ROHNERT PARK — Blake Griffin, the NBA superstar, was there. So was NFL running back Steven Jackson. Hope Solo, the soccer goalie, took up a page. As did Apolo Ohno, the Olympic speedskater. A surfer, a mixed martial artist and big-league shortstop were in attendance. “Bodies We Want,” so read the cover of a 2011 issue of ESPN, naked, athletic bodies tastefully obscured.
In that issue was Kelly Kulick. A bowler. Think about that for a moment. A bowler in a body issue. A bowler as an athlete, a bowler with an athletic body because, well, a bowler is an athlete.
In January 2010, Kulick became the first woman bowler to win a men’s tournament.
“Every tournament after that I was like a circus act,” Kulick said. “I kept telling the media, ‘Talk to the ones leading the tournament.’ Why interview me? Just because I have breasts?”
So when I approached Kulick Wednesday at Double Decker Lanes in Rohnert Park, I opened with, “You’ve had a really interesting life.”
The women’s tour is at the Double D this week.
“Thank you for saying that,” Kulick said. “Means a lot to me that you said that.”
In those two simple sentences, Kulick revealed the acknowledgement that all professional athletes seek but too infrequently experience — that they are more than pop-up figures for our entertainment. That all too often, people in the stands skim the surface, pass judgments, dismiss casually — she a victim of a society that moves so fast every day it doesn’t have time to look behind the curtain.
“‘How come you’re not winning?’ That’s a question I hear,” Kulick said. “It really hurts.”
Kulick, 41, has won once in three years. She’s made The Show, the televised final, 14 times.
In the NBA, that’s like being tied going into the fourth quarter. In some tournaments the comparison would go deeper, like being tied with a minute left. And of course this was Kelly Kulick experiencing the draught, a woman bowler with a higher profile than most.
If she’s not in The Show, she will grab the mic and do commentary for CBS in the booth. Kelly is not another face in the crowd.
She’s Kelly Kulick, with the Body We Want. She’s Kelly Kulick, who beat the men. She’s Kelly Kulick, one of about six women who make enough bowling not to take a side job in the offseason. She’s Kelly Kulick, gifted with a warm personality and deft use of the language. She’s Kelly Kulick, who worked in her father’s auto body shop fixing fenders and bumpers to make ends meet early in her career. She’s Kelly Kulick who had a racehorse named after her. She’s the 2001 Rookie of the Year.
She’s Kelly Kulick, who lost her mother on December 22, 2016. Carol, 70, was her spiritual center, her joy of joys, her guiding light.
When her dad, Bill, worked days and nights to support the family, Carol saw the spark in her daughter — the spark now in its 17th year of professional existence.
One of Carol’s reflections is particularly telling.
“I know how far into her belly she had to go to do this,” Carol once said.