CONOVER, N.C. -- Southwestern Oklahoma State junior golfer Ana Gomez sat crying one night at dinner, not knowing what had caused her to lose the hearing in her right ear.
Gomez and her Lady Bulldog teammates were preparing for their first tournament of the season in Bolivar, Missouri, but she had a thousand other thoughts racing through her mind. Far away from her home and parents in Michoacan, Mexico, Gomez was confused and maybe even a little bit scared. What was happening to her?When head coach Brad Fleetwood took her to a doctor, she was told that it was nothing more than an inner ear infection. It was enough to calm her for the time being, and she tied teammate Ashlynn Hall for seventh in the tournament.
She wound up in a three-way tie for the lead in the NSU Women’s Classic in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sept. 16-17, and finished second in the playoff. The problems with her hearing persisted, and when she returned to Mexico over the Christmas break, she and her parents sought out a second opinion from a specialist.
The news was not good. She had a brain tumor, and within just 12 hours of the diagnosis, underwent surgery to remove the benign mass on Dec. 27.
“Those are the moments when you realize that life can change just in a second,” Gomez said. “I don’t know. I’m really glad it wasn’t anything worse.”
Gomez stayed in the hospital a week, and then with an aunt for another week. Less than a month after going under the knife, she was back to practicing her swing once she got back to Michoacan. She was going back to school as soon as possible, and a little thing like brain surgery wasn’t about to stop her.
Her birthday is Feb. 11, and that’s the date she set to be back on Southwestern Oklahoma State’s campus in Weatherford. All she wanted was her normal life back, and that included playing golf.
“My parents didn’t want me to hit any balls, but I started practicing,” she said. “Not as hard as I usually hit it, not like the whole swing, but just softly. I tried to feel it again and be ready.”
Now that she can laugh about the experience a bit, those around her have teased Gomez about how calm she has been throughout the process. That demeanor remained even when she had to shave a portion of her long dark hair.
“I was really calm,” Gomez continued. “My friends say that I was just acting like they were taking out my wisdom tooth. That’s what they keep telling me. They’re like, ‘We don’t understand how you have stayed so calm during all this.’”
That begs the question, how was she able to keep from worrying about her health, school, her golf career, everything?
“I honestly don’t know,” Gomez admitted. “I prayed a lot. I told my coach, and he said that he was going to pray for me. I told one of my teammates, and she said that she was going to pray for me. I really think that God was with me all the time. That’s why I stayed calm during all this process.”
She and her parents drove the 1,000 miles between Michoacan and Weatherford because doctors had ordered her not to fly. Once she made it back to campus, Fleetwood outlined a plan for her return to competition. She couldn’t overdo it, so Gomez and Fleetwood had to make sure she could do things as simple as walking a full 18 holes.
Walking the course was one thing, but she also had to feel okay for the next couple of days as well. Other than losing maybe 30 yards off the tee, her game did not suffer. Gomez made her return in the March 24-25 Lions Classic, tying for eighth place. After one more regular-season appearance, she again found herself in a tie, this time for fourth in the Great American Conference championship.
“You have to play with what you have, so that’s what I did,” Gomez said. “I didn’t try to force myself or anything. I was just trying to stay calm and enjoy that I was back and able to play golf again.”
Incredibly, she finished second in the Central Super Regional May 4-6 in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. Forget that she had to play 36 holes in a day. Ana Gomez was back.
“She’s instrumental on our team,” Fleetwood said of Gomez, who was named the Lady Bulldogs’ most valuable player. “It goes without saying what she contributes on the golf course, she also contributes to the chemistry of our team. She’s that girl that everybody’s pulling for. She’s such a likable individual, and then to see her come through this physically and emotionally with the perspective she has, you just can’t help but love her.”
The coaching staff and her teammates have responded to Gomez’s story in a big way, and have made the same kind of commitment to her that she has to them. A 1,100-mile stretch of Interstate 40 separates Southwestern Oklahoma State and the NCAA Division II women’s golf national championships here at the Rock Barn Golf and Spa resort, but that did not matter in the least.
Because Gomez is still unable to fly, the entire team made the journey to both Minnesota for the regionals and here to North Carolina by land and not air.
“I’m logging in my driving hours,” Fleetwood said with a chuckle. “She said she didn’t think she was going to be able to fly. She’s hands-down our best player. I said, ‘If you’re well and you’re ready to go, we’ll load up the van and go. If it means having our best player and having you healthy and ready to go, we don’t have to fly.’ And we didn’t.”