Living with an Injury as a Professional Athlete

The first time I started to experience back issues was in college. After walking 9 holes I could feel the aching pain in my low back and the tightness in my hamstrings. I had previously had tendonitis in my wrist as a kid and that has magically gone away… not sure why the back issue has hung around and not magically disappeared but here we are! (haha)

I honestly feel more fortunate than some that I was able to play four years in college, one year on the Symetra Tour and 5 full seasons on the LPGA with virtually no major issues. At the end of my 2016 season I kept having this nagging feeling that I needed to go get my back looked at and needed to start taking care of it; I ignored that feeling and kept plugging along. I started to get some light treatment and I just remember praying every tournament that I would make it through 4 days, especially if I was having a good week. Fast forward to January 2017, i was hitting balls on the range in preparation for our first event in the Bahamas when I felt something I knew was not good and that I had never felt before. My heart sank and I went home and cried as i iced it. I even went to the ER scared for what was happening. I knew. I knew that this was the feeling I feared would come and potentially be the beginning of the end. I was writhing in pain and couldn’t stand up straight, all I could do was lie on the floor. The MRI confirmed that I had a lot of disc degeneration in the lumbar spine including a herniation at L4-5 and bulges at L3-4 and L5-S1. Now as all you golfers know who have back issues, you know these problems all too well and know how unpredictable they can be. One day you’ll feel great and the next you can’t get out of bed. That is not a good thing when you play golf for a living and have to play 5 days in a row (including the Pro AM)

Since that day in January 2017, I have had an uphill battle with my body and my career and I am not going to lie it has been confusing, difficult and disappointing. So many mixed emotions I have felt and it is so frustrating to not be able to physically do what I want to do as a 30 year old. My whole life was built to be a professional athlete. Every thought, every decision I made was for my career as a professional athlete. That is who I was and who I wanted to be. My dreams and aspirations were attached to that certainty and that identity. To have that taken away, and for life to be so…. ambiguous… after being so planned and strategized for my whole life, has been life changing.

I took 2017 off and subsequently got pregnant during that time. For the 2018 season I worked hard on rehabbing my body and my game. After a year off I went back out to play full time when my daughter was 4 months old. My game actually felt fantastic and I was hitting the ball better than I ever had. I still was always worried my back would give out on me any second, but it hung in there until August… that was pretty good I think. But finally my body said “enough” and gave out on me while at the Canadian Open in Regina, Saskatchewan. I packed up my bags and my baby and headed home again, flinching from the spasms and bent over sideways, unsure of what was going to happen next.

I tried receiving injections and that did give some relief for every day life, but not enough to play golf consistently. Like I said, when you play golf for a living, you don’t have much room for inconsistency or you’re out of a job! I have done other therapies that did give some relief however they are short lived. For the 2019 season I have been eager to get back out and play. My body has not cooperated with my brain and that can be so frustrating for anyone, let alone a professional athlete. Being forced to sit on the sidelines and watch your peers instead of it being your choice to sit out, is difficult. I have achieved “Veteran” status on tour which basically means I have Lifetime status on the LPGA Tour. This week I had to withdraw from the Shoprite in New Jersey and have decided that surgery is my only option in order to achieve the results I would like. I am devastated to not be able to play and I don’t ever want to feel this way again. I don’t want to feel the sting of disappointment when I go out to see “how I feel” on the range to be greeted with shooting pain down my back and legs and have to surrender and say “i can’t do it.” My goal is to get back to the physical condition I know the rest of my body and mind is in. I have had to do a lot of soul searching and quarter life crisis-ing to figure out what I want to do with life during my down time… most people are just beginning their careers at my age, I have already had a career and now am faced with the rest of world.. what do you want to do with your life? I will tell you one thing, I want to be the one to make that decision and not have my body make it for me. Hopefully I will be afforded that luxury. And hell, maybe I will come back even stronger because now I have experienced something many young people have not… perspective.

Until then, stay tuned for Post Op news!

Sydnee Michaels