Jordan McKelvin, James Madison University 2020
In May of 2015, I was feeling on top of the world. I had just graduated high school with a great academic resume and an even better golf career. I had one summer season left of my junior golf career before I would enter my first season of collegiate golf at James Madison University. As nervous as I was, I felt such confidence thinking about all of the great things I would get to experience at JMU. I imagined myself getting a stellar 4-year education at JMU while also being a major asset to their golf program. What I did not imagine was getting severely injured just two months before attending college.
I was playing my favorite golf tournament of the year—the Maryland Poindexter cup. It was a bittersweet tournament for me because it was my fifth and final Poindexter cup. The first day was extremely wet and foggy. Five holes into my round, my teammate, my competitors and I were walking across a wooden bridge. I was the first to step foot on the bridge and I could tell it was slippery. I turned around to tell the others to be careful walking across the bridge. As I told them to be careful, I slipped and fell backwards on my hands and my golf back landed right on top of them. The pain I felt in that moment left me with a chill up my spine and terrible wrist pain in my left arm. As others rushed to help, I tried to get up on my own and immediately noticed my hand and wrist turning purple. I tried to brush it off and continue to play, but it was tough. My coaches at the time were giving me ice, Advil, athletic tape, and anything else they could find that would help. I knew I couldn’t stop playing or else I would have to forfeit that match for both myself and my teammate. I played the rest of the round swinging with nearly one arm so my teammate could keep playing for us. After that round, I iced my wrist and hand and just hoped that I could sleep off the pain. Needless to say, things did not get better and I was forced to forfeit my last match and head to the emergency room for x-rays.
My x-rays came back clear and I was told that all I had was a bone bruise. My doctor told me that bone bruises were a little difficult and that I would have to be out of golf for 6-8 weeks to fully recover. I gave it every bit of that time and still felt shooting pain through my wrist. My doctor then told me maybe I needed more physical therapy and attention to that area. I listened to what he and my former physical therapist had to say, and I didn’t pick up a golf club until the week before I moved into my dorm at JMU. At this point, I was suffering from severe anxiety because I knew I was going to be playing “catch-up” to try and qualify for tournaments. I started going to counseling as soon as I got to school to try and cope with the anxiety and my injury. I continued to play throughout the fall season and things continued to be painful and get worse. My forearm and hand turned white and I couldn’t feel anything touch me from my elbow all the way down through my fingers. I kept being told that things would get better through PT, so after the season was up, I stopped playing golf until January of 2016. Once the spring season started back up, I went straight back to playing through the pain. At this point, I was in PT three times a week and counseling once a week. I was struggling to handle my injury, my emotions, and the fact that this “6-8 week” injury was tearing me away from the sport I love.
After a couple weeks into the spring season, my team doctor recommended one more outlet and wanted me to get tested to see if I had Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS). I went that May and it was confirmed that I had thoracic outlet syndrome from the fall I had the previous year. My TOS involved my top rib puncturing a nerve, an artery, and a vein, which explained why I was having no feeling and a reduced heart beat in my left arm. (TOS is essentially a whip-lash injury, which can help to explain how hard I fell.) After getting the diagnosis, my doctor said my options included surgery, more specialized PT, or a botox injection that would numb the pain for the time being. I still wanted to stick to my plan of graduating in 4 years and playing golf, so my stubbornness did not allow the surgery at this time. After I got back to Maryland after finishing my first year at JMU, I stopped playing golf again and received the more specialized treatment from a new PT. Things were going great throughout the summer. After a year of being through a lot of pain I was feeling much better. I was told to stay off the golf clubs for a while so once again, I picked them up one week before going back to JMU for my second year. I wasn’t feeling great about the season coming up because I hadn’t played all summer, but I was feeling better about being in less pain. I played in a few tournaments during the fall season and during my second to last tournament I re-injured myself by hitting a rock under my ball that I didn’t know was there. I grabbed my arm immediately because I felt that same chill go up my spine that I had felt 16 months prior.
After getting home from that tournament, I walked into my former coach’s office and completely broke down. We had a long talk about what my future would hold at JMU and we both knew that I wasn’t going to be what I wanted to be if I didn’t get the surgery. After leaving her office, and even before telling my parents of my decision, I called the surgeons office to set up my surgery for December 22, 2016. After making that call, I felt such relief in the fact that I would hopefully feel better after my surgery, but also an enormous amount of fear of the chance of never being able to play golf again.
On December 22, 2016, I had my top rib removed. Immediately after surgery, I regained feeling back in my left arm and the color had come back. I was excited to feel immediate results, however, the pain I felt from my surgery was excruciating. I was told more times than I could count “You’re young, you will recover fast”, but that was not the case for me. I struggled in every aspect of my life, including trying to retrain myself to breathe without that rib. I stuck to my PT, but I could no longer keep up with my school work. I had to withdraw from JMU and finish out my PT at home in Maryland. I was miserable, embarrassed, disappointed…and so many other emotions. I didn’t want to have to withdraw, I didn’t want to keep feeling this way, I wanted to play golf again, I felt like 6 months later I should be feeling significantly better…but it wasn’t the case. I questioned every day whether I would be able to play golf again.
Nine months later, I slowly started to get back into golf with putting and light chipping only. I was still in my third year at JMU, so I knew I had some time to still make a print in my golf career if I worked hard enough, which I was willing to do. I was able to increase my golf little by little each week and played my first round of 18 holes eleven months after my surgery. In the spring of 2018, I was back to practicing fully with the team, but was not playing well because I was still in some discomfort and had not played in a long time. As I got closer and closer to being able to qualify, my anxiety got stronger and stronger. The anxiety made it difficult for me to perform and made me feel like I was never going to play in a tournament again. I didn’t play at all during the spring of 2018 and didn’t qualify until the very last tournament in the fall of 2018. This was all due to the amount of anxiety I was feeling. Getting back into the line-up was tough, but I am hopeful and more confident now that I will be able to play in more tournaments in the spring of 2019.
I share my story to other athletes because I think it is so important to help people with not only their physical scars, but their mental ones too. As athletes, we push ourselves so hard that we often neglect to take care of our mental health. I used to hide it from everyone that I receive counseling and HAVE received counseling for 4 years now. I have learned this the hard way, but sometimes you need help and I was fortunate enough to have people that I could turn to talk to or people that would help me deal with my physical and mental stressors. I want people to know my story so we can start to get rid of this stigma that “college athletes have everything going for them”. That’s just not true. We are human, we struggle the same way everyone else does. I look back at all that I have been through and think about how tough things were, to the point where I wanted to give up on the sport I loved because things got way too difficult, but I also think about where I am at now…thrilled that I am back on the course and was able to play in my first tournament since my surgery this past fall. My story is not over...I have a lot of goals for myself since I have an extra year of eligibility at JMU, but I hope others can learn from my story that the fight is not over until you say it’s over…and mine is definitely not over!!!!!