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Kelly Kulick hopes her PBA Tour victory gets the ball rolling on bringing back the women's pro bowling tour

In shocking the sports world, Kelly Kulick also turned hers upside down.

Kulick became the first woman to win an event on the men's Professional Bowlers Association tour, three weeks ago in Las Vegas. Her victory at the Tournament of Champions was called "historic" and "inspirational" by former tennis great Billie Jean King, who in 1973 famously took on a man, Bobby Riggs, in an exhibition and beat him.

Since her win, Kulick, 32, has gone from relative obscurity — living with her parents in Union Township, N.J., where she works part time at her father's auto body shop and as a fitness instructor — to worldwide recognition.

She has appeared on ABC, CBS and ESPN, and been compared to fellow female athlete pioneers such as stock car racer Danica Patrick and golfer Annika Sorenstam. She got shout-outs in venues from the Jay Leno Show to the Twitter page of Buffalo Bills receiver Terrell Owens, and received flowers from NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.

Kulick had previously been featured as a bowling hero in a Spider-Man comic, after bowling with the writer's daughter.

"Maybe, in some people's eyes, I am considered a superhero," she said. "I just hope to continue to fly around and make a presence on the tour."

Kulick hopes her victory gets the ball rolling on bringing back the women's pro tour, which folded in 2003. It could also inject much-needed life into pro bowling, which has seen its purses and number of sanctioned bowlers drop over the years. When Kulick made her winning run in Las Vegas, rolling 48 nerve-racking games before beating Chris Barnes in the final, the telecast reached its highest ratings in 10 years (1.7 million viewers).

Kulick embraces being a role model to young female bowlers and hopes to be a "competitive force" on the men's tour. With the win, she earned $40,000 and two years of tour exemptions. Her next event, the Don and Paula Carter Mixed Doubles in Wheat Ridge, Colo., is Monday through Feb. 21, when it will be televised at 1 p.m. on ESPN.

"I have to be honest," she said. "I always envisioned myself winning a men's title. I truly believed I'd be the first woman. I never imagined it'd be a major championship or the Tournament of Champions. … I just didn't realize the impact it would have."

•••

Kulick always has dreamed big. Her ambition led her to play Little League baseball instead of softball, and to write in her fifth-grade yearbook she wanted to be a pro bowler.

What started as leisurely afternoons and lunch (grilled cheese and fries) at the lanes with her mother, Carol, turned into a passion. Kulick quit basketball in high school to hone her craft, and it paid off. She became a three-time All-American at Morehead State in Kentucky and a two-time member of Team USA.

She made a splash on the women's tour, earning rookie of the year honors. After it folded for financial reasons, Kulick was determined to latch on with the men. It wasn't easy.

Kulick, paying her entry fees from money made at the auto shop, failed to qualify twice. After her savings dwindled, she considered moving on until June 2006, when she became the first woman to earn an exemption on the men's tour, placing sixth out of 140 in a qualifier.

Kulick said the men, many of whom she idolized as a kid, have treated her well ("they've been gentlemen"). But success has been difficult to come by. She said she had been thinking about switching gears, potentially to a culinary career, until her win in Las Vegas.

Kulick, who averaged 250 in her final four games of the tournament, was "in the zone," buoyed by a "nothing to lose" attitude. After beating eight-time tour champion Mika Koivuniemi 227-223, Kulick hugged her mother, who gave her a quick pep talk.

"You've been working for this your entire life. … Now take it!"

After Kulick beat Barnes 265-195, PBA deputy commissioner Tom Clark said the reaction of her male counterparts was "awe."

Kulick said the ensuing interviews and appearances have been surreal. She's trying to return to some normalcy, including going back to her job at the auto shop (she used to work on bumpers and fenders; now she has mostly clerical duties). Kulick still lives with her parents, where her father, Bill, "still waits for me to get home at night."

But when Kulick went to her regular Wednesday country line-dancing class a few days after her win, she realized how things had changed.

"I walked in and had a standing ovation. The DJ played the Rocky theme song," she said. "I had a cake and more hugs than I could give out. … If people didn't know where (Union Township) is, they do now."

Kelly Kulick hopes her PBA Tour victory gets the ball rolling on bringing back the women's pro bowling tour 02/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2010 11:36pm]
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