Golf could be a Paralympic Sport – Time to Adapt!

When the Paralympics were held in Vancouver in 2010, I attended as many events as I could, marveling at the passion and perseverance of the athletes as they overcame what appeared to be insurmountable odds to excel in the sport they loved.

I was in awe of their courage and tenacity.  Their “never give up – never surrender” outlook on life left me wondering what I would do if I were to experience serious trauma through illness or accident.  Would I give up golf or would the love of the game give me the strength to try, try again?

Thankfully I haven’t had to find out, but after spending an afternoon at the Adapted Golf Clinic at McCleery this past June, with 15+ golfers who have survived severe traumas, I think their example gave me an answer to my question.  If you really love something, you will find a way to enjoy it, no matter what life throws your way.

Fortunately, there are organizations ready to help, such as the Vancouver Park Board and GF Strong Rehab Centre.  Over a dozen years ago, Jan Vetter from GF Strong and Bonnie Friesen from the Park Board launched the Adapted Golf Clinic.  As part of that initiative a workshop was held with 14 golf pros who wanted to give of their time and energy to help those who might otherwise never have a chance to hone their golf skills.

My coach, Ginny Golding, from the University Golf Club, was the coach at this year’s clinic.  She had attended an Adapted Golf workshop with the LPGA quite a while ago, and for the past 12 years, Ginny has provided instruction for people with disabilities – many of whom are clients referred to her by GF Strong.

“Let us not forget that golf is about hitting a little ball with a stick. Where we hit the ball, how we hit it, how we hold the stick and who is hitting the ball are the variables,” explained Ginny. “The common denominators are fun, challenge, reward, camaraderie, fresh air and exercise. Everyone can play golf!”

As Ginny’s helper at the clinic, I was able to meet most of the students who came out to McCleery to get some tips on how to improve their game or just hit a golf ball for the first time.

Many people were in wheelchairs; others could stand and walk, but had limited arm and shoulder mobility.  But that didn’t stop any of them from whacking the ball as far as they possibly could, enjoying that sweet sound a good strike makes.  It was an afternoon filled with:

  • Focus – on one shot at a time
  • Feedback – from Ginny and volunteers like me who teed up balls, helped with alignment and club selection
  • Fun – I have never seen so many smiles on a driving range in my life.

The students left with valuable golf knowledge and fond memories of come back tomorrow shots.  I left with a new appreciation of life and a desire to know more about these remarkable individuals.  Lucky for me, everyone I met was more than willing to share their story on what brought them to the clinic and why they love golf.

Take Ed, for example.  Ed survived a stroke 5 years ago and has very limited use of his left arm.  So his is a one-handed swing using his right arm only; but when he connects with the ball, it soars!

A client of GF Strong, Ed has enjoyed participating in a number of therapies, but his favorites by far are the recreational programs such as sailing, kayaking and golf.  Prior to his stroke, Ed, like most of us, enjoyed golf but was frustrated with the level of his game.”  Sound familiar?

Today, Ed is working on improving his fundamentals and, “To regain [his] love of the sport.”  He’s really no different than any golfer who wants to get better… “It’s very challenging – probably the most challenging sport out there,” Ed explained.  “And it makes it doubly challenging when you can only use one arm.  I haven’t really developed the right technique to be able to use one hand, but I’m working on it.”

Lessons from pros like Ginny help and they aren’t just about grip, alignment and swing planes. “A lot of it is about building confidence too,” said Ed. “When you’ve suffered any kind of disability, you’ve lost all of your confidence.  So when somebody gives me advice on technique and helps me regain my confidence, it’s great.”

Janice Fay, who was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1984, agrees, “You get a vibe between yourself and the person who is helping you or you don’t.  I thought Ginny was incredible, and I’ve had a few teachers, so I can compare and contrast.”

Janice took up golf as a teenager.  “When my father retired, my mother booted him out of the house, and he found his way to the golf course; she quickly became a golf widow,” joked Janice.  “I was impressed by his transition from work to golf.  As a swimmer and into aquatics, I didn’t do the land-lubbing thing so well, but he was patient enough to explain putting to me, and I really give him a lot of credit for transitioning my life from the water to the glories of the park and golf courses.”

Janice has an unusual cross-handed grip, but it works for her; she could really hit a ball!

Both Janice and Ed have lived with their disabilities for quite a few years, but what about those who are just getting used to the idea that they may never regain full use of their arms or legs.

Meet Mike Sincock. Mike was an avid golfer, playing 2 or 3 times a week up at Westwood, before a dirt bike accident last October left him with a fractured skull in 3 places.   But like all the rest of the people I met at McCleery, that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his passion.

“I believe in the power of the mind and golf is mental game,” said Mike.  “I like to say I’m not religious, but I do respect everyone’s belief, and the right to choose what they believe in.  I believe in the power of me.”
Mike was very clear on what he wants to accomplish, “My goal is to increase my distance on my drive and my irons.  Because of my accident, I’ve lost about half the distance, but when I was at the golf clinic I was able to strike the ball quite well.”

I can certainly attest to that, watching Mike work on his drives with Ginny. “I think I’m successful at golf because golf is all about what you can independently do.  It’s not a team sport; it’s all on the individual.  So that’s why I think I do well at it, because I can make easy corrections, and implement instructions easily.”

