ARLINGTON, Texas - As the charter bus rolled through the streets of Cali, Colombia, countless conversations mixed with the welcomed hum of the air conditioning as dozens of players and coaches sat and relaxed for the first time in nearly 12 hours.
While different languages may have made the dialogue incomprehensible to some, the content likely was the same, with competitors from 15 countries recapping the day on the lanes at the 2016 Pan American Bowling Confederation Adult Championships. Regardless, everyone present was connected by two common passions - bowling and competing for their countries.
About six rows behind the driver, phone in hand and trying to be heard above the chatter without yelling, Colombian Maria Rodriguez repeated herself, "hamburguesa con queso, hamburguesa no tomate, pollo y arroz...."
Just minutes after being beaten out of the trios gold medal at Bolera Departamental, the 2014 United States Bowling Congress Queens champion was ordering dinner for her team and the members of Team USA, three of whom just rallied to deny her a spot at the top of the medal stand in her home country.
The act of hospitality and sportsmanship was one of many throughout the weeklong event, where Rodriguez and her teammates played host, interpreter, travel agent, concierge, tour guide and more, all while performing admirably in front of friends, family and the hometown fans.
As competitors, the Colombians are talented and fierce and have settled comfortably among the top performers on the Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour.
However, Rodriguez, her teammates and most of the PWBA players, are able to leave that ferocity on the lanes. Once their bowling shoes come off, the PWBA Tour stars are friends, roommates and confidants.
"It's always hard when you get beat, but we left it all out on the lanes, along with quite a few pins," Rodriguez said. "We sat in the stands together and watched (Team USA), which is all we could do, and they bowled incredible. These events have some great bowlers, and you always know you'll have to be at your best to win. After five or 10 minutes off by yourself, all you can do is congratulate them on the win."
The next day, the momentum swung in favor of the home team. Colombia opened the team event with an intimidating 1,218 game, making a statement and building a lead that would prove to be crucial.
Colombia would hold a 135-pin advantage over the United States after five of the six team games in what would end up being a two-team race for the gold.
Neither team had a particularly strong start in the final game, but Team USA used a late surge to eliminate the deficit. Until a 7-10 split and a missed single pin in the final frame, it looked like the United States might be able to shut out an unraveling Colombian team.
Instead, the U.S. left just enough room for Colombia to take its first women's team title at the PABCON Championships.
After Juliana Franco tossed three strikes in her 10th frame, two of the PWBA Tour's biggest stars sealed the deal. Rocio Restrepo and Clara Guerrero did what they've dreamed of, and many expected them to do, as they both doubled in the final frame to win gold, just 11 pins ahead of the United States.
The United States had won the PABCON women's team event on 15 of the previous 17 opportunities, while Colombia was looking to claim its first - on its home soil. The first ones to congratulate the Colombian team? The Team USA women.
Bowling has brought them together, and the opportunity to compete for a living with the re-launch of the PWBA Tour in 2015 has united them for a few common causes - promoting women's bowling, giving bowling fans the chance to see the best women in the world compete and giving young female bowlers something to strive for.
"Especially with the PWBA Tour, we've developed friendships and enjoy spending time with each other when we're not bowling, whether we go to dinner or grab a drink or just hang out," Rodriguez said. "Cali is not my city, but it's in my country, so I tried my best to make sure everyone had a good time and didn't have any trouble. It can be a challenge when you don't speak the language, and it was my pleasure to help everyone enjoy Colombia."
The 2016 PWBA Tour season included bowlers from nearly two dozen countries with Restrepo (twice) and Guerrero each claiming titles, along with Singapore's Bernice Lim, Cherie Tan and New Hui Fen.
Four of the six Team USA women in Cali for the 2016 PABCON Adult Championships also found the winner's circle on the PWBA Tour this year.
Shannon O'Keefe had a Tour-best three wins, Danielle McEwan claimed her second career title and Bryanna Coté and Josie Earnest each captured their first PWBA Tour titles. Team USA veteran Shannon Pluhowsky had five championship-round appearances, while Missy Parkin, the 2011 USBC Queens champion, continued to be a threat as well.
Many others among the 79 women in the PABCON field also were PWBA Tour regulars or dabblers during the 2016 season.
