The art of life

Originally featured in the Aug. 2023 edition of Bowlers Journal 

Dasha Kovalova was 17 years old when she found herself in Wichita, Kansas, far away from her birthplace in Ukraine and her home at the time in Russia. The only child of Oksana Fanygina and Sergii Kovalov, the young bowling star was with her family getting ready to embark on a new journey in life.

Except, she didn’t look like she was ready.

Kovalova stood behind her mother like a little girl afraid of what the future held. Wichita State director of bowling Mark Lewis said it was like watching a kindergartner hide behind her mother before the first day of school.

“I did hide behind my mom — I was scared, man,” Kovalova says looking back on the moment. “My 17-year-old self was scared.”

That fear didn’t go away immediately. It was a tough transition for Kovalova, even as she found early success on the lanes. Despite a quick humor and caring nature, Kovalova is shy and timid. Her self-confidence can ebb and flow like the tides. She’s dealt with personal hurdles that Lewis admits he doesn’t know how he would have handled.

But Kovalova kept fighting to find her way. She is a five-time champion on the PWBA Tour and fifth this season in points after the U.S. Women's Open — and just 28 years old. On the inside, she said she feels younger than that. More like someone in her early 20s.

It doesn’t matter whether or not she feels younger than her age. Kovalova’s journey to reach this point is not about that gap. It’s about the growth of that 17-year-old hiding behind her mother to the still-figuring-it-out star bowler starting to find her way in the world.

She's probably one of the most amazing transformations I've ever seen,” Lewis says. “I've been doing this 25 years. It's been amazing just from that to the woman she's grown into. It's been amazing to watch.”

A Dream is Born

Kovalova was 10 years old when her parents went out on a Saturday night to go bowling in Russia and she tagged along. “I threw one gutterball and I went into crying mode and I crawled underneath the chairs,” Kovalova recalls. “You've seen those kids do that sometimes at the bowling alleys. I was that kid.” Her parents
went over to try and get her to stop crying. A woman came up to them and asked her parents if she could teach Kovalova the sport. They accepted instantly.

“That's how it started. I still cry at the bowling alley. I just don't crawl under the chairs anymore,” she says with her trademark self-deprecating humor. “Maybe I should start doing it again. That'll be fun.”

Her parents were both athletes for the USSR decades ago, and they passed their hard-working traits to Kovalova. She earned herself a spot on the team at Wichita State.

But it wasn’t until her third year at school that her long-term ambitions in the sport became clear. In a sports management class, a professor assigned a paper asking students to write an article about what they imagined their future to be in five years. “I had two paths to choose from: an artist’s path because I draw, which was my degree in college, or a professional bowlers’ path,” Kovalova says.

It was just an assignment, and she wouldn’t be bound to follow the one she decided to choose for the paper. But the moment was an eye-opening one for Kovalova.

She decided to write about bowling, describing a future where she won multiple titles. It wasn’t a crazy thought. Kovalova’s collegiate bowling career was outstanding. When she wrapped up her career with the Shockers, she did so as a three-time National Collegiate Bowling Coaches Association (NCBCA) All-American, one-time NCBCA Most Valuable Player and two-time International Bowling Media Association (IBMA) Collegiate Bowler of the Year.

But the idea of pursuing the path for a living didn’t happen until Kovalova wrote that paper.

She graduated in 2016 and soon started life as a professional bowler. It wasn’t easy. It was intimidating going up against some of the world’s best.

"I am afraid to make mistakes when I bowl,” Kovalova says. “That's how I am in my life. I'm very hard on myself so when I make a mistake it's almost like I'm a control freak. If I don't strike, then this is it. People are gonna hate me. My parents are gonna disown me. My company is gonna drop me.”

But Kovalova’s resolute nature didn’t let her get discouraged. She works hard to keep that negative energy out of her mind and uses her determination to push her to find solutions.

"The one thing that I really am proud of about myself is I know I'm a hard worker and I'm very stubborn,” Kovalova says. “If I know that I can succeed at something, I will work very, very hard to achieve that even though it might take a lot of heartbreak and a lot of me feeling miserable. If I know that it's there, I'll get to it.”

The hard work extends to all aspects of her life — not just her bowling. She worked hard a few years ago to get in better shape and lose some weight. Driving to events with PWBA bowler and weight loss dietitian Valerie Bercier, she learned about taking care of herself and improving her fitness. That — along with her determination — helped her drop the weight and keep it off.

It has all culminated in a great stretch over the past few seasons. The first breakthroughs came in 2019 and have continued since then. She ended the season third in the PWBA in points and then finished fifth in 2021 and 2022.

Her first major tournament victory came at the 2019 USBC Queens in Wichita. Then later in the season, she bowled her most memorable game at the Pepsi PWBA Louisville Open against Liz Johnson in the televised finale with her mother in the crowd.

