MILAN (AP) — For Maria Bulanova, it was a matter of surprise — that she could be recruited to the bowling team at Vanderbilt “all the way from Russia.”
Like other international athletes playing college sports in the United States, she had little sense of Title IX when she was younger. But the federal law has opened the door for thousands of female athletes from abroad to get an American education and possibly a shot at a life and career in the United States.
“People were surprised that Vanderbilt was able to recruit me all the way from Russia,” Bulanova said. “They were like, ‘Oh, wow. Their recruiting is really diverse.’ Like, ‘Wow. They saw you all the way from there.'”
Bulanova was looking to bowl in Europe after finishing her last year of school in Russia. In November 2015, she represented Russia in the World Cup in Las Vegas and bowled well enough that several American colleges wanted her to visit. She visited five colleges in one week in February 2016 before choosing Vanderbilt.
“What really made them stand out is obviously the education. And I was also looking for a good bowling program where I know that we’re going to win something, we’re going to be in competition for the national championship. So Vanderbilt had both, and that was perfect,” said Bulanova, who graduated in 2020 and is now in her second year competing on tour with the Professional Women’s Bowling Association. She is also working on a master’s degree at St. Francis in New York, where she is an assistant coach.
Bulanova helped Vanderbilt win its second national championship in women’s bowling in 2018. There were also two other international players: Kristin Quah of Singapore and Emily Rigney of Australia.
Coach John Williamson started the Vanderbilt bowling program in 2004, building off a club team, and has three national runner-up finishes in addition to the two national championships.
“From a Title IX standpoint, I like to think that we’re a success story of it because we’re able to take kids from around the U.S., around the globe that wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come to Vanderbilt, or even thought about going to Vanderbilt, and getting them to come to campus and so they get a world class education,” Williamson said.
“They get to compete at a really high level. And they get to do their sport. They get to get their education. They get sort of the best of everything.”
Quah was the first of the three to play for Vanderbilt after she reached out to the university by email while playing for the Singapore junior national team. Williamson and an assistant went to the world youth championships in Hong Kong and saw Quah bowl along with Bulanova and Rigney. Quah’s first year at Vanderbilt was 2015. Bulanova and Rigney started the following year.
“So basically, like Kristin emailing us, expressing her interest, got us talking to her, which then got us to Hong Kong, which then got us to find Maria,” Williamson said.
Bulanova and Quah got scholarships via a direct route, but it can be a more expensive process for others.
Several agencies exist to help foreign athletes by putting them in contact with coaches and universities, as well as assisting them through the bureaucratic process once they get accepted.
Deljan Bregasi founded one such agency. Originally from Albania, Bregasi grew up in Italy before moving to study in Miami and then New York on soccer scholarships.
Bregasi set up USA College Sport in 2015 in Boston and said he has helped obtain scholarships for about 300 athletes, charging $3,200 for the agency’s services.
The agency originally focused on helping boys in Italy and Albania get soccer scholarships in the United States before expanding to other sports and female athletes in 2018.
“The girls are those who can have much more opportunity in a certain sense because there is Title IX that, fortunately I’ll add, allows them to practice sport with a scholarship, and it’s an experience that a girl who plays sport in Italy sadly doesn’t have,” Bregasi said.
“It’s also one of our aims at the moment to focus better on female athletes because it’s also, you could say, easier because in Italy women’s soccer is growing while the level in volleyball and athletics is very high, and so it’s worthwhile for us helping female athletes more because they have a good chance of getting a scholarship, seeing as there’s Title IX,” Bregasi said.
Serena Frolli, a 17-year-old middle distance runner from Genoa, Italy, used her time during the pandemic lockdown to research colleges herself and to speak to coaches before eventually deciding to use the services of an American agency.
“I have to say that it was quite expensive, but then looking at the scholarship that I got, you can say that it repays the initial costs,” Frolli said. “But then they also help you throughout your time at university … so I liked that, too. And also my mother feels more calm knowing that. She told me, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Frolli is heading to Northwestern in August to study mechanical engineering on a track scholarship. She knows that will give her more opportunities than if she had remained in Italy.
She has long dreamed of being both an astronaut and a medal-winning athlete. The benefits of Title IX allow her to pursue her double aspirations.
“Why should I choose?” Frolli said. “That’s why I’m going to the United States.”
Similarly, Aline Krauter and Tze-Han (Heather) Lin left their homelands to play college golf in the U.S., opportunities made possible, in large part, by Title IX.
A superb junior player from Stuttgart, Germany, Krauter had no opportunity to play collegiately in Europe, so she moved to Florida and spent three years at Saddlebrook Prep in Wesley Chapel. She ended up playing four seasons at Stanford, winning the national team championship last month as a senior.
Tze-Han was a top junior player in Taiwan when she was recruited by then first-year Oregon coach Derek Radley. She ended up being the cornerstone of a team that would add two more Taiwanese players and that finished second at this year’s national championships.
“The NCAA, having the same number of scholarships for men and women for sure allowed me to play golf and get the full scholarship,” said Tze-Han, who finished fifth in the NCAA individual championships. “I don’t think I would have gotten that anywhere else in the world.”
AP Sports Writer John Marshall contributed to this report from Phoenix and Walker reported from Nashville, Tennessee.