2016-2017 Youngstown State women's bowling team
Photo credit: Dustin Livesay
ARLINGTON, Texas - At just 26 years old, Chelsea Gilliam already has won a collegiate championship, competed against the best players in the world on the Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour and built a collegiate bowling program from the ground up at Youngstown State University.
She's also a breast-cancer survivor, who now is facing that challenge again.
As head coach of the Youngstown State women's team, Gilliam first pushes her players toward their education, knowing that someday soon they will be changing the world.
Gilliam knows that particular subject well, since she has been changing the world in her own way by using her story to encourage and inspire others.
Growing up in a family of bowlers, Gilliam quickly found a passion for the sport. She also played softball, and when it came time to start looking at schools for college, Pikeville University in Pikeville, Kentucky, ended up being the perfect match for both.
During her senior year at Pikeville, Gilliam helped the Bears claim the 2012 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Invitational title. The NAIA Invitational brings together the top-ranked NAIA bowling programs to determine the association's top team for the season.
After graduating, Gilliam found herself looking for what was next, which took her to Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky.
"I really didn't know what I wanted to do after graduating," Gilliam said. "After talking to my coach at Pikeville, he suggested I apply for a graduate assistant position at Union College. I applied and got the position, and after a month or two, I ended up getting the head coaching job. It was definitely scary at first, but it quickly became something I enjoyed."
In September 2013, as her first full season as head coach for the men's and women's teams at Union was ready to kick off, a trip to the emergency room turned into news nobody her age expects to hear. That October, Gilliam was diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer.
Although she knew she was in for a long road to recovery, Gilliam was more concerned about how her student-athletes would take the news.
"I'm someone who worries more about how everyone else is doing instead of myself," Gilliam said. "The hardest part for me was having to inform my teams that I had breast cancer. One of our trainers told them for me while I sat in the room. I didn't know how they would react, but they were behind me 100 percent. It was definitely tough to miss tournaments and practices, because I felt like they weren't getting everything they deserved, but they supported me."
As Gilliam worked toward becoming cancer-free, she continued to lead the teams at Union, earning the Mid-South Conference Women's Co-Coach of the Year for the 2013-2014 season.
After completing her final surgery in October 2014, Gilliam took the opportunity to share her story through the Bowl for the Cure® Fabulous Four essay contest. This year's Fabulous Four essay contest kicked off Oct. 24 and will run until Nov. 21, 2016.
Her essay was selected, giving Gilliam and three other survivors the opportunity to tour the Susan G. Komen® headquarters and International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame, receive a lesson from Team USA head coach Rod Ross and PWBA stars Stefanie Johnson and Shannon Pluhowsky at the International Training and Research Center, and compete on the opening squad at the 2015 United States Bowling Congress Women's Championships at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada.
"I had a few people say that someday they'd like to hear me tell my story," Gilliam said. "I knew this contest would give me the opportunity to tell my story the way I wanted to, and I was so excited when I got the call. The whole experience was amazing. I got to meet three amazing women, and even though we wish we could see each other more, we still talk all the time."
Shortly after her Fabulous Four experience, Gilliam hit the lanes at the 2015 PWBA Wichita Open, where she finished in 57th out of a field of more than 100 of the top female players in the world.
"That tournament was so much fun," Gilliam said. "I hadn't been back into bowling for too long leading up to it, but I wanted to just do my best and learn from it."
In September 2015, another new opportunity came for Gilliam as she was introduced as the first head coach of the Youngstown State women's bowling program.
"It was a shock and very exciting," Gilliam said. "Being such a young coach, I didn't expect that I would get the position but wanted to go through the process. I was super honored, since it's not every day that you get to start a Division I program."
Her first year at the helm of the new program included recruiting, preparing a facility and developing a schedule in preparation of leading the Penguins onto the lanes for the first time in October 2016.
Before that first ball was rolled down the lanes, though, Gilliam once again found herself in the doctor's office.
"I was cancer free and doing well," Gilliam said. "I went back to the doctor, had some tests done and got the news ... again. I took it tougher the second time around. You never want to hear it again."
She once again found herself in a supportive community and has a group of student-athletes who are making sure she's being taken care of on and off the lanes. The Penguins hit the lanes for their first event, the Bud Whitman Memorial in Reading, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 15-16 and finished sixth in the 19-team field.
"The athletic department and community support have been amazing, and the girls have taken it very well," Gilliam said. "I had femur surgery in June due to the cancer spreading, and I can't stand for too long. They had a stool for me to sit on for our first tournament and made sure I was OK. They're watching over me as well."
For now, Gilliam is focused on her team and spreading her message of awareness as she looks forward to her next visit to the doctor. Her most recent trip showed everything as stable, but she's hoping to hear even better news in the upcoming months.
"My thing, especially toward younger women, is to know your body and know what's going on," Gilliam said. "Cancer doesn't care how old or young you are. You need to pay attention to what's going on. If something doesn't seem right, go and get it checked out. It's better to find something early then to have a tougher road later on."