Nothing stops golfer Caroline Larsson from playing the game she loves
DUSSELDORF, Germany -- If the story of Caroline Larsson's life in 2011 were a film, you might exit the movie theater scratching your head, mumbling about far-fetched plots, because her tale involves fear, pain, loss and redemption, all prefaced by a terrifying natural disaster.
But there is nothing fictional about her story, and despite the central incident of that year being the amputation of her right leg due to cancer, Larsson has no doubts: "They took my leg," she says of 2011, "but they gave me life."
This week, had the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the International Golf Federation been on the same wavelength (their classifications of ability are out of sync), the Swede might have been preparing to tee it up in Rio de Janeiro at the Paralympics. Instead she competed in the pro-am of the Ladies European Tour's ISPS Handa European Masters at GC Hubbelrath.
Oh, yes: Larsson still plays golf. She didn't let cancer stop her from doing that -- or anything else for that matter.
The story begins early in 2011, in the city of Christchurch, shortly after Larsson, then 22, had caddied for her sister, Louise, in the New Zealand Open. Louise was a rookie on the Ladies European Tour that year; Caroline's great hope was to become one herself in 2012.
Prior to flying home the two girls made an everyday decision that might have saved their lives: They chose one restaurant instead of two others. In the earthquake that hit the city during the meal, many buildings in the area collapsed while their restaurant, which they swiftly fled, stood standing.
"The streets were bobbing and weaving like the sea," explains Caroline. "Sometimes they even cracked beneath us, opening wide like huge chasms. People were running, screaming and crying. Debris from collapsed and lurching buildings was falling to earth with ear-splitting crashes.
"We were led to an open area, away from buildings. There was this great mass of people standing in complete silence, staring at the city, a totally devastated landscape."
For three nights, the sisters slept in their rental car, sometimes shaken by appalling aftershocks, desperately waiting for the airport to reopen, and eventually it did (not before another aftershock caused a final panicked evacuation).
In all, 185 people died that day, over 2,000 were injured, 164 of them seriously. Larsson says: "We were in shock, but we knew we had been so lucky."
A month later, Larsson entered the hospital for the removal of a lump. She was daunted by the prospect, and it was painful, but she was assured it was a precautionary measure and remained appreciative of her good fortune. After all, 2011 still had much to offer.
In April, the doctor called her back and all appeared well until a nurse entered the room with a glass of water and a handkerchief.
"I was immediately alert to danger," says Larsson. "Then the doctor said 'chondrosarcoma,' the word that shattered my world, a rare cancer."
She was told amputation of her right leg was the only option after doctors found five malignant tumors in her thigh.
Her initial reaction was panic.
"I could feel the blood in my veins sting and burn as my anger spread," she says, but the fury passed and she embarked on a startling journey that began with a trip to London, a weekend break with a very individual detail. "I decided not to buy a card for public transport -- I wanted to walk and walk. To walk everywhere. I did everything on two legs one last time to appreciate it."
Ahead of the operation she was determined not to be overwhelmed by the imminent loss and pain. In her blog she wrote: "My gut feeling was calm. I did a little meditation exercise which helped me appreciate what was in front of me. I will not delve into it deeper, but I felt such peace. I felt I could handle it, that everything will be fine. Yes, I felt it 100 percent. I understand that people might perceive me as 'positive' or suspect I am repressing bad thoughts every day and dare not be sad, but it really is not so."
Larsson was emphatically not kidding herself.
"The news was good," she says. "The cancer hadn't spread. If it had, then the amputation would have been pointless. But I had a golden chance to live on. I'd paid a price, but what an opportunity. In those days there was no limit to my happiness. I was so thirsty for the world."
Five days after surgery, when she spied a golf club in the gym during a recovery session, the physio warned her against swinging it. She waved the concerns away and immediately knew it. "I still loved the game," she says. "And I knew what I wanted to do -- it was two and a half months until the national championship, I wanted to defend the four-ball title with my sister."
But before then she hit an unexpected wall -- the disbelief of others. Two weeks after the operation, she sat on her bed, devastated.
"I was surrounded by doubt and fear, but it wasn't that the doubters were wise about my misery -- they were the cause of it. I couldn't take the negativity. It was my loneliest moment, and then my mom came in the room to show me a magazine article about another amputee who had embraced life. It rebuilt my self-belief."
And with it the process of returning to the golf course.
"I don't think anyone believed I would make the championship," she laughs. "My family, coach, friends, they just thought it was a good target and I'd eventually realize it wasn't going to happen."
They were still coming to terms with Larsson's newfound strength. "It was tough, yes. The surgery and the cruel pain were a real struggle, but there were positives because I dared to see the problems, dared to feel the pain, dared to ask for help."
When her mother expressed the wish that it had been her leg, Larsson told her: "Mom, you wouldn't have coped and I have, so it's fine."
Larsson is easily approachable and open about her fears and resilience -- but she also has a sense of humor. After hearing that another article implied that losing the right leg was better for her golf swing, Larsson thought about the theory, then leaned forward.
"Yes, it's true," she whispered with a smile that continued to grow. "But I didn't really have a choice, did I?"
And then she laughed with delight.
With the philosophy "fear less, live more" powering her ambition, Larsson -- just 10 weeks after the amputation -- teed it up alongside her sister in a group with the Hedwall twins, Caroline and Jacqueline.
At this point, Caroline Hedwall was the No. 1-ranked golfer on the Ladies European Tour and was on course to make her Solheim Cup debut the following month, when she would be a standout performer in Europe's thrilling defeat of the United States.
Golf is such an accepting sport for people with disabilities. I just hope the rest of the world can cooperate together to figure it out.Caroline Larsson
The other Caroline, in contrast, had yet to complete 18 holes since the operation and had lacked the time to have a sports prosthesis fitted; she was hitting on one leg (the field had happily permitted her to use a cart).
On the first hole, Larsson not only gave herself a long look at birdie, but, with Swedish TV filming, drained it. The other three failed to equal her score and Larsson laughs at the outrageousness of it: "I think Caroline Hedwall missed her putt because there were tears in her eyes."
The Larssons went on to win, an achievement that can only be described as absurd and audacious in its brilliance. Since then Caroline has competed in disabled golf tournaments around the world, including America, and on the Scandinavian Nordea Tour (a feeder circuit for the LET).
Playing with Germany's Sophia Popov, a Symetra Tour regular, in the pro-am this week, Larsson says: "I played well even though I haven't had much practice. I was a couple over par, so I was surprised and happy."
She has inspired people and been inspired. A mystery benefactor, who read of her tale, purchased an expensive Genium prosthetic leg. An attached note read: "I want you to have the chance to achieve your dreams. My wish is that you might have the opportunity to help someone else in the future."
She achieves this with motivational speaking, which has taken on a growing significance in her life. In classic Larsson style, the talks, which focus on embracing loss as opportunity, also cover the difficulty of carrying glasses of water on one leg.
She dearly wishes that golf was in the Paralympics this week, and she is involved with forcing change.
"Golf is such an accepting sport for people with disabilities," says Larsson, who is working with Allianz, a partner of the IPC, on a project called Golf to Paralympics to raise awareness. "I just hope the rest of the world can cooperate together to figure it out."
ISPS Handa, title sponsor of the European Masters, is a Japanese charity that is also lobbying for blind and disabled golf to be included in the worldwide festival of sport.
Unfortunately it seems set in stone that even Tokyo in 2020 is out of reach for golf's Paralympic aspirations, but should that change, Caroline Larsson would grace such a stage.