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Against all odds

Image: Caroline practices a bunker shot with Manuel De Los Santos meets Caroline Larsson, the girl who refused to let amputation get in the way of her golf.

Latest Golf Stories meets the Swede putting sport into perspective

Sport likes to build stories around over-the-top and heroic stereotypes. Footballers and rugby players are, for example, praised for "bravely" and "fearlessly" throwing themselves into tackles, defeat is frequently deemed "tragic", and cynicism is the default-setting for most hacks and fans. But every now and again a sportsman or woman emerges whose story puts everything into perspective - a character who endures genuine heartbreak (rather than a sporting version of it), who displays authentic courage (not bluster) and who responds with life-affirming spirit (instead of tired world-weariness). Caroline Larsson is one such sportswoman. The 23-year-old Swede always suspected the 2011 golf season would be eventful and it has proved to be exactly that. But instead of adventures around the world carrying the bag of her sister Louise on the Ladies European Tour she has been hit by a series of life-changing events that would have floored lesser people. The story began in Spain, in late 2010, when the Larsson sisters attended LET Q-School. Louise earned a card, Caroline did not, but a new plan emerged - they would still travel together, but with Caroline caddying for Louise in her rookie year. The very first stop was Christchurch, for the New Zealand Open in February, but, on the Monday after the tournament, just hours before they were due to fly home, disaster stuck the South Island town. Hit by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, the city - already weakened by bigger quake the previous September - was devastated and the two sisters found themselves in the middle of the carnage.

Earthquake in Christchurch

"We were in a restaurant when the quake hit," explained Caroline, during the recent Ladies Irish Open at Killeen Castle. "The building was shaking, I passed out and Louise dragged me on to the street. "Glass and debris was falling from the buildings and a man urged us to move to an open area. We later learned that most of the buildings on that street collapsed, our restaurant was one of just a few to stay up." The problems were not over. "A second quake hit a little while later and cracks in the earth just opened up around us. It was incredibly frightening. "We slept in our rental car that night and were very relieved to leave later in the week. We stayed in touch with people in the town and learned of the scale of the disaster - 181 people died, many in the area we were eating." Within weeks Caroline's year was to take yet another twist and turn. Attending a check-up following an earlier operation to remove a cancerous tumour, she was told five malignant tumours had been identified in her thigh. Amputation of the leg was the only option. "I had been through so much emotionally in Christchurch," she says. "I had a different outlook on life having been so close to being killed, I felt so good and suddenly I was faced with this new thing to take in." Talking to Caroline about the amputation is not easy. The problem is that you are aware that this is a girl who has responded brilliantly to what fate has thrown at her and yet it feels glib and patronising to say, "Well done". It's as if she has had to experience unknown pain and mental trauma to inspire us with her attitude, epitomized by her favourite phrases, "Fear less, live more," and, "Be positive and cheerful." But, even as I explain my misgivings, Caroline responds in typical fashion. Her pretty face, soft voice and shy smile could not be any more different to the perceptions of valour sport likes to trade on and yet her careful appraisal of questions and honest answers are the epitome of courage. "Do I feel that seeing tragedy and being close to death in Christchurch gave me perspective when faced with losing a leg? It's tough, but yes, it's true. "Do I understand that people have been impressed by my attitude yet feel as you do? Yes, it's not wrong. "Do I have low periods? Of course, but the kind words help at those times. "Does it still hurt?" At this point Caroline, who used crutches to find her seat, winces a little. "Yes, sometimes it is very painful, the nerves are still very raw." She then smiles in response to my look of concern. "It's okay," she whispers.
Swinging club within a week of surgery
Incredibly, despite all she went through Caroline was swinging a club in hospital just one week after the operation and on the course within a fortnight. Throughout the summer she has continued to play, learning fresh skills and coming to terms with her new game. She has lost length (she now hits the ball about 180 metres from the tee) but what about her short game? "Yeah," she smiles, "it's not bad actually." If the story of a one-legged golfer seems familiar it might be because you remember Frenchman Manuel De Los Santos, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and then found golf. In 2009 he played in the Dunhill Links Championship and wowed the galleries with the strength of his game and character. Two weeks ago Caroline met Manuel at Bokskogens GK in Malmo. "It was incredible to watch him practice and play," she said. "He is so strong while hitting the shots. Watching him play was inspirational. He also gave me one important thing to think about and that is that something is never impossible, it's only in your mind. "After practising together we played nine holes. It was fun and after I hit good shots he'd shout, 'Fantastic!' I'll keep that phrase of his in my mind whenever I am playing." Manuel was equally impressed by Caroline. "We have a shared experience," he explained via email. "And so, of course, I understand it requires an iron will and unbelievable moral strength to play golf as she does only a few weeks after a leg amputation. "I have a lot of respect for Caroline and I am sure that her disability will not stop her from following her dream and becoming a champion. She is very talented, I was deeply touched by her and I wish her all the best of luck." I defy anyone not to be motivated by Caroline. After forty minutes chatting with her I was struck by one thought - that being cynical and bitter is the easy way out. She admits that she feels pain, that she has low points, that her positive attitude is sometimes hard to maintain, but that honesty makes her success in remaining upbeat all the more impressive. She has endured problems this year that others would have railed against and yet, in spite of all this, she returns to the golf course, she stands on one leg and she hits golf balls. Being tough isn't grimacing, scowling and cursing fate. Being tough is being sweet-natured, suffering loss, enduring pain and yet remaining sweet-natured. It is refusing the easy way out; that is courage and bravery. Caroline Larsson's courage and bravery is the real kind. It's not a couple of bad holes she has responded well to, it was a sickening blow to her health. "They took my leg," she says, "but gave me life." Remember those words, remember the message and be motivated. To stay in touch with Caroline's story visit her website.

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