More MS news articles for July 2000

No Handicap Despite multiple sclerosis, Conway golfer returns to success on the course

By DAVID MCCOLLUM
Log Cabin Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2000

What was once sustenance for Stephanie Stephens is now medicine.

And she's taking it in gulps.

She's having fun, and those who watch her play golf are invigorated.

Stephens was one of the best female golfers in the state a decade ago. In a qualifying school in Houston, Texas, she missed getting her LPGA tour card by one stroke.

Stephanie Stephens putts on the second hole of Centennial Valley Country Club Saturday. Matt Manning Photo Observers will now tell you she is still one of the best golfers in the state, no qualifier needed.

The incredible part is her handicap -- a real one. She has multiple sclerosis (MS), a degenerative disease that affects all parts of the nervous system.

"She walks up to the tee box with a cane, hands her cane to one of her playing partners and hits the ball a mile straight down the middle," said Glenn Stacks, who has teamed with her in three scramble tournaments this year. "You stand there on the tee just amazed at how she hits it. And even more amazing is I have yet to see her take a practice swing. She just walks up and hits it like you dream that you could hit it."

She was diagnosed with MS seven years ago at age 30, seemingly as she was on the verge of turning pro. Diagnosis was accompanied by the unnerving and horrifying phrase, "no cure."

So, golf, after an eight-year hiatus, has taken on a richer and deeper meaning for Stephens. She's just happy to be outside on a golf course, in the heat or in the cool, with the birds singing and nature flourishing -- with people enjoying life.

"When I finally decided to start playing again, I decided that if I were going to feel bad, I would rather be out doing something than sitting around at home," she said. "I've always loved being out of doors and being around people. It is what I missed the most."

A simple game of golf is not a romp in the park for Stephens, either before, during or afterwards. MS short-circuits various parts of the nervous system at different times. Some of the blown circuits are temporary; some are permanent. The intensity and regularity of the short-circuits can increase with age.

Coordination is a blessing, not a given.

While her fellow golfers a trying to avoid bogey, Stephens is trying to avoid being confined to a wheelchair.

She says she feels the aftereffects in various muscle aches and pain for several days after she plays. She constantly battles the effects of drugs, particularly the steroids she has to take to try to keep the disease under control.

"But it's a good tradeout for me," she said. "If I feel a little worse for a couple of days, what I gain by being out and playing and being with people is worth that to me.

"Sometimes, you wake up hurting, and you hurt a little all the time. But it is something you can get used to. I think there are a lot of things worse than this. It's just something I have to deal with. I'm not one to dwell on things like 'why this is happening to me?' I just consider it part of life and go on."

And Stephens has done more than simply go on. After beginning to play again last summer after having not touched clubs for about eight years, the quality of her game defies description. She has played in seven tournaments (scrambles, four-balls, alternate shot, etc.) and has been on the winning team in five of them.

"She's probably the best female golfer I've ever seen," said Reggie Rose, the general manager at Centennial Valley Golf Club, where Stephens is a regular. "Anytime she tees it up, she'll shoot par or under par. It is just unbelievable how she can play with what she has."

"She's absolutely awesome," says Debby Saddler, a regular playing partner. "It's unbelievable she can hit a ball so far but, it's even more incredible she is so accurate. It's going long and right down the middle." Stephens said: "At first, I wanted to go out there and hoped I could just hit the ball and make a few putts. I was surprised at how well I have played. I'm hitting the ball farther and straighter than I did when I was on the Futures Tour. I have some problems sometimes chipping and putting because that part requires a lot of practice and I can't practice or hit a bunch of shag balls. Chipping and putting is basically feel. And some of the old feel is coming back.

"I really can't worry about taking practice swings. I just go up and hit the ball."

Stacks said: "If she has problems chipping and putting, I wish I had those problems."

The disease and Stephens' efforts to combat it have put an interesting irony to her game. Her major weakness a decade ago has become a strength and vice versa.

"My swing is completely different," she said. "My legs don't work as well as they used to. I pretty much just have to use my arms because I can't get my legs together in a fluid swing.

"I think that has worked because part of my therapy is I swim Monday through Friday, and I can't kick when I do that."

Saddler adds, "My husband (Rex) saw her play and played with her a few times before she got sick and always talked about how far she can hit a ball. It just amazes me how she can completely change her swing and even hit it farther than she did before. That's shows you what the swimming has done."

It also provides a glimpse into what kind of competitor Stephens' is, whether she's battling disease, water or par.

When she first began swimming, Stephens was lucky to get across the pool. Then, she could swim half a lap. Then 100 yards. Now, she swims at least a mile without stopping. And it's all arms.

