DI men's golf: Iowa State's Nick Voke takes long, painful road back to NCAA championships
The memory is clouded in haze, but there is one moment Nick Voke can remember clearly.
It was early in the morning and a friend had driven him to the Ames, Iowa airport. He considers getting there in time a miraculous accomplishment, given the circumstances.
He hurt, his physical pain being overmatched only from the emotional toll of the situation. The painkillers were doing their job, but it wasn't enough.
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Voke, then a freshman in 2014, was supposed to be on that plane, heading to Prairie Dunes to represent Iowa State in the NCAA championships for the school's first berth in nationals in more than 50 years.
Instead, the hampered golfer, with a newly-inserted titanium plate and eight screws by his left collarbone, went home, where the fog in his mind took over, once again.
"I honestly don't remember what I did after," Voke said, thinking back to the memory. "Someone took care of me, let's put it that way."
A few weeks earlier, Voke and fellow freshman Ruben Sondjaja were riding longboards down a street in Ames. Voke took his eyes off the road and turned to Sondjaja when Voke hit a hole in the road and flew off his board. He landed on his head and shattered his collarbone.
He went unconscious, but Sondjaja remembers everything: helping his teammate into the ambulance; the stay in the intensive care unit; the burden he felt from watching the entire accident unfold.
"But from then on, it was the road to recovery," Sondjaja said.
Recovery was far from easy, but Voke's love and commitment to the game powered him through the experience. It guided him through an uphill battle back to grandest stage in college golf, which he'll finally — three full years after his career-threatening accident — have the chance to compete in this weekend at the NCAA championships.
The evidence came in the form of a question, one Andrew Tank had never heard from a prospective recruit. But Voke wasn't an ordinary recruit, and he proved it from New Zealand, on the other end of a Skype call.
"What's the difference between a program like ISU and a program like Oklahoma State, where they have won multiple national championships and have a huge tradition?" Tank, the head men's golf coach at ISU, remembers Voke asking.
Immediately, Tank realized Voke genuinely cared about his golf future and was willing to press all the details to get a better understanding of which American college would attend. That love led to impatience when Voke was forced to take the slow road back to playing shape after his accident.
For the first step, physical therapists assigned Voke to the pool. They put him on a platform and submerged him, leaving only his head above water. They employed an artificial current to provide resistance against Voke's left arm. All he had to do was simply hold his arm in place, but after the accident and surgery he had, there was nothing easy about it.
Voke considered each step an accomplishment, so he kept powering through. The steps were slow. Once he accomplished one task, the next one got incrementally harder. When the work in the pool was completed, they gave him a one-pound dumbbell to lift.
He called it a major milestone.
Voke knew the process back to health would be long. He was so urgent to get back onto the course that sometimes he forgot about the limitations of an injured arm. Once, the smoke alarm in his home started beeping. He reached for it with his left arm. Instantly, pain shot through his entire body, knocking him to the floor.
Eventually, doctors gave him the OK to start putting. They told him he could start on a Friday; he started on the Wednesday before.
"He's constantly pushing the envelope in a good way," Tank said. "Sometimes as a coach, I have to slow him down and just try and keep him from getting too far ahead of himself, but for someone in my position, that's what you want.
"It's easy to corral someone and kind of shepherd them in the right way than have to get them out of bed and go each day."
The commitment Voke showed to his recovery didn't stop when he was ready to play again. He has continued it all the way through his college career. He'll constantly text Tank or assistant coach Chad Keohane, asking questions about his swing or requesting them to open up the team's performance center.
Sondjaja is the same way, Tank says.
Tank didn't start thinking about Voke's full-circle journey until the two were walking on the 18th green at the NCAA Regionals in Austin, Texas, a couple weekends ago. Voke, who ended up with a round of 61, was having a historic performance and was one hole away from rewriting the school record book.
The ISU coach took a glance at the scoreboard overlooking the 18th hole. He saw his team was guaranteed a trip to the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years. He thought about Voke, and the former freshman's distraught face as he got on the airplane to head to the NCAA tournament three years before.
"Wow," he thought, "look how far he's come these past four years, and in a bigger picture, look how far the program's come with his and Ruben's help."
When Sondjaja thinks back to the last time the Cyclones made it to the NCAA tournament, every memory has Voke there with him. He'll tell a story, but then stop.
"I have to kind of snap out of it and remember he wasn't actually there," Sondjaja said.
This time, Voke will be. It's been an incredible journey back to prominence for Voke. He's reminded of it all the time. When someone touches the titanium plate in his chest, he shudders, feeling the pain and remembering the work he put in to get here.
When it's cold outside, and he's doing extra, required preparation to get the muscles around the titanium warmed up, he thinks about his commitment to a game he almost once lost. He still aggravates his neck all the time, because his collarbone and left trapezoid is just a little bit higher than his right side.
"It's a good reminder of where I was," he said, "and where I am now."
Voke still has the longboard, the one that almost ended his golf career just as it was getting started. He said he wants to frame it; Tank jokes that he wants to burn it.
Despite the bad memories that come with it, Voke sees it as a symbol of the journey he's taken to get from watching his teammates go to nationals without him, to leading a team which hopes to make the top-eight match play after the first 72 holes.
"It's a great reminder of how far he's come in his four years at ISU," Tank said.
This article is written by Joseph Hoyt from Ames Tribune, Iowa and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.