Legends of the Periphery: Bowling Kingpin, Kelly Kulick

From time to time, even some of the greatest and most prolific heroes in all of sports fall through the cracks of obscurity and are lost to the world at large. “Legends of the periphery” celebrates the best of the best among the forgotten, the bizarre, the esoteric and the obscure.

In the game of bowling, your only teammate is the spherical force of destruction you wield against 10 of the most sinister opponents ever known to humankind. There are exactly 60 feet, no more and no less, between you and the pins, between winning and losing. It’s a high stakes, winner takes all type of game where only the strong of will survive and the meek are lost to the ranks of the gutter. On Jan. 24 of this year, Kelly Kulick changed the face of bowling forever when she became the first woman to ever win a Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) tour title.

Born in 1977 in Union, New Jersey, Kulick spent her amateur career at Morehead State University where she was named three-time collegiate player of the year and two-time BWAA Collegiate Bowler of the Year. Before turning pro, Kulick was selected to the Team USA bowling squad in three consecutive years from 1998-2000.

In 2001, Kulick joined the Professional Women’s Bowling Association (PWBA) where she was named Rookie of the Year and later went on to win the ’03 U.S. Women’s Open. Shortly after her first title win, the PWBA folded and prompted the PBA to officially allow membership for women, a move that meant that any bowler, regardless of sex, was eligible to earn exemption for the PBA Tour. In 2006 the New Jerseyan took full advantage of this opportunity, rolling a perfect 300 game on the final day of the 2006 PBA tour trials to become the first female bowler to ever earn a PBA tour exemption. With the exemption, Kulick was invited to compete in every major PBA event of 2005-06, a privilege afforded only to the top 58 bowlers of each season.

To be in a world dominated by men was not a new experience for Kulick. For years she had spent her off-seasons working at her father’s auto shop as the lone woman who could file paperwork one day, and perform an oil change or fix a fender another. Whether working in the auto shop or hurling balls at the bowling alley, what Kulick desired most was simply to be treated as an equal. And although visibly the collegiate phenom does not revel in defeating men over women, she has, ever since earning her first tour exemption, had her gaze fixed solely on knocking the men off from the top spot and earning a tour title.

On Jan. 24, nearly four years after becoming the first woman to join the PBA tour, Kulick took the history books and ripped them to shreds when she defeated all challengers en route to winning the 2010 PBA Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas. After advancing to the finals, Kulick was pitted against former PBA Player of the Year and 12-time title winner Chris Barnes. The tough competition, however, brought out the best in Kulick as she dominated the head-to-head match, throwing 10 strikes and defeating Barnes by a score of 265-195. With the win Kulick officially became the first woman to ever win a regular PBA tour title.

The accomplishment was so momentous that for once bowling broke through into nearly all platforms of mainstream sports media, even NFL star Terrell Owens took time to tweet the exciting news and congratulate Kulick on her victory. In a statement following the event, tennis great and founder of the Women’s Sports Foundations, Billie Jean King, said Kulick’s win at the PBA Tournament of Champions was “not only historic [but also] serves as a motivational and inspirational event for girls and women competing at all levels all around the world.”

Perhaps most impressive about Kulick’s resume is that her accomplishments are not limited solely to the realm of the everyday world, but also extend to that of the comic industry’s favourite web head. Indeed, Kulick’s kindness, charm and overall winning ways made such an impression with comic book writer Peter David, he decided to include the bowler in a 2007 issue of Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman. In the book, our bowling star not only meets Spidey, but she also dazzles a crowd of onlookers with her athletic prowess and delivers a stiff uppercut to one of the book’s villains: Miss Arrow. Now that’s what I call a feather in your cap!

At 32, Kulick still has many prime bowling years ahead of her in a future that could be just as bright as the present. Following the tour victory, the former Team USA member now has a full two-year exemption for all PBA tour events. Kelly Kulick was chosen to be a legend of the periphery not simply because she is a tremendous female athlete that competes in an obscure sport, but because, in winning the PBA tour title, she transcended the need to define an accomplishment in terms of sex; simply put, she is one of the best human bowlers in the world.