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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.

The only other times Kelly went that deep were for her family. So her mom’s passing shook her to her core. She’s still a bit wobbly. The post she could always lean on was no longer there.

So when someone asked, “What’s wrong, Kelly?” she doesn’t ignite. She channeled Carol.

“My mom told me to look at it this way: If I finished 17th, and we pay through 32, than that bowler who finished 33rd would have loved to finish 17th,” Kulick said. “It’s so easy to criticize. I prefer to look at it the other way.”

So when someone asks Kulick if bowlers are athletes, she doesn’t throw that 2011 ESPN body issue at them.

She doesn’t recite her weekly, if not daily, workouts that include rowing, medicine balls, box jumping, situps, shaking chains. She doesn’t even boast on how much she loves exercise: “Let me go out there with a shovel and dig a grave before I sit all day in front of a computer.”

Kulick doesn’t say any of that to defend her sport. Rather, she says simply: “Go out and bowl 32 games in two days.”

This Friday and Saturday at Double Decker, with 73 women competing in the PWBA Sonoma County Open, Kulick could bowl a possible 33 games to win the title. In 14 hours, if you’re keeping score at home.

Wednesday was a practice. For 90 minutes Kulick bowled alone and nonstop on lanes 25-26. After an hour, she was wringing wet.

She was trying to figure out the lanes. She brings 10 balls with her to every tournament that contain various characteristics. Does the lane break early or late? (she has a last-minute hook). How much oil? How much groove? How much sliding? How much luck?

“I’m rolling a ball 60 feet into a triangle,” she said. “You can hit the pocket perfectly but not get a strike.”

That’s because a perfectly thrown bowling ball hits only four pins. What happens next? Good fortune smiles. Sometimes. If it doesn’t, Kelly Kulick has a backup plan.

“I have a body bag (punching bag) in the basement of my home in New Jersey,” she said.

There, Kelly Kulick always strikes.

Or, to put it another way, ask that body bag if Kelly Kulick is an athlete.

Contact Bob Padecky at bobpadecky@gmail.com

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