“I realized that I was gonna bowl against Johnson,” Kovalova said. “She's an amazing bowler. She knows her stuff. And I was like, ‘Oh, my god, I have to bowl against her to win a title. I gotta shoot 300. We will tie and then we'll do a roll off. And maybe at least I'll lose with dignity, right?’”

Kovalova kept up her end of the bargain in her mind. Each time she stepped on the lane and went into her one-handed motion — so smooth her hair pulled back in a ponytail with the ends dyed a different color barely moved as she took her dancelike steps up to the foul line. She won the title and bagged a $10,000 bonus for the televised perfecto.

It was one of the greatest games of her life, if not the greatest. But Kovalova, dressed in black and yellow on this day, didn’t jump or fist pump in a euphoric celebration. She turned around with a small shout and then walked back to Johnson very casually. When the two embraced, that’s when Kovalova closed her eyes and smiled.

It was about five years after Kovalova wrote that class paper. She had her professional bowling career, and she had her multiple titles. The second one won with a 300. Her dreams were coming true. But she was also going to soon discover she didn’t need to have just one path.

The Art of Life

PWBA bowler Ashly Galante remembers the first time she met Kovalova years ago at a Brunswick camp. The two were chatting and came to the topic of art. Kovalova took Galante’s phone and drew an armadillo, an image Galante still has on her phone today.

“Art helps her because it allows her to be able to express herself to the world and through her paintings,” says Galante, who has become great friends with Kovalova. “When I look at her pictures, and it's because I know her, there's so many different representations of each thing that's in a picture.”

Kovalova was 14 years old when she started drawing, inspired by Anime. She said her first drawing was nothing spectacular but there was a natural ability inside her fingers. Plus, she found it a good way to decompress.

She studied it in school and has stayed in the industry as her side hustle while working on the PWBA Tour. She designs her own jersey. She has designed bowling balls. One day, Kovalova might even write her own graphic novel. She already has three different ideas for the potential story.

Much of her artwork, published on the Instagram page @thedarkesthour, is used as a way to express and process her emotions. “I have a character for anxiety. I have a character for jealousy. I have a character for joy. Kind of like Inside Out but my own interpretation,” she says.

But there is also another advantage to her artistic skills: The ability to visualize breaks and paths on the lanes. “She’s an artist — the drawings alone can tell you that,” Lewis says. “That kind of artistic skill translates into an elite player in multiple sports because she just can see what she needs to do. It's a golfer being able to see shots and see shapes. She's the same way.”

Lewis says that when she was on the team at Wichita State, all she wanted and needed when she was trying to find her shot was the arrow and breakpoint. Once she had those two things, she would be able to see what was occurring in front of her.

“She has this image of what balls are going to do going down the lane and she's able to apply that to her game,” Galante says. “I think she makes so many more decisions on her own than most people that I know. Don't get me wrong, she does still seek out help and she still will get help. But she does a lot of stuff on her own because of her own knowledge and I think that's one of the things I'm most impressed with.”

‘The War’

The last two years have not been easy for Kovalova. The driving force is the event she simply refers to as “the War.” “You should take a shot every time I mention the War in Ukraine,” Kovalova jokes, “because it's gonna happen a lot of times during this interview.”

While Kovalova resides in the United States, her home country of Ukraine, which she has represented multiple times at the international level, has remained a key part of who she is. She won a bronze medal representing the country at the 2017 World Games in Wrocław, Poland. Her parents stayed in Russia after Kovalova left the country for her bowling career.

When the war started, her parents were still in Russia. Kovalova was “freaking out” because she knew they were not safe and her parents didn’t like talking about it over the phone.

Then all Kovalova got from them was radio silence. Until one day Kovalova was in her Muskegon, Michigan, apartment and got a text. It was from her father, asking if she could come to Chicago that day to pick them up at 4 p.m. “Excuse me, what!?” Kovalova exclaims.

“So turns out, they fled.”

Kovalova’s parents had indeed fled Russia, and they did so with pretty much nothing, leaving behind many things. They flew to Abu Dhabi, then to New York before finally landing at O’Hare in Chicago, a 200-mile, U-shaped journey around Lake Michigan from Kovalova’s home. The reunion was emotional to say the least.

"I saw my dad cry for the first time because he was so worried that they were not going to be able to get out and they would get busted,” Kovalova says. “That was rough to see because I was like, ‘Oh, my God, dad.’ He's a man. He doesn't cry. And he just kind of emotionally broke down.”

But that step — while long, arduous and emotionally draining — was just the start of how the war would impact Kovalova. While her parents are safe, she still has friends and family back overseas. She thinks about them often, even if she knows they are okay for the time being.

