CHARLESTON, S.C. – On her golf glove and ball, Elizabeth Nagel always writes two words to sum up the past nine months of her life: Spartan Strong.
The motto incorporates Michigan State, her school, where the 21-year-old from DeWitt, Mich., will be a fifth-year senior this fall. It also provides a reminder to keep fighting, no matter the adversity.
Last November, Nagel developed a nasty, persistent cough. Her coach, Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll, recommended that she see the team doctor. A stubborn Nagel was reluctant, but the fatigue persisted. Finally, she visited Dr. Jeff Kovan from the MSU medical staff. A lump was discovered on her neck, and a couple of CT scans and biopsies revealed a cancerous tumor the size of an egg.
The diagnosis came down the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Nagel, who was enjoying a strong junior season and had been named the Golf Association of Michigan’s Player of the Year, was now facing surgery. Dr. Mark Prince, a head and neck cancer specialist at the University of Michigan, performed the operation two days after Christmas, which gave Nagel time to recover and return to the women’s golf team for most of the spring schedule.
Now eight months removed from surgery, Nagel remains cancer-free and is enjoying high-level golf again. Last month, she qualified for her first USGA championship, the 113th U.S. Women’s Amateur, where she completed stroke-play qualifying on Tuesday at the Country Club of Charleston with an even-par 71, which followed up a 4-over-par 75 on Monday. Nagel should easily make the 64-player match-play draw.
“So far so good,” said Nagel, who is planning to get one of her feet tattooed with the words ‘Spartan Strong.’ “I feel better, which is what matters. My energy level is good.”
Nagel still won’t know if she’s completely cancer-free for another eight months. Every day, Nagel takes a pill, which allows her body to function properly without the thyroid, a gland that controls how quickly the body uses energy, makes proteins and controls how sensitive the body is to other hormones. It also helps to control her metabolism.
As part of her treatment, Nagel was required to undergo radioactive iodine treatment. She was confined to bed for nearly a week, and no one was allowed within 5 feet of her due to the radioactive materials in her body. Her pet dog Dolly carried a lunch pail into her bedroom each afternoon. Some iodine remains, but it is no longer harmful.
Because the surgery took place during winter break, Nagel didn’t miss any class time and only about a month of team practices. Desperate to return to the lineup for the team’s second spring tournament, the Central District Invitational in Florida, Nagel said she might have rushed her rehabilitation. It showed in her scores as she shot 81-76.
But as the Spartans’ No. 2 player behind senior Caroline Powers, Nagel felt obligated to get back in the lineup, even if she wasn’t 100 percent.
“I think some of the athletic people were surprised I came back as early as I did,” said Nagel. “My body was telling me no, but my mind was telling me yes.”
Golf has always been in Nagel’s blood and so has Michigan State. Some 27 family members have gone to MSU and Liz recalled going to Spartan ice hockey games from the time she was 5. Her father, John, is the longtime head professional/general manager of Centennial Acres, a public facility in Sunfield, Mich., that the family partly owns. From the time she was 3, Nagel has been swinging a golf club and hanging around the course.
John, who briefly played on the mini-tour circuit before Elizabeth was born, has been Nagel’s only teacher and swing coach.
When she was 14, she beat her dad for the first time.
Both Michigan and MSU recruited her out of high school, but with the East Lansing campus only 20 minutes away and the family ties to MSU, Nagel chose the Spartans. At the urging of Slobodnik-Stoll, she redshirted as a freshman to get better acclimated to school, a decision that looks awfully good now, considering that the thyroid cancer was discovered during her junior season.
“If that had happened my senior year, I probably would have been devastated,” said Nagel, a hospitality management major who has aspirations of being a wedding planner if her golf career doesn’t pan out. “Now I get to be here [at the Women’s Amateur] and have one more year [of eligibility] left.”
Nagel said the cancer has given her a different perspective on life. She pays much more attention to how her body reacts and doesn’t take anything for granted.
“I am paying attention to how I feel,” she said. “Can I handle the extra workout? Can I handle the extra practice?”
Qualifying for the 113th Women’s Amateur was just another major milestone in her golf career. Her grandmother, Carolee Sanford, drove to Charleston with Nagel’s 15-year-old brother, Will, who is serving as her caddie.
So far the heat and humidity have had no effect on Nagel. Earlier in the spring, she nearly withdrew from an event in Texas because she hadn’t taken the proper dosage of her thyroid medicine. Nagel said it can sometimes be a week before the symptoms take effect.
For Nagel, making match play here is just another hurdle on her path to full recovery, while staying “Spartan Strong.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.