As a youngster, Kelly Kulick dreamed of being a championship bowler. Now she is one.
Kulick, 33, who wrote a prediction in her fifth-grade class yearbook that she would be a professional bowler, in January became the first woman to win a Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) Tour title when she defeated a field of 62 men in the 45th Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas, Nev. The history-making victory catapulted her into the national spotlight, and marked a coup for women’s sports and for bowling in general.
“It wasn’t just being the lone female in the event; I was competing against all champions,” says Kulick, of Union, N.J. (pop. 54,252). “I’m hoping my success will bring more women into the sport.”
Kulick first faced a set of bowling pins at age 6, when her paternal grandfather took her to the Four Seasons, a bowling alley in Union. “Don’t remember much from that day,” says Kulick, whose father, Phil Jr., once worked as a bowling alley pinsetter, “but I do recall my first bowling ball was a blue-and-white Kmart Special.”
Her passion for the sport intensified when she began bowling in a junior league at age 10. Her coach encouraged her, and not long after, Kulick found herself in the expert hands of Dick Ritger, who is renowned in bowling circles for his instructional camps. The former PBA bowler-turned-coach immediately recognized the young girl’s natural talent.
“At the camps, most kids were 16, 17, 18,” says Ritger, 71, of River Falls, Wis. (pop. 14,352). “As a 12-year-old with all the skills, Kelly matched them.”
Kulick earned a bowling scholarship to Morehead (Ky.) State University, where she became a four-time All-American, graduating in 2000. The following year, she turned pro and was named Rookie of the Year on the now-defunct women’s tour. Then, at a 2003 awards luncheon, PBA men’s tour veteran and Hall of Famer Parker Bohn III offered advice that radically changed her bowling strategy for the better.
Bowl the pins, Bohn counseled, not your opponent. “Hearing that just clicked for me,” Kulick says. “Mentally it gave me a different outlook.”
Two months later, Kulick registered her first-ever professional victory in the Women’s U.S. Open, as she continually reminded herself to “bowl the pins!”
Following a disappointing season two years ago, Kulick once again elevated her game by stepping up workouts at the gym and embracing the practice of yoga. The extra effort paved the way for her barrier-breaking win at this year’s Tournament of Champions.
“Focusing on breathing and meditation have helped me most,” says Kulick, who bowled a 226 average in the tournament.
While Kulick has won five major tournament titles since 2003 and earned $141,000 on the PBA circuit, it’s her passion for the game—not the motivation of money—that makes her a fierce and focused competitor against the best male and female bowlers in the world.
So what are the bowling champ’s plans when she retires from the sport? “I’m really looking at culinary school,” says Kulick, who is captivated by the shows on the Food Network. “Now I’m into Bobby Flay and the Throwdown.”