"I have to use my arms to pull my whole body through the water so I've developed a lot of strength in my arms," she said. "The strength of my game was the way I could get my legs involved in the swing. Now, that's a weakness. But I can hit in farther just because of better power in my arms."

She's doing all this with the OK of her neurologist, Dr. Lee Archer of Little Rock.

"He told me that I probably would feel bad for three days to a week afterward and that might be a numbness in an arm or leg that probably would get better but might not," she said. "But he said that as long as I could accept the consequences of what I would feel like later and I was careful about the heat, he told me to go for it. He told me the longer I could do things active, the better off I might be for the long term."

Heat is a real problem. Like any machine that has a tendency to short circuit, getting overheated can accelerate problems in the body. Stephens tries to rest well between tournaments and carries with her a large supply of ice towels and water. Tournament organizers have also given her early morning tee times, and she is allowed to ride in her cart right up to the ball. She uses a cane or a club to brace herself as she walks to the tee.

Last week was a real challenge. She played in a scramble at Hot Springs Thursday and Friday, then planned to play in Centennial Valley Golf Club's member-guest Saturday and Sunday. It's the first time she has played four straight days. It's also one of her last major appearances of the summer..tephens began the long golf weekend by teaming with Conway girls basketball coach Janet Taylor to finish second in the scramble at Hot Springs. The two teamed for a 62 and a 65 as they battled triple-digit heat indexes.

"I told Janet that she really didn't have a partner after the 13th hole today because 13 holes is about all I'm really good for in that kind of heat," Stephens said Friday. "All in all, I thought we did pretty well. I feel pretty well. I'm a little sore but I think that's more from a car accident mother and I were in a couple of weeks ago than anything else.""hen some friends approached her about playing golf again a year ago, she was hesitant. She was wary of not playing well or embarrassing herself in front of some people who remembered her as a fine pro prospect.

But the need for fellowship won out.

"When I first got sick, I saw a lot of people," she said. "But after awhile, that kind of thing gets kind of old. Sometimes it's better just to have a cold or something you recover from quickly. When it settles in that this is something you will have for the rest of your life, people stop coming to see you. They are busy with other things and it's real hard for them to stay in contact you on a regular basis. I understand that.

"I'm now just tickled to death to be with some of the people I was around and enjoyed playing with when I played regularly. I've enjoyed getting to play with different people. That's my medicine."

The whole situation has drawn her closer to her family. She has always enjoyed playing golf and talking sports with her father, former University of Central Arkansas Athletic Director Bill Stephens, who retired two years ago, partly to spend more time with her. Her brother, Mark, was on her winning team in the recent Purple Circle Club tourney. Her sister, Sonya, recently just took up golf and she and Stephanie teamed to win a recent scramble at Morrilton that, "just tickled her to death."

Her mother, Geneva, is a regular companion and confidant. "She's my best friend," she said. "One of the worst things about this is you have to be so dependent on people, and my family has been great. That's who you have when it comes down to it. I'm lucky to have the kind of parents I've had to be understanding and allow me to live with them."

And she refuses to succumb to the "what-might-have-been" mindset. She doesn't dwell on the fact that a single stroke kept her from possibly going on tour.

"I see some of the girls occasionally that I played with and against on the Futures Tour," she said. "I notice others are now on the LPGA tour. But I guess things work out for the best. I would have probably gotten sick on the tour."

At first, what had stricken her was almost comical, fits of clumsiness that she tended to shrug off. When she found out what she had, she said she was in shock. Then, she diligently worked through it as she would from a bad lie, no pity please.

"I don't like sitting around thinking about how bad I feel or might feel," she said. "That's no way to live. If I get a headache, I'm not going to blame it on the MS, even though it can cause headaches. But everybody gets headaches. I've grown a lot. I've learned to appreciate a lot. I just look at is as something to deal with."

She has a new perspective.

"Before MS, I felt golf was everything, that the most important thing in life was going on tour," she said. "People talked about the importance of having your health and I thought it was silly. I understand what they were talking about now."

"Playing with her makes yourself have a better attitude," Saddler said. "Some days, I don't feel so good myself, but when I see her play, I feel better."

Stephens intends to play golf as long as physically possible.

"I want to make the most of every day. The doctors said the longer I can push myself and stay active in something, the better off I will be. Maybe I can put myself in position that I'll be in good shape if they find a cure. Who knows? They say they are close.

"This is worth dealing with the pain. After I recover for a few days, it's good for me to think about how good I will feel just getting out there the next time."

(David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or davidmc@thecabin.net).