The Noble Prodigy: Caroline Thesier Pt. 2

Senior Caroline Thesier remembers both the highs and lows of Vanderbilt’s illustrious bowling program, but how does she want us to remember her?
Part two of a two-part series on Vanderbilt Bowling senior Caroline Thesier. (Hustler Multimedia/Sofia El-Shammaa)
Part two of a two-part series on Vanderbilt Bowling senior Caroline Thesier. (Hustler Multimedia/Sofia El-Shammaa)
Sofia El-Shammaa

Our myths often wither under the weight of the world; and, when the world itself is withering, and we have no means to escape it, our myths and our dreams and ourselves are often left to die. And thus it was that Caroline Thesier, the young prodigy hellbent on earning her way into Vanderbilt, arrived in Nashville with the world on fire — or, more accurately, in lockdown.

“She came in the first year of COVID,” head coach John Williamson said. “I think we sort of miss or don’t think about the development things they missed that 12-24 months that things were really altered.”

Thesier’s first year at Vanderbilt was nothing close to what she imagined. With strict social distancing measures in place, the bowling team could not practice together, could not eat together, could not meet up together and could not even high-five each other during matches. Every student at Vanderbilt was subjected to these protocols, but not every student was trying to find their way at a program with national championship expectations.

“Her freshman year, we did all our interactions over Zoom,” Williamson said. “It’s hard to really get to know somebody over a computer screen.”

It’s little wonder that Thesier didn’t take to her first year of collegiate bowling as quickly as she took to the high school level. She finished with a single all-tournament team selection and limited playing time beyond the fall, a far cry from both her goals and her abilities. That Vanderbilt team ultimately won the Southland Conference Championship but just missed out on the NCAA Final Four. For Thesier, there was little satisfaction in any of it.

“It was really hard to connect with the rest of the team,” Thesier said. “We always had to be separated.”

In Thesier’s second year, with COVID requirements gradually lifted, she finally began to find her footing on the team. That January, she made the Vegas Classic all-tournament team with a 215.6 pin per game average. A few months later, she was named to the All-Southland Bowling League Third Team.

While getting accustomed to life on the lanes took some time, Thesier immediately adjusted to her new life as a college student. A dean’s list designation her freshman spring was followed by a conference and national honor roll selection. Amidst the lifting of restrictions, Thesier pressed on with her studies in her sophomore year, earning another national all-academic selection.

Around this time, Thesier’s career aspirations also began to change as her classes introduced her to the broader field beyond sports psychology. While helping children was always her goal, how she would do that began to take on new forms. Thesier became entranced with the prospect of anxiety and depression counseling, a field emerging from old taboos to become an integral part of the lives of young Americans.

“I want to make another kid feel the way I feel right now,” Thesier said. “I picked this route because it means something to me.”

Yet, as Thesier’s sophomore year came to a close, it ended not with the catharsis of a world back to normal, but the frustration of coming just short of her goals. After winning a second consecutive Southland Bowling League championship and advancing through the NCAA Regionals, Vanderbilt arrived at the NCAA Tournament with a shot at its third national title.

After defeating Fairleigh Dickinson and falling short against Stephen F. Austin, the Commodores faced No. 1 McKendree with a spot in the National Championship on the line. After winning the opening traditional match, Vanderbilt found itself ahead down the stretch of the ensuing Baker match, but a litany of mistakes allowed the Bearcats to send the contest to a Baker best-of-seven series. The momentum carried, and McKendree found itself with an early lead, eventually bringing the series to an insurmountable 3.5-0.5.

Vanderbilt gave the nation’s top team all it could, but ultimately surrendered the series in game 7. After another year of winning the nation’s toughest conference, Vanderbilt fell one game short of competing for a national championship, and Thesier one game short of achieving the goal she had set for herself at 11 years old.

“I don’t remember all of it because you kind of black out in those moments,” Thesier said. “I remember that I definitely made a mistake that played into that loss, and I remember everyone crying.”

It’s almost impossible to imagine what it feels like to come just short of something as remarkable as playing for a National Championship. The typhoon of emotions was strong enough to flood the eyes of Thesier, a diligent student of the brain and its chemistry and a being dedicated to helping others see the bigger picture. It’s a moment that leaves a wound which throbs long after it has been scarred over. Nothing can heal it completely, and yet it does come with one singular silver lining.

“Coach [Williamson] took us over to a TV set and I stood there arm-and-arm with Jen [Loredo] and Mel [Keifer],” Thesier said. “[Williamson said] ‘this is what you want next year. You want to be here.’”

It was a poignant moment, but an inspiring one.

“I just remember crying and feeling like you’re so close but you just missed it,” Thesier said. “You feel like it’s your fault and you’ll do whatever [it takes].”

And so, in Thesier’s junior season, the entire roster was willing to do whatever it took to avoid being in that same spot. They would not be consumed by their pain, but be fueled by it.

That fuel propelled Thesier to an individual season almost as historic as any she had orchestrated in high school. She would continue to receive the sport’s top academic honors while earning another Vegas Classic all-tournament team, a spot on the NCAA Central Regional all-tournament team and an NTCA Second Team All-American selection.

“I feel like [sophomore] year was really important,” Thesier said. “When I look back at myself as a player, as cliché as it is, I needed that to happen in order for last year to happen.”

Vanderbilt came well short of a third consecutive Southland Bowling League title, but another NCAA Regionals victory propelled the program back to the NCAA Tournament. After an early loss to Arkansas State, the Commodores bounced back with an eliminating defeat of McKendree — a score settled from the prior year’s shortcomings.

