First Swing for Golfers with Disabilities

First Swing instructor Bud Adams
MADISON – Bud Sanders (pictured) lost his right leg below the knee at 13 in a hunting accident, but even at that young age he suspected the injury didn't have to mean giving up all the things he loved to do.

But that was 1953, and too many of his teachers and coaches thought the place for a teenage amputee was on the sidelines.

"When I was in high school there was really nothing for us," he says. "I always thought that wasn't good, because I could do things."

Sanders refused to stay out of the games. He wrestled in college, and says he knew he was truly a part of the team when his teammates didn't exempt him from the mild hazing rituals that are often part of athletics.

"I knew I was being treated equally because they'd hide my (prosthetic) leg in the lockers," he says.

Sanders also became an accomplished skier, and through one of his fellow skiers he met a board member of the National Amputee Golf Association (NAGA). NAGA's "First Swing" seminars teach golf instructors and rehabilitation professionals how to introduce golf to people with disabilities. Bud watched one of the organization's clinics 15 years ago and was hooked.

"I fell in love with it," he says. "It's rewarding for everybody involved. I go home high all the time because it's so neat to see people do things they didn't think they could do."

Sanders was in Madison Friday as part of a daylong, UW Health-sponsored First Swing clinic at Vitense Golfland. The clinic was organized by Kris Kravik, a recreational therapist for UW Health's acute rehabilitation team. Part of Kravik's job involves helping patients with physical or cognitive disabilities return to the activities they enjoyed prior to injury.

She thought First Swing an appropriate avenue.

"We see many patients who would like to return to golf," she says. "But golf professionals often are unsure of how to handle some of their disabilities. And I know therapists are looking for resources to assist their patients, as well."

Occupational therapist Anne DeMark Thompson, who works with pediatric outpatients through UW Health's Rehabilitation Clinic in Middleton, agrees. "It's a lifelong sport, one of those things you can do without necessarily having a team or a club. I think it's a good opportunity."

The First Swing clinic involved two separate sessions. In the morning a group of 20 physical therapists, occupational therapists, therapeutic recreation specialists and golf pros from the Madison area watched and listened as Sanders ran through the fundamentals of the game. Not all of the therapists were golfers, so several were motivated to attend just to learn about golf.

Lori Neilitz, a physical therapist in UW Health's Sports Medicine department who assesses her own golf skills as "not very good," came to learn more about the game.

"I work with people who have injuries and are trying to get back to a sport," she says. "That sport might be golf. So I'm interested in helping patients adapt their games."

To do so, she and the other physical therapists needed to grasp the sport's basics. With the help of the golf professionals there, the First Swing instructors (including Sanders) demonstrated the proper grip, stance and swing, and fielded questions that clearly highlighted the challenges of teaching such a mechanical sport to people with physical limitations.

"What if our patients only have one hand?" one of the physical therapists asked while learning about the grip.

The key, Sanders says, is to find a compromise between the demands of the sport and the ability of the person who wants to play.

"It's important to know each person," he says. "Everybody is different."

At noon the group broke for lunch and then returned to the driving range to apply the morning session's lessons. Two dozen patients accompanied them, some in wheelchairs, others leaning against sturdy braces. All had injuries or conditions not amenable to the customary golf swing, so the therapists worked with them to find a swing with which they could be comfortable.

"Our whole goal is to get them to hit the ball. We use the higher-lofted clubs so it's easier to get the ball in the air," Sanders says. "Everybody will feel success when the ball goes up in the air. They're like, 'Oh, that was nice.'"

On the range some of the therapists positioned themselves behind the patients and held them by the backs of their shirts to help them stay balanced. Others placed balls on two-foot tees and suggested an abbreviated swing that accommodated the limited movement of a person in a wheelchair. At first there were a lot of swings and misses, and many of the shots skidded along the ground. But they continued tinkering, adapting and adjusting, and after a little while they got the ball in the air.

One of the afternoon session attendees was Monica Kamal Rossa, the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin. She sees First Swing as yet another on a growing list of "barrier-free" activities that allow people with disabilities to maintain active lives.

"I'm someone who wants to know the possibilities that exist for people with disabilities," she says. "That's why I'm here. So I can share the message. We did it before, when we were walking. Why can't we do it now?"

Kamal Rossa, whose spinal cord was severed in a skiing accident seven years ago, sees therapeutic benefits beyond the physical in events like the First Swing clinic.

"Programs like this help people get out of depression. They feel healthier," she says. "When they feel healthy, they become an active member of society. We can be the people we want to be, not they way others are defining us."

DeMark Thompson concurs. "If I can encourage (my patients), that's going to get them doing things," she says. "I want to be able to say, 'You can get out there and do it.'"

Date Published: 06/10/2008

News tag(s):  ortho

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