Shuffleboard champions from EHT prepare to take on the world’s best OCEAN CITY – Irene Cowell was hardly in championship form Friday.
She was losing by 10 points early in her practice round at the Fifth Street shuffleboard courts. But things can turn quickly in this game of strategy and finesse.
With a single push of her cue, Irene’s yellow disc skated perfectly into her opponent’s black one, knocking it out of scoring position and landing hers in the 10-point triangle.
She smiled with approval.
Irene and her husband, Chick, are getting ready for six days of international competition in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This couple from Egg Harbor Township was selected to compete with 22 other Americans in the International Shuffleboard Association’s tournament in September.
“It’s so exciting,” she said. “We worked hard for it.”
The Ocean City Shuffle-board Club is one of the most popular in New Jersey. Its secret: The club draws its members from a pool of Florida’s best snowbird shufflers – including the Cowells – who divide their time between the two states.
Chick is a family nickname for Charles. His father was a Chick and so is the couple’s son.
“I used to play golf. But she’d sit at home. The best part about this is being together,” he said.
The 75-year-old has always been an athlete. He lettered in football, baseball and basketball at Glassboro State College, where he was inducted to the Sports Hall of Fame in 1992. He coached football for 35 years. His Indians team at the Dr. J.P. Cleary Junior High School in Buena went undefeated for six years.
By contrast, Irene has never played a sport in her life. She is a retired school librarian. But she found she had a knack as a shuffler. Irene, 72, took to shuffleboard like a seagull to Boardwalk pizza. She won the women’s nationals last month in Lakeside, Ohio.
“The women are as good as the men. Some are better,” Chick mused.
Neither of them picked up a shuffleboard cue until 1998. The couple practiced and competed together so they would improve at the same pace. That way, Irene said, they could be invited to the same tournaments and play in the same skill class.
Ocean City has a love for all things recreational. Shuffleboard is no different. Students at Ocean City High School play in gym class. This resort has the most courts in New Jersey. Eighteen of the 24 courts are open and free to the public. Six others belong to the club. The city keeps cues and discs in an equipment shed for visitors to use. This Cape May County town plays host to the New Jersey state championships each year.
Most ranked players buy their own 6-foot-long cues. The Cowells keep their cues at their winter home in Florida.
“They’re hard to take on a plane,” Irene said.
But they plan to take them to Brazil next month. This game has taken the couple to England and Denmark. But the game has broad appeal in Australia, Japan and South America as well.
“I had trouble understanding the Brazilian girls. You just smile a lot,” she said.
In Ocean City, club members play for Shriver’s candy – or dimes. Usually, the Cowells walk away with toll change and taffy at the end of the day. They play even on the hottest summer days. It’s cool in the shade of the club’s shelter. Sparrows nest in the rafters, chirping above the knocking of discs.
Before playing Friday, club Vice President Frank Brenner swept the courts with a push broom. Windblown sand is a major pitfall of the club’s oceanfront location. Then he used a shaker can to apply wax to the concrete surface.
“They’re good,” Brenner said of the Cowells. Competitive, too, he said.
Chick admitted he hates to lose.
“Oh, yeah. You go home talking to yourself sometimes,” he said.
The game is deceptively simple. Land your disc in one of the scoring areas or knock your opponent’s out. But there is plenty of strategy involved. But the key to friendly competition is being friendly, she said.
“You’re playing mostly with friends. Very seldom do you find a poor sport,” she said. “You know someone is going to lose that day.”