In Nebraska bowling’s 25-year history, the Huskers have had just three black bowlers.
The first, Dezra Brown, was on the roster for the 2004-05 season but didn’t compete and left the team after that season.
Nine years later, Gazmine Mason became the first black bowler to compete for the Huskers, helping the team win a national championship in 2014.
This season, freshman Amara Smith-Speights joined that group. So far, she has competed in four tournaments for Nebraska.
Even though Mason has graduated from Nebraska, she and Smith-Speights share a unique bond. In January of 2017, while still at Nebraska, Mason founded the group Black Girls Can Bowl 2. Smith-Speights has been a member of that group since around the time it started.
Mason’s inspiration for making the group stemmed from her frustration at the lack of diversity in the sport.
On top of bowling for the Huskers, she made Junior Team USA in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, Mason aimed to make the adult team, but fell short. What frustrated her more than not making it was seeing that nobody who made it on the men’s or women’s side was black.
“I was just, not mad that all those who made it, made it, I didn’t envy anyone, but just the fact that there was nobody up there that resembled myself,” Mason said. “I just randomly said ‘black girls can bowl too.’”
From there, the group was created. According to Mason, Black Girls Can Bowl 2 is a platform to “uplift other women of color who bowl” and celebrate their accomplishments while also getting to know other black bowlers. The group had about 15-20 members when it first started, and now has at least 50.
When she first created it, Mason made a Facebook group exclusively for members of Black Girls Can Bowl 2. Mason said she first started adding people by going through the rosters of every bowling team she could think of and following “every black person.”
“It kind of just started growing, you know, they started sharing with their teammates, and we have like little girls in it, like 10, 11, eight years old, we have women who are 60 years old a part of it,” she said.
Smith-Speights was among the initial group of members added when it started.
“It was pretty early on,” Smith-Speights said. “And it was really just everybody introducing themselves, like what year of school they are, where they go, that kind of thing.”
However, Smith-Speights wasn’t in college yet when she joined the group. She was still being recruited while at Freedom High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, where she grew up.
Smith-Speights’ grandfather got her into bowling when she was young, as they went to the bowling alley every weekend together. At four years old, she started to compete in youth leagues.
She also saw Nebraska compete in and win the first NCAA Bowling Championship in 2004. It was then that she knew she wanted to compete collegiately.
“I was like ‘I wanna bowl for that team, I wanna bowl in college,’ like it’s just always been a dream of mine,” she said.
Over the years, Smith-Speights found success as a bowler. She had her first 300 game when she was 12, and is a four-time Virginia State Pepsi USBC Youth Championship winner.
When it came time to choose a college to attend, Mason assisted in helping Smith-Speights make her decision. Smith-Speights had watched Mason bowl multiple times before at the World Youth Championships in Lincoln and during Mason’s tenure at Nebraska, in which the Huskers made the national championship all four years. While Nebraska was Smith-Speights’ dream college since she was young, Mason still played a role in drawing her to the Huskers.
According to Smith-Speights, the two had their first conversation while she was still being recruited. She received insight from Mason on her experience, things to look for and questions to ask while going through the recruiting process. On top of that, Mason served as an inspiration.
“She honestly inspired me,” Smith-Speights said. “Outside of just being pretty good, her being an African-American, I was like, ‘I want to be in her spot.’”
Being a part of Black Girls Can Bowl 2 and valuing her identity as an African-American bowler, Smith-Speights considered going to a historically black college. She considered North Carolina A&T, which, like some other historically black colleges and universities, has a nationally ranked bowling program. However, this opportunity didn’t sway her from attending her dream school in Nebraska.
Of course, there were some initial fears coming to Lincoln, as UNL isn’t very diverse. Smith-Speights said it was “a little scary” coming in, especially as her hometown of Woodbridge had a stronger minority presence.
“I knew coming here would be a little bit of culture shock, but talking to my mom, my family and everything, I knew that I was strong enough to deal with it all,” she said.
Mason was able to help with that adjustment, as she had been through the same issues.
“When I got here, I asked [her], how do I get more involved in school? How do I meet more people that look like me and not just stay [with] my teammates, I need to branch out, that kind of thing,” Smith-Speights said. “And she was telling me to join groups, go to the Multicultural Center, that kind of thing.”
While the two have only talked “here and there,” Mason described Smith-Speights as a “very caring individual” and has done her best to assist her in her transition to Nebraska.
“Whether it's schoolwork, whether it's any aspect of things or just being a student-athlete in general or being away from home, or, you know, really whatever she, I guess, needs, I kind of just use my experience to try to help her get through whatever she's going through,” Mason said.
Head bowling coach Paul Klempa, who also coached Mason as an assistant coach, noted that both Mason and Smith-Speights are “driven” and came to the Huskers with a “desire to be successful.”
For Smith-Speights, Klempa said this year has been used as a time to get her acclimated to life as a student athlete, and that he isn’t going to rush her into competitions. However, he said he’s been “pleasantly surprised” at how well she’s done in that transition, and that she will make an impact in years to come.
“Her future is extremely bright, and I know she’s going to be a superstar,” Klempa said. “But her first year, you kind of have to tread a little lightly. You can’t throw them to the wolves too quickly.”
Smith-Speights shares Klempa’s high aspirations as well. She aims to win a national championship in her time at Nebraska, as well as wanting to inspire other black bowlers to strive toward bowling for Nebraska.
Mason has moved on from Nebraska but still enjoys seeing more black bowlers such as Smith-Speights at the collegiate level.
“It makes my heart so happy, I just think it's super dope because before then you didn't really see black bowlers at Big Ten schools on the bowling team, and now you see them more often,” she said. “Hopefully I'm able to use my journey and my platform, to open up some doors, but I just think that we're going to start seeing more of us.”
Mason no longer uses the closed Facebook group for Black Girls Can Bowl 2, and instead, those who are interested are able to follow the group’s various social media accounts. The accounts share and celebrate the accomplishments of those who use the hashtag #BGCB2, or tag the account in their posts. The group allows black bowlers to network with others, and take pictures together if they are at the same tournaments.
While Smith-Speights may be one of the only black bowlers at Nebraska, Black Girls Can Bowl 2 has provided her a support system as she continues her college career.
“Just knowing there's people there to listen to me if I need to vent about what's going on,” she said. “It's just like we're a little family, I know I can go to somebody to talk about whatever and I'm there for them, like a sisterhood.”