Marie Whitaker will be the first to confess she has never been a model of athleticism while growing up in England late last century and into her formative years in New Zealand.

"I was made to do sport when I was in school," says Whitaker, who was attending high school in the Woodlands village of Hampshire, simply satisfied with going with the flow.

Actually the then teenager had flirted with myriad codes but the 69-year-old from Hastings reveals she wasn't good at any of them ... until she took up tenpin bowling 23 years ago.

"I took up tennis. I served my first ball and I spent the rest of the lesson in the kale fields, along the boundary of our school next door, searching for the ball," says Whitaker with a chuckle before competing in the four-day New Zealand 55-plus tourney at the Super Strike Tenpin Bowling Centre in Omahu Rd from today. "I've never been a competitive sportsperson in my life."


But all that changed when she married former Hawke's Bay solo speedway rider Dave Whitaker after their paths crossed at a meeting in Woodlands.

Four years later they settled in Hastings in 1971 where they had two daughters, Hayley, who lives in Hastings, now 43, and Jolie, 41, of Whangarei.

"I took up tap dancing at 43," says Whitaker to confirm she has been a late bloomer. "I guess what it is is that you follow what your husband does for the first part, which was speedway, then you follow the children and what they do — swimming, camps and things like that — then I thought I've got to do something for me so I always wanted to learn to tap dance."

She had joined a group of women who were going around voluntarily to entertain elderly residents at resthomes and that's where she found traction with tap dancing.

It was through a friend, Kathy Vallance, of Hastings, that she stumbled on to tenpin bowling. She joined her and another mutual friend, Twinnette Lunum, to give the sport a go at the Hastings centre.

"[Kathy] had a hip birth defect and said 'Let's do it [played tenpin] because it looks interesting and I've never done that before'."

At the Super Strike centre, the then manager, Barbara Nonu, who now owns it, encouraged "the girls" to join the club league.

"We foolishly joined up," she says with a laugh, quickly coming to the realisation it was a trickier game to master than they had envisaged.

What appealed to the trio was that tenpin became a leveller where factors such as age and strength didn't matter much.

"I had people who were probably 20 years older than me in the league and 15 years younger than me. There was no age classification and no one looked down on you or up to you so we were all on a par — not ability wise but in camaraderie."

Whitaker, a 20 handicapper, says tenpin is akin to golf in some respects as she prepares to compete in every category of the age-group nationals today.

She will start with the mystery pairs and mixed pairs today, teams of four tomorrow and then finish with the singles.

Whitaker will represent Hastings but doesn't know who she'll be playing until draws are done before each competition.

She first competed in the 55-plus tourney in 2008 and was over the moon about it.

"I could go on line and read about it and see photographs as well as enter the nationals and see the draws, what lanes you're bowling on and who with."

A chuckling Whitaker points out it's not just a game that leaves arms tired but also leaves the muscles in the buttocks crying for mercy.

"I have never worn a pedometer or a cardio machine but some people have and they say it's equal to other forms of exercises."

Either way she considers it a barrel of fun and very involving in a game where imperial measures prevail — she uses 13-pound balls, the pins are four inches wide and the balls are nine inches wide.

She serves as a trustee of the Hawke's Bay Tenpin Bowling Foundation which helps raise funds and promotes the code.

"Individuals can approach us for funding if they want to go away to tournaments and we help the seniors, juniors and Special Olympians," she says proudly after a five-year stint.

Because the Bay branch is affiliated to Tenpin Bowling New Zealand, it is able to apply for funds through charities such as Lion Foundation and Lotto.

Whitaker plays once a week on Wednesdays and once a fortnight on Tuesdays.

However, with the tourney added on today she will have played six consecutive days.

"I consider it a no-walk situation come Sunday," she says of the long haul but comfortable in the knowledge she has done stints like that before.

Her main objective is building friendships with fellow competitors from as far down south as Invercargill and as far north as Whangaparoa.

"When we get together every three months it's like a big reunion," she says of the 55-plus group who compete three times in a year and some will meet each other for the first time.

"We have like everybody hugging and kissing each other."