Inspirational return to the course
Augustana's (S.D.) Bortnem recovers from illness
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Kelsey Bortnem won’t win the NCAA Championship. Her name won’t be among the leaders. In fact, if she breaks 100 on the hard and hilly Persimmon Ridge Country Club layout, it will be major accomplishment.
But there won’t be a bigger winner in this tournament than Bortnem, a junior from Augustana (S.D.) who is recovering from a life-threatening and mysterious bone marrow disease.
“We have an inspirational speaker each day and she was ours [Wednesday],” Augustana coach Peggy Kirby said. “What she said was, in the end it’s just golf. She has her life back.”
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Troubled in late 2010 by a growing lack of energy, Bortnem was diagnosed in November that year with a condition similar to but not exactly like aplastic anemia, a serious blood disorder in which a person’s bone marrow doesn’t produce enough new blood cells.
A transfusion in January allowed Bortnem to complete the school year until she went to Minneapolis for a bone marrow transplant on June 13 following rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She spent two weeks in the hospital – considered an unusually short stay in such cases – and finally got to go home to Volga, S.D., in early August.
“I was still weak and tired,” recalled Bortnem, extending her right arm and making it tremble to demonstrate how at first she wasn’t strong enough to hold a dinner plate. “I was on lots of medication and I had to wear a mask all the time. While they were working on getting my immune system back up I decided to go back to school but only part time, just six credits.”
At the time, golf was an afterthought, though it hovered on the horizon like a beacon in Bortnem’s recovery. By early April, though, Masters week, she was able to return to the Vikings’ lineup, carding rounds of 95 and 88 to tie for 37th in the Upper Iowa Spring Invitational. A week later, she tied for 44th in Augustana’s home tournament, then went on to finish 43rd in the NCAA Central Regional.
“Right away I didn’t think I’d be golfing at all,” Bortnem said. “I thought for sure I’d have to take this entire year off. But once I got into the groove, I worked that much harder. It’s really been fun to see my progress.”
Bortnem’s dark brown hair returned before her strength did. It used to be golf shaft straight, but like many chemo patients it’s come back curly and wavy, framing a face that can smile sheepishly about the score she shot Wednesday and now frowns less about a missed three-foot putt.
“There are bigger things to worry about,” she said.
At first Bortnem lost about 50 yards off the tee, though she isn’t quite that short anymore. Still, walking Persimmon Ridge or any course hasn’t been an option this season, so Augustana successfully petitioned the NCAA to allow her to use an electric cart.
Allowing Bortnem to be part of the lineup for the NCAA Championship was no charity on Kirby’s part. Kirby had to leave behind Molly Leland, a senior who played in last year’s championship tournament, after Bortnem beat her out in team qualifying.
Bortnem didn’t look like the golfer she can be on famed architect Arthur Hills’ strenuous test on which none of the 70 players broke par Wednesday. Starting on the back nine she didn’t card a single par, then made a 12 on the par-5 third before recording her only birdie on the par-3 fourth. When it was over, Bortnem signed for a 103, last in the field.
“It was a tough day,” Kirby said. “She was mortified by her round. But she knows she can compete again. The opportunity to be here at the national championship, she didn’t even dream of that. She finished with her head held high. She knows what it’s like to be in isolation. Shooting 103 is something she’ll forget about.”
This summer, Bortnem will return to Minneapolis for a one-year checkup and plans to spearhead a bone marrow registry drive in her hometown.
Then she hopes to make contact with the anonymous young man who donated the bone marrow she needed after a failing to find a match with her brother (her hospital requires patients to wait at least a year before contacting donors).
If they get to meet, what will she say? Bortnem smiles about that, too.
“I don’t know. He gave me life again,” she said. “What a great act to do for someone. That’s why I want to give back.”