After speaking with the golfers, I wanted to know more about the programs and people behind them.
Janet Soucy, a recreation therapist at the GF Strong Rehab Centre has a number of clients who participate in all kinds of Adapted Sports/Activities, including golf.

“When I meet with a client, I do an assessment to find out about their leisure history, activities, needs and goals,” said Janet.  “If there was an activity or sport that they enjoyed before their trauma or accident, like golf, we take a look at the big picture.  What are their specific barriers to participation in golf, and how can we overcome them?  For some individuals it could be the physical disabilities that impair them.  But in most cases it’s also the lack of finances and transportation.”

Janet went on to explain that for a lot of her clients, especially those with brain injuries, they find themselves unable to work or drive.  The circle of friends that they had at one time may no longer be available to them.  They become isolated.  But golf clinics like this one, along with other structured activities such tai chi, modified hiking/walking programs and kayaking, canoeing, outrigger and dragon boating offered by the Vancouver Park Board, help clients feel better about themselves.  They also provide the opportunity to meet new people and friends who can provide encouragement and support.

According to Janet, “It’s like a seed that’s planted, and it starts to grow and it develops into all of these wonderful things that make such a big difference in a person’s life.”

Bonnie Friesen has been working with people with disabilities at the Vancouver Park Board for 31 years and sees training and equipment as major requirements to make more of these programs possible.  For example, there is only one Adapted Golf cart in the city. It cost the Park Board about $10K and is only available at McCleery.

Bonnie also pointed out that for many people with disabilities golf is just too expensive, especially at the larger clubs.  Shorter, executive style courses are more accessible for people with mobility issues, but still pricey.

Janice Fay agreed, “Golf is so far away from most of the rehab people that need it or could benefit from it.  Activities like horseback riding and golf are all very expensive and so we’re often excluded from them.  But, when we do get access, it’s huge – it’s just fabulous when that happens.”

While I was talking to the players, it occurred to me that there are juniors, ladies and men’s clubs at just about every course in the region, but not one of them offers a club for people with disabilities.  Senior’s rates are also available pretty much everywhere, but again, nothing for people with disabilities.  So how do these players take their clinic game to the course without any assistance from the clubs? It really comes down to friends, family and volunteers.

“My dad who’s in his late 80s had a friend with Alzheimers; sometimes his friend would be facing the wrong way to hit his next shot,” shared Bonnie.  “But my dad and his two buddies would take their friend out as a regular foursome and help him play, so that he could continue to do something that he loved.”

Janice concurred, “It takes a lot of volunteers and the ones that the Park Board finds are fabulous.  They make a huge difference both on the aquatic side and the golf.  They are just phenomenal!”

So, the Adapted Golf Clinic is great, with good support from volunteers, but it only happens once a year.  That’s just not enough – we need to do more to let people know what’s possible.

“I totally agree,” said Janet. “It really comes down to lack of awareness.  A lot of people have no knowledge of recreation therapy.  I’ll go to a stroke group, and the members of the group will have never met a recreation therapist or heard about Adapted Golf, or Adapted Kayaking.  So what’s really needed is education and awareness – letting people know that there are ways of doing things, but it means, maybe modifying the activity in order to be able to do it.  If there’s a will, there’s a way.  Find a way to do it to enhance your quality of life – something that’s so important to all of us, no matter what.”

Once people are aware of what’s possible, Mike believes they should embrace the power of positive thinking, “Stay positive and leave your issues at home.  Golf is 100% mental, and if you can stay focused on being positive, you can hit a lot better shots.”

Ed encourages everyone to never give up, “Everybody has challenges one way or another, whether it’s cognitive or physical.  But if you continue to work hard, any physical condition should not prevent you from engaging in golf.  It’s a lifelong sport you should be able to play until you’re 100 if you really want to.”

Kris Jonasson, Executive Director of British Columbia Golf agrees.  “Golf is a sport that can be played by people of all ages and adapted equipment is now available that would allow for golf to be enjoyed by everyone regardless of physical limitations,” said Kris.  “We know the benefits that golf provides as a physical activity yet we often overlook the power of the social interaction inherent in the game. Golf is a sport that improves the health and quality of life for all who play and it is important that we find ways to accommodate everyone regardless of the challenges. British Columbia Golf supports the inclusion of all in sport and will continue to work going forward with any organizations that would introduce and promote golf.”

There are so many ways for golfers in this city to give back – something this sport is known for.  The Vancouver Park Board is always looking for volunteers at their Adapted Sports activities.

If you want to help out, contact Melanie Josephs at the Vancouver Park Board or the volunteer resources team at GF Strong.

You just never know…your support might just make golf a Paralympic Sport someday.


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  1. James Ross (author)

    My release, Pabby’s Score, (Dec. 2011) deals with two special needs children and their introduction into a golf course environment. It doesn’t deal with disabilities and adapting to change so much, but more how those that have drawbacks cope with their difficulties.

  2. What an outstanding article. Count me in for anything that leads to disadvantaged folks to golf in some capacity, even as players. Kudos to Vancouver, Columbia Golf and everyone else participating as well.

  3. Thanks so much James and Frankie for your comments! Frankie, this experience really brought home the fact that golf is for everyone. A friend of mine is blind and I caddie for him sometimes. It’s quite an amazing thing to see him whack that ball!

    James, I will definitely check out your next book when it’s published.

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