Bowling has taken Janine Kuwahara around the globe, and now she uses it to propel her education at Sam Houston State.
For Janine Kuwahara, the road from Davao City, Philippines, to Huntsville, Texas, is paved with the pine and maple of bowling lanes.
Now, more than 8,600 miles away from home, Kuwahara is thriving as an international student. Through her first four semesters at Sam Houston State University, she has posted a 4.0 grade-point average – all while helping the Bearkats win the 2014 NCAA National Collegiate Bowling Championship.
Kuwahara never imagined she would be able to attend college and bowl at the same time. That combination isn’t an option in the Philippines – and for a woman who just two years ago thought she was giving up her sport for good, life as a college bowler is a dream come true.
“When I got the offer to bowl in America, everything changed for me,” said Kuwahara, an accounting major. “I was thinking it would be hard coming from a different country, but everyone has been friendly, and my teammates are awesome. They are my roommates as well, so we see each other every day. They have been good friends, and I can tell them pretty much anything.
“I love traveling, and that is a big reason why I enjoy bowling. Last year, we had a tournament in New Jersey, and we took a tour around New York City. I love big cities. I was thinking if I ever got a job in America, a place like New York City would be a good option for me. There is so much opportunity here in America.”
Kuwahara began bowling only seven years ago as a way to have fun with her family, including her three younger sisters. But those carefree outings soon turned serious for Kuwahara’s father, Akihiro.
“He was the one who saw potential in me and started coaching me,” Kuwahara said. “I didn’t like bowling that much at first.” At the time, Kuwahara would much rather study math and science or concentrate on piano lessons and art.
As time went on, Kuwahara worked on her game, and her father convinced her that she might have a future in the sport. Four years ago, her father met a coach on the Philippine Youth National Team who suggested his daughter travel to Manila, their country’s capital, and take part in national team tryouts.
She made the squad, but the accomplishment meant moving to Manila, which is two hours away from her family.
“It was pretty tough being away from home for the first time,” Kuwahara said. “I met a lot of friendly people, but I still got homesick.”
Kuwahara, who had been home-schooled by her mother, Vevian, since fifth grade, represented her country in international competitions. It was a life filled with one thing in mind: bowling.
Kuwahara’s best world finish on the international level came in 2012 when she won her first silver medal in the singles division at the Asian Youth Championships.
After two years of consistent performance on the Philippine Youth National Team, her parents told her that they could no longer afford to pay her living expenses in Manila. She arrived at the 2012 World Youth Bowling Championships in Bangkok, thinking it would be her final competition.
Kuwahara recalls how the situation weighed on her during that championship. She was thinking about what she should do to get an education and prepare herself for life after bowling. Preoccupied with the future, she couldn’t focus on the present – and her performance in the tournament wasn’t her best.
Yet even though she wasn’t at the top of her game, Kuwahara’s bowling technique still caught the eye of Brad Hagen, the head coach of the national youth team in Puerto Rico.
Hagen is also the bowling coach at Sam Houston State.
“Of course my first priority was coaching the Puerto Rican team, but I couldn’t help noticing Janine,” Hagen said. “She has high revolution rate and a high backswing, which is very rare for females in our sport. Traditionally, you see a power game like that in guys or adult men. You are starting to see more women go to that power game now.”
Kuwahara wasn’t pleased with her numbers at the World Youth Bowling Championships, but Hagen wasn’t interested in those; he was interested in her potential.
“When I start recruiting players, I’m looking for maturity, mannerisms and athleticism,” Hagen said. “We joke about it all the time. If you see Janine standing there, she’s the least intimidating person in the world. But you put a bowling ball in her hand, and she gets everybody’s attention.”
Later that summer, Hagen contacted the Philippines’ national team committee and head coach in an attempt to learn more about Kuwahara. When the coaches told her an American bowling coach was interested in recruiting her, she couldn’t fathom what it meant. Was it a scam? Do college scholarships really exist for bowling?
“When I got the offer, some of the parents of the other players on my national youth team were asking me if it was legitimate,” Kuwahara said.
Her father, who is Japanese but grew up in the United States and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, told her it was indeed a genuine offer.
“I didn’t have many options at the time,” Kuwahara said. “My dad helped with the research because I just didn’t know how the system works here. I started to understand that I could go to school and bowl at the same time.”
During the recruiting process, Kuwahara researched Sam Houston State (14 time zones away from her home) and also learned about NCAA initial eligibility rules. She took the SAT, but because she had been home-schooled in the Philippines, the eligibility screening process lasted about five months.
Once the NCAA Eligibility Center had all the information it needed, Kuwahara was set to make the move to Huntsville, located about an hour north of Houston. Her father joined her on the initial trip, when she enrolled at Sam Houston State in January 2013. “It was a culture shock for me,” Kuwahara said. “My dad told me to bring a heavy jacket with me, but I told him I would be fine with two lighter jackets.”
On her first day of class, an ice storm hit the city, and the temperatures were in the 20s and 30s – a shock for someone who has lived in hot and humid conditions most of her life.
“I told my dad that I wasn’t going to go back outside,” Kuwahara recalled. “It was freezing. And I had three layers of clothing on, too.”
Eventually, southeast Texas returned to its typical temperatures, and Kuwahara started adjusting to her new surroundings. She was familiar with reading and listening in English, which helped with her class work. However, Kuwahara was not comfortable speaking English right away.
On the lanes, the biggest adjustment for Kuwahara has been the Baker format for scoring, which is used about 65 percent of the time in regular-season competition and is the format used in the double-elimination bracket of the NCAA National Collegiate Bowling Championship. Under the Baker format, five players on a team bowl for one score. One player bowls frames 1 and 6; the second player bowls frames 2 and 7, and so on.
Kuwahara was accustomed to how team bowling was scored in the Philippines: She bowled all 10 frames for herself, and the total pins from each team member added up for a cumulative total.
Hagen said seeing Kuwahara’s growth both on and away from the lanes has been rewarding.
“The first email I had with her and her father to open the recruiting process was about getting to know her and her family,” said Hagen, who coached Sam Houston State to its first national championship in the bowling team’s fourth year of existence when Kuwahara was a freshman. “She’s gone from thinking about the world youth championships being her last event as a bowler to excelling here over the last two years. She fits in very well with what we stand for. She is a very driven person academically and athletically. It is a unique story, and it has all worked out.”
Kuwahara has taken advantage of the opportunity to work toward a college degree while competing in the sport she loves. She has enjoyed the experience so much that she is making plans to attend an American graduate school and become a certified public accountant.
Then, she said, she hopes to build a life in the United States.