For someone who admits she doesn’t like setting up non-bowling appointments and talking on the phone, Kovalova encountered a bevy of new responsibilities and tasks to complete with her parents now living with her. Her immediate obligation was no longer just to herself and her career. It was to her family as well.

“I can tell you for certain she never complained — I was gonna use another synonym for complaining but I guess I now need to use that — about the stuff that went down and the war,” Bercier said. “She never complained about her parents having to flee to the U.S. She half-heartedly complained that they all had to live together in one small apartment and it was hard sometimes. She would joke about certain things that would happen with her parents. But she just embraced it.”

Kovalova used her art to process her emotions. When she had felt herself begin to spiral, she started going to therapy, something she continues to do today. “Resilience is the main word of the last year,” she says. Her friends know the pain the conflict has caused her. “The good that she gets out of the day, I think she holds on to that. I think that's what helps her push through,” Galante says.

One of the good moments came last year at the PWBA Pepsi Classic in Dallas. With her mother in attendance, Kovalova earned the second seed for the stepladder. She then won both of her matches to win the title, her fifth on the PWBA Tour. The thrill of victory, she says, never gets old.

“They brought me here to the United States for a better future. They said that bowling will help me in the future,” Kovalova said. “I didn't believe them at first. But now I can see bowling gave me so many opportunities and one of them, even though I didn't know that at the time, was saving my parents from war.”

An Inspiration

Lewis was recently at St. Clair Bowl in Fairview Heights, Illinois, when he and Kovalova spotted each other from across the center. Kovalova headed towards Lewis and hugged him with the force of a middle linebacker attacking a shifty running back at the point of attack. Lewis nearly fell over. “Anytime we run into each other,” Lewis says, “I'm liable to get tackled.”

Kovalova’s last few years have been difficult — no doubt about it. But through it all, she has maintained her goofy and caring nature. “She's very silly,” Galante says. “She'll just do things when you least expect it that'll get your attention and just make you start laughing.” Kovalova calls herself an “adult impersonator.”

Bercier, who also lives in the Muskegon area, says that Kovalova is one of the first people who comes to mind when she needs help. Kovalova will offer to watch Bercier’s young child while Bercier practices, even scheduling her practices around Bercier’s to be available to help.

Whenever she goes on a trip, Kovalova usually returns with gifts for people she cares about. Sometimes she will even create artwork for her friends. “She's always caring about making sure that you're okay and that she's not doing anything that would upset you,” Bercier said. “It can be awkward for some people. But for me, I appreciate that she's so caring about other people.”

One day, Bercier asked Kovalova a question that another bowler had asked her. What was Kovalova’s motivation in bowling? What drove her to be her best?

“She said that she actually wants to inspire other young girls that even if you are awkward and don't feel like you fit in or don't feel like you have a place in this world, you can still go after your dreams and do what you want to do with your life,” Bercier said. “I admire that too. I'm certain she's inspiring a lot of people, especially in the bowling world.”

Galante recalled a story of when the two of them were at a bowling center and the duo saw a little child crying. Kovalova took her favorite stuffed animal toy keychain off her bag and gave it to the child to help them stop crying. “For some reason, I think that she always feels like she's never really good enough for other people,” Galante said. “Sometimes I just wish that she could truly see herself the way that other people perceive her because I haven't met one person who doesn't like her or doesn't adore her.”

The Child Within

For all the trials Kovalova has faced in her life, she still holds on to her inner child like bowling’s version of Peter Pan. She knows she has some growing up to do but she never wants to lose the parts of her that make her who she was yesterday, is today and will hopefully be tomorrow.

“I think I'm always gonna be feeling younger than I actually am just because I don't want to lose that part of me,” Kovalova says. “I can be adult when I want to be adult. But I think it's very important to never lose sight of the more fun, more carefree side of yourself because it allows you to fully enjoy your life.”

But even as she retains what Bercier calls her “child-like demeanor,” Kovalova can’t hold back against the forces that push her further and further towards adulthood.

One simple way she has grown up came when her parents moved into her small apartment. They needed more space, so Kovalova bought a house for them to share. She hopes to one day buy a second one so her parents — and her — can have their own space.

“Every time something like that happens, I get that image of what seems like the little girl that at the time she's 17 and fully grown but the expressions and actions, it's like she's six and seven years old,” Lewis said. “From that to where she's at now is remarkable and I'm just so proud of what she's doing and continues to do all the time.

“Her courage through things — that she can find a way to move forward with all that — I don't know how I would do it. I don't know how anybody would. For her to be able to continue to do that is just remarkable.”

She might be resisting a full plunge into a truly adult world but Kovalova keeps growing up — whether it be one strike, one painting or one gift at a time.