A visitor to the lounge at Sam's Town refrains from asking questions about bowling, figuring that Wagner probably needs to psych herself up for the competition. But something else is on her mind. Looking up, tape poised on scissors blades, she says, "I forgot my curling iron."
Wagner would like to call her fiance, Marty Fischbach, before he leaves Annapolis, where they live, to ask him to bring a curling iron to Vegas when he flies in that afternoon, but she doesn't have time. The official briefing on tournament rules and format is about to begin. After the briefing, Wagner runs off to the ladies' room while everyone else hurls practice balls.
Before the balls begin rolling in earnest, Wagner has time to let loose about two practice frames. She's used to having to read lane conditions—which these days is about as easy as parsing Urdu—during competition. Since she signed aboard with American three years ago, she's had to put the job first and squeeze in bowling between her duty shifts with the airline. And air traffic being what it is, she often arrives late for tournaments and misses warmup sessions.
Take the time two years ago when she flew into Houston for the LPBT's Southwest regionals. A friend picked her up at the airport, Wagner changed out of her airline uniform in the ladies' room of the bowling center and learned her lane assignment just in time to run onto the alley and roll a couple warmup balls before the first frame. Amazingly she went on to win the tournament and set a new Houston women's record for a three-game series (814).
But during the qualifying rounds at Sam's Town, 64 of the nation's best women bowlers can't seem to find the groove. Gutter balls seem to be popular, and Wagner rolls her share. She tries five different balls, rolls her eyes, complains about the oil on the synthetic lanes, stomps her foot, says after making one spare, "That was the hardest spare of my career," and after missing another, "This isn't any fun."
When it's over, she drops a 15-pound ball into a padded bag from about three feet up. Later she says, "Even a bad day shouldn't be as bad as this." Her doubles partner, Paula Drake from Broken Arrow, Okla., says, "Do I still have a partner?"
At dinner that night, over an hors d'oeuvre of toasted bagel thins and jalape�o jelly—"They're new, how'd you like them?" asks the waitress, sorry, meal attendant—Wagner brushes the performance off. "I'm not a quitter," she says. "Bowling is such an emotional sport, things can change quickly. Tomorrow's another day."
As a badge of dedication, she displays her right hand, which looks as if it belongs to a stevedore. In the interest of full disclosure, a reference to this hand, with its muscled and calloused index and middle fingers that tonight are painfully swollen and split, ought to appear on Wagner's r�sum� alongside notations such as "currently represents David Smith Sportswear." The entry would say "never had a pretty set of fingernails," a fact Wagner laments.
Actually she once did. She went to a manicurist before the Miss USA finals in Biloxi, Miss., and had fake nails attached. Then, since Wagner was a pro bowler, the beauty pageant organizers came up with the notion that it would be cute to stage a doubles tournament between the contestants and some soldiers from a nearby Army base as part of the pre-pageant publicity. As soon as Wagner got up to bowl, of course, the nails on her right hand began breaking off because her ball hadn't been drilled to accommodate long nails. "Holding hands with me," she says, "is like holding hands with a lobster."
Not that it seems to faze Fischbach, who, as a Baltimore native, happens to be partial to crustaceans. Fischbach is a pilot for American Airlines, and the two met in 1985 on a flight from Burbank to Chicago. "It's a corny story," he says. She tells it anyway: "It was a beautiful day for flying. He was the copilot and didn't pay any attention to me until I told the captain I was a pro bowler. Then he whipped around to see what a woman bowler looked like."