Not that the talent level in previous PABCON events wasn't top-notch, but it was clear the players were more prepared and confident.
During the 14-week PWBA Tour season, which ended the first weekend of September, the players competed individually, but with years of bowling for their countries and colleges, the transition to being part of a team was as seamless as Rodriguez, now a resident of Austin, Texas, ordering dinner in Spanish for 15 people.
"We're definitely more prepared, since we just got done with the 14-week season, and we got to bowl in different places on a variety of lane conditions," Pluhowsky said. "The mindset is a little bit different in the team environment now, compared to the Tour, where you're bowling individually, but it was pretty easy to get back in that mode. For a long time, we only had a few events outside of Team USA, so most of our experience was together as a group."
Many Team USA players have been part of the program for years, even spending time together on Junior Team USA, so there's already a special bond. Add in more than a dozen weeks of travel for the PWBA Tour, and they're spending more time together than ever before.
"As a group, we're pretty close, and being together week in and week out adds to that," Pluhowsky said. "Of course, we have people we hang out and travel with, but we're still one team, and we all love competing together for our country."
Team USA and Colombia definitely outshined the rest of the field at the 2016 PABCON Adult Championships, claiming 16 of the 19 medals up for grabs at Bolera Departamental.
The United States took gold in singles (Parkin), trios (O'Keefe, Earnest, Pluhowsky) and Masters (Pluhowsky), silver in team and bronze in singles ( Coté), trios (McEwan, Coté, Parkin), all-events (McEwan) and Masters (O'Keefe, Parkin).
Colombia won gold in doubles, team and all-events, silver in singles, trios and all-events and bronze in doubles.
Mexico earned a silver medal in Masters courtesy of PWBA standout Sandra Gongora and bronze in team, while the silver in doubles went to a pair of USBC Collegiate players from Aruba, Kamilah Dammers and Thashaina Seraus.
Again, much of the players' success simply was because they're incredibly talented and well-coached, but the competitive year on the PWBA Tour definitely elevated the performance level.
"This all has been such a great experience, and getting to bowl 14 events on different patterns this year really helped me develop more as a bowler," Restrepo said. "It gave me the opportunity to get to know my arsenal and what I'm able to do physically, especially on the short patterns, which I struggled on in the past."
Restrepo, a former standout at Wichita State, proved how far she's come by collecting four medals at the PABCON Women's Championships, which was contested on the 36-foot Beijing oil pattern. She won doubles with Guerrero, earned silver in trios with Guerrero and Rodriguez, stepped up to help with team and finished with silver in all-events behind Guerrero.
"I feel much sharper this week because of the PWBA Tour, but I'm also much more calm about the tournament and bowling itself," Restrepo said. "All the extra games this year really helped me be strong and prepared. It also helped me learn what some of my weaknesses were, so I could work on those things with my coaches."
Another focus for Restrepo has been on simplifying her equipment selection and relying on the things she can do physically to make a six-ball arsenal far more versatile. Some Abralon pads, polish, different hand position or speed variation could expand the possibilities tenfold.
"I don't think I would've learned the things I did or been able to accomplish what I have if I didn't bowl as much and on as many patterns," Restrepo said. "Winning on Tour also gives you a lot more confidence."
Being in her home country and a familiar bowling center definitely helped Restrepo's confidence at the PABCON Championships.
The Colombian team trials take place at Bolera Departamental each year, so there's some familiarity and comfort just walking in the door.
Additionally, the men bowled first this year, so Colombia's coaches were able to take great notes about the tendencies of the center with the region's top talent on the lanes.
But, beyond all the studying and science and confidence from a successful year on the PWBA Tour, there's one common denominator for those who carried the momentum of a successful PWBA season into a memorable event representing their native lands - hard work and dedication.
The players openly and clearly are grateful for the chance to bowl for a living, and they'll do all they can to keep it going.
"With the Tour back, I'm definitely more focused on staying active and making sure I'm in better shape, which includes more time at the gym than before," Pluhowsky said. "It's important to be strong physically and mentally for the long season and sometimes long days of competition. It's such a great opportunity. We all want to be at our best and succeed individually. We also want to see the PWBA Tour succeed, too."