ARLINGTON, Texas - When Mariana Ayala was 21 years old, she took a gamble.
No, it wasn't the traditional sports bet or challenging choice between red, black and the less-likely green double-zero many might try at that age.
Instead, she bravely left her native Puerto Rico to chase her competitive bowling dreams at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas.
The decision was easy and challenging for different reasons, but her passion for a sport, one she first tried in elementary school, was the deciding factor. That passion far out-weighed the uncertainties of an unfamiliar environment and significantly different culture.
"I was studying architecture in Puerto Rico, and that's what I really wanted to do, but I loved bowling more," Ayala said. "At that time, I had to make a decision between going to the U.S. or staying in Puerto Rico. I knew if I stayed at home, I wouldn't be able to reach some of my goals. I knew Wichita had the best program, and that's where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a Shocker. I changed schools, packed my bags and went to Wichita to try out for the team in 2006."
Ayala found herself more than 2,200 miles from home in search of a new major and new friends, but, most importantly, ready to improve on the skills that helped her become a regular member of Team Puerto Rico starting in her early teens.
Adjusting to life away from home wasn't the only challenge the soft-spoken Ayala encountered.
Along with learning new things about bowling, she had to pick up a few basic life skills, too, simply because island life in Puerto Rico was so different than life in Kansas.
This includes things many of her teammates might take for granted, like using a vacuum cleaner or dryer, both conveniences that are rare or unnecessary in Puerto Rico, since most homes don't have carpet and rely on the warm tropical breeze to dry their clothes on a clothesline.
Ayala adjusted well, decided on graphic design as a new career path and earned a spot on Wichita State's developmental team. That gave her two years to learn from the program's experienced coaches and talented players.
Finally, her hard work and dedication earned her two years on the traveling team, and she got to be a part of a national-championship win in 2009.
Armed with immeasurable bowling experience and knowledge from her time with the Shockers, Ayala found herself at another crossroad after graduation.
In a way, she had turned into an architect of sorts, after all, building a bridge between Puerto Rico and the world of college bowling in the United States, crossed by many young Puerto Rican bowlers since. She also had been able to maintain her place on Puerto Rico's national team and shared with her teammates much of what she'd learned about the strategies of bowling.
But, would Ayala return home to begin her formal work career in the sunshine of Puerto Rico or remain in the United States, where she also could continue her progress on the lanes at a faster pace?
Again, the decision had its pros and cons, and Ayala ultimately decided that staying in the United States would allow her access to top-tier competition and coaching.
Ayala set her sights on Dallas as a career-starting destination, despite not knowing the city or anyone there. It just happened to be centrally located and easier on the checkbook than cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
"I saw my life here in the U.S., and I knew I needed to stay if I was going to continue getting better on the lanes," Ayala said. "There's just more opportunities for me here, both for work and bowling. Life in Puerto Rico is nice, but it's hard right now, especially since we're going through a bit of an economic crisis. If I went back, this road would've have been a little tougher."
Not long after her decision to make the Lone Star State her new home, a series of events began to unfold, that looking back, make Ayala seem destined for success on the Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour, which still was a few years from its 2015 return.
Around that time, the International Training and Research Center was being added to the International Bowling Campus in Arlington, and the home of Team USA also would become Ayala's training ground.
The venue introduced her to Team USA coaches Rod Ross, Kim Kearney and Bryan O'Keefe, Team USA members Shannon O'Keefe and Stefanie Johnson and many others, and she began to build an unexpected "family" from among the ITRC and USBC staff.
"When I went to Dallas, I was nervous about having to make new friends and getting comfortable in a new place," Ayala said. "With the ITRC, I was excited to be able to practice there, but I never knew how my life would change because of everyone there. I met some great people and felt like I was creating a little Dallas family. They were, and still are, very important in my life."
Ayala also had the benefit of being able to learn from former Team USA head coach Jeri Edwards, who was brought in by a generous Puerto Rican Olympic Committee to coach the national team. Both the committee and Edwards have helped in the elevation of Ayala's game, which became even more important in 2015.
Like many others, the return of the PWBA Tour gave Ayala a chance to live a life she never expected to have.
She left college knowing there would be the traditional major women's events and some international competition in which she could compete, but she'd have to rely on her degree for a "real job," which landed her a role as a marketing and media coordinator for a medical supply company. In her limited free time, the 31-year-old right-hander now is pursuing a master's degree in marketing at the University of Dallas.
Thanks to some creative time management and an understanding boss, Ayala gets to enjoy both careers, while continuing to show improvement and advancement in both areas.
A combination of her time at the ITRC, her work ethic and Edwards' guidance left her prepared for the PWBA, and just being a regular on the Tour has given Ayala the chance to learn even more from some of the best players in the world. It has helped her physically, and some early success has helped her with her mental game and confidence.
"I haven't had the success I want to have, but my bowling has improved so much," said Ayala, who cashed eight times and made match play at two events during the 2016 PWBA Tour season. "I feel like I'm a lot more competitive. I've become better with making decisions and taking risks, and being around the great players on the PWBA really has pushed me and helped me improve."
Ayala may be quiet on the lanes and silent in her climb up the PWBA's statistical categories this year, but that's just the way she likes it.
"It has always been my dream to bowl professionally, and I am very grateful for the support that allows me to do that and continue to bowl for Team Puerto Rico," Ayala said. "I feel like I'm a little sleepy monster waiting to wake up. I believe I'm close, and my moment is going to come."
Ayala's hard work first paid off in 2013 in the form of a bronze medal in singles at the World Bowling Women's Championships, while each year and event since has served as a steppingstone.
Up next is the 2017 PWBA Tour season, which will kick off its 14-event schedule next April in Rohnert Park, California.
"I always wanted to be good at something, and I tried out for other sports, but the first time I walked into a bowling center, I knew it's what I wanted to do, and I wanted to be great at it," Ayala said. "Seeing myself on the Tour is a dream come true. I see that as an accomplishment in itself, but, at the same time, I still have a lot more goals."