issue Spring 2023

Roll On: NCAA Champion Bowler Utilizes DPT Expertise to Heal Fellow Athletes

By Margaret Smith
Photo by Joel Wintermantle

There was a time in life for Briana Zabierek when Saturday mornings meant bowling with her middle school friends. What began then as weekend joy on the lanes — just one part of a childhood fueled by sport and friendly competition — would later become a source of not only personal passion but professional inspiration for her.

Dr. Zabierek, a 2021 graduate of the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, has always found herself at that same intersection of passion and purpose, in part, thanks to her ability to suss out where she excels and devote herself to it. Such was the case with her bowling career, as she went from weekend player, to promising high school athlete, to NCAA champion bowler for the University of Nebraska — after having been scouted by the program’s coaches in high school.

“I wasn’t very good at first, but I took the time because I had family and friends that really encouraged me (into thinking) I could take it pretty far as a sport. It pretty much shaped the life I have today — including meeting some of my very best friends and partner,” Dr. Zabierek said. “At Nebraska, I was an exercise science major and knew I wanted to go to physical therapy school, so I would research bowling and exercise frequently but never saw much scientific research regarding the two topics. It ended up inspiring my research project while in physical therapy school.”

Photo by Joel Wintermantle

Dr. Zabierek’s firsthand experience as both a bowler and physical therapist put her in a unique position to more acutely understand the sport-specific injuries that occur, particularly at the collegiate level. This understanding is what led to her most recent research, “Musculoskeletal Injuries in Elite Collegiate Tenpin Bowling Athletes,” published in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation — which outlines research supporting what Dr. Zabierek described as the “extremely common” injuries tied to the sport, which often are a result of lack of proper strength and conditioning programs, among other elements.

“I was disappointed that there was not any current research going on for collegiate bowling and sports injuries like other major sports have. Big sports like football, volleyball, basketball and soccer have surveillance programs through athletic trainers that monitor injuries throughout seasons, but smaller sports like bowling do not have the same recognition,” Dr. Zabierek continued. To bring this work to fruition, she called upon the expertise of “some extremely intelligent professors who I knew would help me out as best (they) could to start collecting data on what kinds of injuries high-level competitive bowlers experience.”

“I was disappointed that there was not any current research going on for collegiate bowling and sports injuries like other major sports have.”

Yet, the intersection of these two aspects of her life — sport and medicine — were not always aligned. In fact, her aspiration to become a physical therapist is something she can trace back to her childhood, particularly, to the inspiration of her two elder sisters — one of whom is a nurse and the other who was born with cerebral palsy. Having accompanied her sister to physical therapy appointments throughout her youth, over time, it became more than evident that her interest in the field and its patients was cemented.

“I always went to physical therapy appointments with her when we were young, and I liked the pool therapy a lot,” Dr. Zabierek said. “As I got older, I really enjoyed orthopedics and sports for a few years, especially in physical therapy school, but my  last clinical was in a hospital that treats a variety of complex neurological conditions, like my sister has, and I fell in love with treating that population all over again.”

Dr. Zabierek’s professional concentration now is the result of having broadened her horizons to discern what area of care she could best operate within. This, she mentioned, is similar to her early beginnings as an athlete who “grew up playing every sport under the sun” until she centered on bowling in high school, where her competitive nature “did not want to stop or settle” until she reached new heights within the sport — and did.

“I am the type of person who believes anyone can be really good at a lot of things, so choosing one specific niche was never easy for me, and I still find myself with many interests even as a physical therapist for almost two years now,” Dr. Zabierek continued. “However, I still think because I liked making memories with my family, and especially my sisters, that doing the same thing for patients with all different kinds of conditions is really rewarding.”

In the wake of Dr. Zabierek’s research going public, she said she has “high hopes” this work can inspire younger bowlers who are planning to pursue a career in physical therapy or “veterans” of the sport who considered starting an exercise program to prevent a decline in their game performance. More than that, she wants the public to recognize how “extremely taxing on the body” this sport can be.

“I want to see bowling mentioned in the same realm as other major sports,” she said. “I’m biased, but I believe these athletes deserve recognition.” 

Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based freelance editor and writer whose work largely focuses on current sociopolitical happenings.