Nancy Bowling’s locker was a blank canvas when she reported to Hillenbrand Stadium in the fall.
UA coach Mike Candrea had removed the Arizona “A” from the Wildcats’ uniforms as part of a crash course in leadership, and emphasizing what it meant to be a Wildcat.
The team, one by one, would have to earn back their jerseys. The move took many of her teammates by surprise, but not Bowling. This is what she wanted. It’s why she came back.
Bowling, a redshirt junior pitcher and first baseman, spent her whole life working toward that “A.”
She was a star in high school, a top 10 recruit in Arizona’s 2013 class, and its presumptive ace heading into the 2015 season. On March 8 that year, she gave up five hits and four runs in a loss to Baylor.
Nancy was not herself. Her velocity was down, her energy was shot, and she had lost between 20 and 30 pounds from her regular playing weight.
Nancy left the team a few days later, unsure if she would ever return. She had to deal with a different A.
“It was a challenge,” she said, “admitting there was a problem.”
Not any more.
“I suffered from anorexia,” she said.
There’s a certain weight that comes with pitching, especially at a school like Arizona.
The Hillenbrand Stadium crowd, usually at least 2,000 strong, hangs on every pitch. Each motion — a stare-down, a windup, a delivery, a reaction — is monitored and criticized.
Make 100 good pitches — and one mistake — and the ball is gone, home run. Every box score reveals a winning pitcher and a losing pitcher; there is no “winning batter” or “losing coach.”
For Nancy, the pitcher’s circle was both an oasis and a prison. The self-proclaimed perfectionist was never satisfied with a performance, even when she deserved the plaudits. As a 14-year-old, she pitched her club team, the Lakewood Ladies, to a national championship.
“She didn’t think anything of it ,” said her mother, Debbie. “It was, like, no big deal.”
Nancy didn’t revel in wins. She dwelled on losses.
“One thing I noticed about her very early on was that she wants to win, no matter what,” said her father, Bill. “We played cards, board games, anything you can think of, and she was determined to win. Ever since she could do anything, she wanted to win. You can spot that in them.”
Nancy did a lot of winning to be sure. As a senior at Royal High School in Simi Valley, California, Bowling won 25 games with a 0.43 ERA. She had offers to play at all the Pac-12 power schools, including Arizona and UCLA.
During her first two years with the Wildcats, Nancy won 11 games as a spot starter. Her third season (2015) was different though: She started just four games, made 12 total appearances and carried a 4.79 ERA before leaving the team. It wasn’t failure, necessarily — she still carried a 2-0 record — but it wasn’t the success Nancy was used to.
“Nancy wants to be perfect,” Debbie Bowling said. “She thinks she needs to be perfect. And she didn’t know how to cope with it.”
Good from the start
Bill Bowling was born and raised in California, the big brother to two younger sisters. He enlisted in the Army before becoming a mechanical engineer for Aerojet Rocketdyne.
His sister, Anne, was in the Army too. By 1972, she had become alarmingly skinny.
Anne’s condition, anorexia, wasn’t well-known until the late-1970s, when psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch published a book about “the enigma of anorexia.” Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by low body weight and distorted body image.
There were few statistics and little research. Anorexia is the third-most common chronic disorder affecting adolescent girls. The mortality rate is 18 times greater than women who are not affected by it. Nearly 1 percent of women become anorexic, while the number is small — about 0.5 percent — in men.
Roughly 20 percent of individuals struggling with the disorder will die within 20 years.
Bill Bowling never imagined that happening to Nancy, his baby girl.
Bill was 45 years old when Debbie had Nancy, the youngest of the three Bowling children.
“It’s almost like she had a grandpa for a dad,” he said.
Bill put a softball in Nancy’s hand before she was able to walk. Together, Bill and Debbie Bowling would put their feet together, form a crude softball diamond and roll the ball around.
By age 2, Nancy was learning fundamentals. By 4, she was hitting off a tee.
Both Nancy and her sister Margaret were home-schooled until high school. Their parents taught them everything, including softball.
Margaret faded away from softball, but Nancy stuck with it. She would sleep in her jersey the night before games.
Bill coached Nancy for most of her pre-high-school life. He would work from 3:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., then head straight to practice.
By the time Nancy was 12, she and Bill were making the 65-mile trek — through Los Angeles traffic — from Simi Valley to Orange County. Bill was president of the recreational league she played in, and coached Nancy’s all-star and traveling teams.
He made sure there was no favoritism.
“She’s just been a delightful person all along,” Bill Bowling said. “Just everything she does, she does it all the way.”
“Afraid” of food
Nancy was more than 1,400 miles away from Tucson, and another 500 from Simi Valley, when she thought about the relationship for the first time.
Not with her father, or her mother. Not her friends, teammates or coaches.
The one with food.
“I was afraid of (food). I thought it was bad,” she said. “Take all these diet fads and you multiply it by 10, or 100.”
For weeks, Nancy sat in therapy sessions and talked about her weight and what she thought — and felt — about food.
The McCallum Place Eating Disorder Center is the only place in America that specifically treats athletes suffering from eating disorders. Nancy’s trip from Tucson to the center’s St. Louis location happened in a blur.
A week earlier, Nancy was pitching against Baylor. Arizona’s staffers had noticed she was losing weight at an alarming rate. So Bruce Johnston, a team trainer, and Dr. Amy Athey, a licensed psychologist employed by the UA, sat down with Nancy to discuss her eating habits. It didn’t take long for them to diagnose her as anorexic.
“I had a feeling there was something going on, but I never wanted to admit it,” Nancy said on Tuesday. “I was in denial, and then the moment they sat me down and told me ‘you need help’ … I just was in shock, in disbelief. I couldn’t believe it had gotten to that point.
“I just wanted to play softball again, and I didn’t know where I would be or if that would happen.”
Nancy told USA Softball’s website in October that the eating disorder “destroyed” her, and that she was “depressed, anxious and dying both mentally and physical.”
Anorexia is typically triggered by trauma, said a pair of local experts who spoke generally but did not treat Bowling.
The traumatic experience typically leads to a lack of control, which leads those affected to develop new — and extreme — coping measures.
“They think, ‘the one thing I can control is what I put in my body,’” said Dr. Noshene Ranjbar, a UA assistant professor of psychiatry and medical director of the Whole Child Clinic at Banner University Medical Center, South Campus.
The result is, Ranjbar said, “a form of violence to self.”
“It’s like, ‘I am not worthy of eating nutritious food. I am not worthy of a healthy body … I’m going to beat myself up, punish myself enough to have met the required punishment for whatever I’ve done,’” she said.
Dawn Bantel, the medical director of Sabino Recovery, said some are affected by anorexia without knowing it.
“A lot of people don’t identify as having an eating disorder. … It’s a way to help manage their stress, their lives,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have the coping skills to deal with life’s stressors and traumas.”
Bill Bowling suspected something was wrong with Nancy — she was much skinnier than usual — but he didn’t suspect anorexia, not more than 30 years after his sister’s ordeal. Debbie Bowling, meanwhile, was blindsided: Nancy always ate normally when she came home to visit, she thought.
Not everything was what it seemed.
“Oh my gosh … it brings tears to my eyes, and it just chokes me up, thinking about what she went through,” Debbie Bowling said, doing just that. “Especially being a parent …”
Pause, a deep breath.
“And not seeing the signs, and how well she hid all of that. She hid it well. I spent a week with her in Tucson before she went for treatment, and I just sat back and saw everything, and thought, ‘How did I miss this?’”
Back to “game day”
It’s May 2015, and Nancy and her mother are taking a road trip from Simi Valley to UCLA’s softball stadium.
Nancy was back home for a week after her time in St. Louis, timed perfectly to coincide with an Arizona road trip to UCLA for a three-game series.
They arrived early and went straight to the visitor’s dugout.
Nancy hugged all of her teammates and shared a moment with Candrea. It was good to be back.
“It was awesome to sit there and see, because it was home,” Debbie said. “And when she saw Coach it was kind of like … it was awesome.”
Candrea has coached at Arizona for 30 years, he’s won eight national titles and coached Olympics teams. He’s considered a legend of the sport. Few things make him smile like when he talks about Nancy.
“We talk about that, as an athlete, there’s very few people who can understand that,” he said. “What makes them special is their competitiveness. Their standards are very high. They tend to dwell on the losses, and let the wins float by.
“Once they leave the game, they can take a step back and look, and say, ‘The game looks a little different from here.’ Maybe that’s what happened to her, not being able to play last year, being able to sit back and watch the team from a different view.”
Falling in love again
It’s February, and Nancy can’t contain her excitement. She’s smiling so much it hurts.
Nancy hasn’t had this feeling in a long time. She sent a text to her mom, her dad, sister, to teammates, coaches, staff: “Good morning! It’s game day!”
Nancy was back with the team, the “A” on her shirt, ready to start at first base in the Wildcats’ season opener.
In Game 1, she hit a home run to center field, the first of her college career. She’s since hit four more, none bigger than the one in Thursday night’s game against Cal.
Nancy graduated that morning, with her family in the crowd. She then went to Hillenbrand Stadium, where she suited up for the first game in the final homestand of the regular season.
Nancy came to bat in the fifth inning with the bases loaded. The pitch was high and she reached for it, blasting the ball for a grand slam.
Arizona’s entire team greeted her at home plate. Nancy held up the Wildcat hand signal, pinching her thumb and pointer finger together to form a “W.”
It took a few minutes for Nancy to realize she had hit a grand slam. She swears she didn’t know the bases were loaded.
The next day, Nancy pitched four shutout innings in relief of Taylor McQuillin. On Saturday, she slugged another home run.
“She’s out here way before us working on her swing or pitching,” said Katiyana Mauga, Arizona’s star third baseman. “Nancy, we missed her so much and we were just so happy that she came back strong, and stronger than she has been.”
On Monday, Nancy was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week for the first time.
“It means everything”
Before the season, Nancy earned back her “A.” She cried.
“It means everything to me,” she said.
On Friday, she’ll display her “A” — and something else — to a national audience when Arizona faces Ohio State in the NCAA regionals in Knoxville, Tennessee.
During her ordeal, Nancy got a tattoo — the symbol for the National Eating Disorder Association — inked on her arm.
It’s a reminder of all she went through, the pain she was in, how far she’s come. Bowling is hitting .222 with five home runs and 21 RBIs this season; she is also 2-0 on the mound with a 3.37 ERA in 14 appearances.
“It definitely was difficult to go through,” Bowling said. “But in a weird way I’m thankful for it because it made me who I am and it made me stronger. It was definitely a challenge. It was a challenge admitting there was a problem, then having to completely change the way you think and having to be more aware, what your thought process is, it just makes you more aware of who you are.
“It definitely made me fall in love with the game all over again. It’s one of those things where you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone, and stepping away from (softball) resparked my passion and what I have, how much I love it, how much I love the people here.
“It had been a while since I was, like, genuinely, truly happy. Now I can honestly say I wake up every day ready to take on whatever is going to happen.”