With a spot in the championship on the line, Vanderbilt — with Thesier in the lineup at all times — brought down Nebraska in a 2-0 mega-match victory. After nearly a decade of work, Thesier could finally tell her younger self that she had accomplished their shared dream: to play for Vanderbilt on ESPN.

And yet, competitor that she is, Thesier knew the job was not finished. As soon as the first goal was completed, a new one came to take its place: win the championship match. Thesier, her teammates and her coaches would settle for nothing less.

The 2023 NCAA Championship was a historic match that put Vanderbilt back on top of the bowling world for the first time in five years. After falling into a 3-1 deficit, the Commodores achieved the first such comeback in the history of the NCAA Bowling Championship, spoiling Arkansas State’s first ever team sport title. 

As fate would have it, in the ninth frame of game 7, it was Caroline Thesier who hit a strike and mathematically sealed Vanderbilt’s third title in program history. 

“I was so nervous in the back watching. All the parents were so tense,” Jack Thesier, Caroline’s father said. “She stepped up and threw it perfectly.”

What had been tears of tragedy one year before thus became tears of triumph. What Thesier and her teammates accomplished will live on forever at Vanderbilt and in the legends of the sport.

“When it was all over, the parents all rushed down to the lanes to be with our daughters,” Thesier’s father said. “The hug was long and a lot of happy tears [came] from everyone.”

Without the pain of the year before, it’s possible that the joy of this moment would never have come to be. Perhaps that’s a rationalization of the pain. Perhaps it’s the truth. Perhaps it’s both. Whatever it is, and whatever creation myth of Thesier one chooses to believe, it all led to one singular moment in time. It is a moment that has achieved immortality; but, as a mortal being, the person behind it continues on.

A little over halfway through her senior season, Thesier has not had the results she expected. Vanderbilt, ranked No. 2 by the NTCA, has proven once again that it can compete with any team, but the Commodores appear far from invincible. With a roster deeper than it has ever been before, the world has seen inexplicably little of Thesier.

“I’m sure that privately she might be frustrated because she wants to be in a little bit more,” Williamson said. “[But] she’s been very supportive. She’s embraced the idea of what we’re trying to achieve as a group.”

Even as she’s been out of the rotation more than she would like, Thesier has still found a way to make an impact on her team.

“Every time I’m on the approach, I hear her say ‘Come on, Tor, you can do it’,” her teammate and roommate Victoria Varano said. “Especially in high pressure situations, every athlete knows you try to stay positive, but there’s a small percentage of doubt in your head. The way she portrays herself in the last seconds before you go really helps.”

As her college career comes to a close, she’s already begun to construct her life after graduation. 

“My next step is that I want to get my master’s [degree] in clinical mental health counseling,” Thesier said. “That or child studies. With that, I want to do anxiety and depression counseling with children and adolescents.”

Her choice of field, and her aptitude for it, is very apparent in her day-to-day life.

“She just cares so much about everybody and is willing to put her needs lower than everyone else’s,” Varano said. “She’s just very comforting, and she’s very much the person who, when you need a hug or to cry it out, you go to first.”

Even beyond her capacity for empathy, Thesier stands as a role model for her teammates. Despite being a reigning national champion, the senior has dedicated more time than ever to getting in the weight room and reaching her athletic potential.

“There was a turning point over the summer where I was like, ‘even though I’m good at bowling, I’m lacking here, and it was in the weight room,” Thesier said. “I want to be able to do these things, and if I can do these things my bowling will improve.”

After accomplishing her goal of winning a National Championship, Thesier has set new goals for herself. Once she accomplishes them, more are sure to follow, and so on it shall be until the end of time.

“She inspires me to do a lot,” Varano said. “I am genuinely so proud of her for how long she works.”

It’s impossible to miss the impact of Thesier.

“She values the idea of team success in our world as much as she values individual success in her own,” Williamson said. “The way she interacts with the younger girls to steer them along, she wants to leave the team in a better position than when she got here.”

That well reflects what Thesier sees as her own mission.

“Of course, you want to be remembered as that great athlete,” Thesier said. “Every athlete wants to be remembered for their skill and what they contributed.”

Yet, there’s always been something more to Thesier.

“But, I think a big part of what I like to do is taking care of people and being the source people come to when they need something or want to talk about something,” Thesier said. “I enjoy having that role.”

Thus, as she moves on to forge a new life as someone dedicated to helping others, she wants to be remembered for doing the same at her university.

“I want to be remembered as…that kind of individual that [my teammates] knew they could count on, and that really cared about them individually,” Thesier said. “I want to be remembered for what I could contribute that way as a human being.”

After all she has accomplished, all the goals she has set and achieved and all the work she has put in, Thesier wants to be remembered for something more personal. She is a being worthy of a creation myth, a person whose deeds stand immortal as a testament to the miracles mankind can perform; and yet, at the end of a road over a decade long, she desires to be remembered as the mortal she was.

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About the Contributors
Jayce Pollard
Jayce Pollard, Non-revenue Sports Specialist
Jayce Pollard (‘25) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in public policy and economics and minoring in data science and Spanish. Outside of writing for The Hustler, you can catch Jayce trying to learn the rules of soccer, hating on the Arkansas Razorbacks and being chronically on Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected]
Sofia El-Shammaa
Sofia El-Shammaa, Staff Writer and Photographer, Data and Graphics Staffer
Sofia El-Shammaa (‘27) is majoring in political science and communication studies in the College of Arts and Science. When they’re not writing or making graphics, you can find them with their cat, Mochi, watching bad movies or reading good books. You can reach them at [email protected].
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