Mark Story: Not much ado over Kulick's historic bowling win

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 28, 2010 

  • Girl power

    Three notable times when female competitors won at the top levels of traditionally male-dominated sports:

    June 5, 1993: Julie Krone rides 13-1 shot Colonial Affair to a 21/4-length victory over Kissin Kris in the Belmont Stakes to become the first — and still the only — female jockey ever to win a Triple Crown horse race.

    April 20, 2008: Danica Patrick wins the Indy Racing League's Indy Japan 300 at Motegi, Japan, beating second-place Helio Castroneves by 5.8594 seconds. It was the first time — and, so far the only one — in which a female driver won a major-league open-wheel event for an American-sanctioned auto racing body.

    Jan. 24, 2010: Morehead State University graduate Kelly Kulick wins the 45th Professional Bowlers Association Tournament of Champions, defeating 2007-08 PBA Player of the Year Chris Barnes 265-195 in the championship. The victory in one of male bowling's four majors makes Kulick the first woman ever to win a PBA Tour event.

    Mark Story

Kelly Kulick "bowl-dly" went where no woman had gone before.

When the former Morehead State University bowling standout beat Professional Bowling Association star Chris Barnes 265-195 on Jan. 24 to win the PBA Tournament of Champions, it not only meant she was the first female ever to win an event on the men's bowling tour.

She had achieved the gender breakthrough in one of the PBA's most prestigious events.

In the heady aftermath of victory, Kulick, 32, let her imagination run with what a woman defeating the best male bowlers in the U.S. could mean.

She saw herself dancing onto the stage with Ellen and exchanging quips in the Ed Sullivan Theater with Letterman.

Kulick let herself hope that the attention would bring a wave of corporate sponsorship that would reinvigorate women's professional bowling — which has been without a full-time tour since 2003.

Alas, the nation more or less shrugged at Kulick's sports gender history.

"Honestly, the only thing that has changed is that my schedule is busier, more appearances," Kulick said. "But there's hasn't been anything drastic. No talk shows. No new sponsors outside the (bowling) industry.

"And the thing that really frustrates me, nothing that's come out of it so far has done anything really to help women's professional bowling."

As you'll see, the three-time All-America bowler at Morehead, who was the bedrock of MSU's 1998 United States Bowling Congress college national championship team, does at least hope that there will be something meaningful happening for her in Kentucky as a result of her gender busting.

In the meantime, Kulick has not let the lack of hoopla surrounding her win over the men dampen her subsequent performance.

Since that historic day in Vegas, Kulick has gone on to win not one, but two women's bowling "majors." Add those to her victory over the guys and a win in the PBA Women's World Championship last September, and the Union, N.J., product has won the last four "major" tournaments in which she's bowled.

Kelly Kulick's Four Consecutive Major Titles Ranks Among Greatest Feats in Bowling History, screams a headline on the PBA's official Web site.

"Just a magical year," Kulick said. "I don't know any other way to say it."

From Jersey to Morehead

Kulick's eventual rise to the top of her sport began when she was 5 and her mom, Carol, would take her little girl to the bowling alley on Saturdays for lunch. By the time Kelly was in fifth grade, she proclaimed in her school yearbook that she would be a professional bowler.

When it came time to pick a college, Kulick was also a standout high school softball player. But her heart was with bowling.

Looking for a college with a strong emphasis on knocking down pins, the New Jersey high school student knew a fellow bowler who had found such a school in Kentucky.

Until that point, Kulick had never heard of Morehead State.

Though it has always been a "club sport," meaning no financial support from the school's athletics department, Morehead has an elite bowling tradition that includes national championships in 1989, 1998, 2000 and 2002.

The school's bowling lanes are named for Larry Wilson, the longtime former coach at Morehead.

"Kelly and I met in Atlantic City; we were there bowling in a tournament," Wilson recalls of the recruiting effort that brought Kulick to Morehead. "We met there during the tournament. We got a lane and she bowled on it."

The lane where Kulick was auditioning for Morehead was drier than the petrified forest.

As a result, "I had to work some crazy angles," Kulick said. "But, I guess Larry could see I could bowl."

By the time she left MSU with a teaching degree, Kulick was one of the most promising young women's bowlers in the country.

In 2001, Kulick was Rookie of the Year on the Women's Professional Bowling Association tour. She won the Women's U.S. Open in 2003, but weeks later the WPBA went defunct.

There has not been a full-time women's pro tour since.

The PBA has tried to fill the void, offering a limited series of women's tourneys. But "even that is going away next year," Kulick said.

Full-time on men's tour

As a result of her victory over the boys in the PBA Tournament of Champions, Kulick has a two-year exemption on the men's tour.

Starting this fall, she will bowl full-time against men. It will be her second regular stint where the boys are. In 2006, she became the first woman to be exempt for the male tour and had a best finish of 22nd two different times.

"That's not what I want," she says of being a PBA regular. "I'd much rather bowl against women. But if there's no (women's) tour and I want to bowl as a professional, what choice do I have?"

After Danica Patrick broke through and became the first woman ever to win a major American open-wheel auto race, I'm fairly confident she did not spend the next few months working in a car body shop.

Kulick still works part-time in her family's KBF Auto Body Shop.

If becoming the first woman to win a PBA event has not made Kelly Kulick a national sensation, she is hoping it will do one lasting thing here in Kentucky.

"I hope it gets me in the Morehead State Hall of Fame," she said.

Seems like it ought to at least do that.

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