned 300 games to her credit. Yet, the hill Rebstock needed to climb in this tournament wasn’t nearly as high as the mountain she’s summited to get here.
Knocked down and getting back up
After being enshrined in three bowling halls of fame in Connecticut, the New England Bowling Association started its own shrine to its best players in 2017. Rebstock, with 14 career NEBA tournament championships and three NEBA player-of-the-year awards, was inducted as a member of NEBA’s inaugural Hall of Fame class.
On the lanes. she’s fought through a prolonged slump, and injuries. Her game has struggled, as has her motivation.
“The whole sport, today’s environment, is not as good. There’s less tournaments, and expenses are higher.” Rebstock said.
She also fought a battle within herself. She says her mind has often wandered to thoughts of a chance not taken in her younger years. “When I was in high school, there was a powder puff game the night before the Thanksgiving Day game,” Rebstock recalled. “The boys had to be the cheerleaders. We learned the cheers, wore the sweater and the field hockey skirts. But, we voted not go ‘all-in.’ No nails and makeup.”
“I always felt that was a missed opportunity,” she lamented. “I should have just broken ranks and gone all out anyway. In a way, it was my first time in public as me.”
That internal struggle, along with her marriage and her job, weighed heavily on Rebstock, to a point where she buckled under the strain. She came out to her spouse in May 2019, and at first, the revelation wasn’t well-received.
Today, things between Rebstock and her spouse are “much better,” she told Outsports, but at that time it was tenuous. One month after coming out, Rebstock attempted suicide, but stopped before going through with it. That was a wake-up call, she said.
“I couldn’t fight ‘her’ being inside me all the time,” Rebstock said, fighting back tears. “I had to let ‘her’ out.”
One month later, in July 2019, she decided to start her transition and resolved to begin coming out to close friends, a few at a time.
She began in September of that year with Boghosian, the roomie at the USBC Masters a decade ago, who is considered one of the ten best players who never held a PBA Tour card.
“I told him about me and he was totally cool with it,” she noted.
A few weeks later, her true self met the sport she loves for the first time. “I went to a place where no one would know me,” she smiled at the memory. “I was talking to one of the league players, a cis woman. It was like her and I knew each other our whole lives. That is when I knew that Christine could make it in the world.”
On New Year’s Eve 2019, she had her first hormone treatment. The intense focus she had always shown on a bowling lane would now be applied to her entire life starting with 2020.
On November 14, 2020, she told her story publicly in a Facebook post. She talked about experiencing gender dysphoria growing up, and growing up in the game. She candidly shared the story of her attempt to end her life, and how she regrouped to regain her life and a new love for bowling.
She received a groundswell of support. Much of that came from her friends in bowling that she played with and against; those with whom she forged great memories, stretching back decades.
Brad Kiszewski, her teammate from Erie’s collegiate national championship run, replied with a thumbs up that hundreds of others echoed. Rebstock had come out to her world, and come out in the sport she lives for.
“I want to get good again!”
Her fourth qualifying game on Thanksgiving Day was a 10-frame version of her journey. A promising start, rough in the middle, with a strong and hopeful finish. Despite a rally with consecutive late strikes to card a 265, she failed to make the cut. Her tournament ended in the qualifying round.
The frustration in her face was visible to all, but that faded as soon as she started talking about the bigger picture. She immediately shifted her attention to preparing for a doubles tournament in December.
Rebstock is excited about her future. She says she wants to help raise awareness and help that next person who is struggling the way she did. She says bowling excellence is a key piece of what comes next.
“If I could have success, who knows? That could help someone else,” she said emphatically.
“I went out to practice recently and it was the most fired-up I had ever been for a practice session. That is where I saw that I want to get good again,” she told Outsports, pride beaming in her voice. “It means a lot to me, to not just compete, but to be successful. I want be a factor. I have a new lease on life and I want to take advantage of it.”
If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide or struggling in any way, reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386 any hour of any day. You can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities.