SERVING THE GAME
A Positive Swing September 21, 2010 By Julie Ellenberger

One in five Americans has a disability. More than almost any other sport, golf provides exceptional recreational, competitive and rehabilitative opportunities for those with disabilities.

With the belief that golf can enrich and empower people of all abilities, the USGA supports programs that serve blind golfers, amputee golfers and individuals with developmental challenges. For some of more than 50 million Americans with disabilities, golf has the power to change lives. The compelling story below helps represent a larger group of golfers with disabilities who find joy in the game. 

Katelyn Atwell is no quitter. Not on the golf course, and not in life. At age 23, Atwell is now a regular participant along with her mother, Sharon, at the USGA-supported program, Positive Swing, just outside of Indianapolis. Not so long ago, however, it was unclear whether Atwell would ever be able to return home with her family.

Atwell was diagnosed with cancer at age 12, and subsequently suffered two strokes, underwent 20 brain surgeries and was struck by a bacterial infection that sent her into a coma for a year and a half. Before Atwell, no individual had ever survived the infection, known as bacillus cereus meningitis, for longer than 48 hours. But with the help of a first-rate medical staff, a family’s undying love and a young girl’s determination to live, Atwell overcame the odds. She is now back on the golf course making people smile.

Today, Atwell is cancer-free, and golf is playing an integral role in her rehabilitation process. As an activity that allows her to be outdoors when the majority of her rehab work confines her to the indoors, golf has provided additional health benefits:

“[The] things I have to work on to play golf are what will eventually help me one day walk without crutches,” said Atwell. “The balance and the core strength are two areas that I have focused on this past year.”

As a former competitive swimmer, Atwell is familiar with the discipline and hard work it takes to succeed in sports. She knows that she wants to keep working at golf and has a sense of humor about the game.

 “I am proud to be able to call myself a golfer, a bad one, but I figure I can only go up from here,” she said.

A decade after her miraculous triumph over a condition that threatened to take her life, Atwell hasn’t forgotten about the people who helped save her life. This past April 19, she hosted the 10th Annual St. Jude Golf Classic in Jacksonville, Fla., to raise money to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Her goal is to pay back all of her medical expenses, a whopping $3 million.

“The mission of the tournament came when I woke up from my coma and decided that this would be one of the ways for me to raise the $3 million for St. Jude,” said Atwell.

With the help of professional golfer and friend Andy Bean, who played with Atwell in this year’s tournament, she’s well on her way to reaching her goal and is touching lives along the way.