Steele’s resolve powers her to win

Joanne Steele stands with her husband and two daughters after winning her second Montana Women's State Amateur title.

Joanne Steele stands with her husband and two daughters after winning her second Montana Women's State Amateur title.

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Armed with a new heart, a fresh outlook on life and an entire community pushing for her to succeed, Joanne Steele is stronger than ever. She showed a taste of that last weekend, when, at 38, she beat players as much as 20 years her junior to take her second Montana State Women’s Amateur title.

Since winning her first State Amateur in 2001, Steele, the women’s golf coach at the University of Montana, was forced to take a year-and-a-half hiatus from playing golf beginning in 2005 as she waited to receive a heart transplant. Steele was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease that thickens the heart muscle, nine years ago and received the transplant in September 2006.

“To me, it was easier to kind of step away rather than to be frustrated with it,” said Steele, who eventually had to stop playing golf because of extreme fatigue. “I love to walk when I play golf, and not being able to walk, it was hard for me.”

The operation took place at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, a seven-hour drive from her hometown of Missoula, Mont. After the transplant, Steele spent three months in Seattle recovering under the watchful eye of her doctors, as well as her husband, Cory, and daughters Alexis, 9, and Sydnie, 7. The family was together each week from Wednesday night until Saturday, when Cory took the girls back to Missoula in time for them to play in their Sunday soccer games.

“I wanted to try to keep life as normal as possible, if that makes sense, for them,” Steele said. “I didn’t want to pull them away from their friends the entire time.”

Crucial to the success of Steele’s transplant and recovery were John and Colleen Powers, owners of The Ranch Club, a golf course where Steele’s team frequently practiced. Steele developed a friendship with the couple through a shared love of golf and an interest in the Montana team. It was John and Colleen who got Steele to the hospital that night in September, after calling down a phone list of about 10 private-plane owners who could fly Steele to the hospital in the necessary four hours after finding that a donor heart was available. When that call came at 12:16 a.m. Sept. 16, John and Colleen not only secured transportation but also accompanied Steele and her husband.

That also was the night that Steele placed her team in John’s care.

“She hands me the black book and says, ‘Here you go. Here’s the team, and this is where you’re going to be,’ ” John remembered.

Flipping through the pages of contact information for each player, tournament details and travel arrangements, John realized Steele had always known that the heart would come, and that John would take care of the team when it did.

“I didn’t have to do any thinking,” John said. “Jo knew it was coming, so she put everything in place to make it very easy. She had always thought I would do it; I had always thought I’d never do it.”

Steele is entering her 14th season coaching at Montana. She coached her team to a Big Sky Conference victory in 2006, and also was named the Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year after that season. Steele, originally from Helena, Mont., played four years of college golf at Jacksonville University as Joanne Roberts, which included a runner-up finish at the 1993 Sun Belt Conference Championship.

When Steele’s three months of recovery in Seattle ended, the competitor in her took over. Steele was always quick to pop out of bed in the morning at the sound of her alarm, knowing that extra time lying around could lead to feeling sorry for herself. Daily goals of playing with her children, walking so many miles and eventually running five miles each day – something she had never before been able to do – got Steele back to feeling better physically than ever.

“It was just the motivation of those around me to say, ‘You know what, Joanne? You’re given this second chance in life. You’re give the opportunity to now go out and do the things that you’ve always wanted to do, and now go out and do them,’ ” she said.

It was in that spirit that Steele competed in last weekend’s State Amateur. With the tournament being held at The Ranch Club, and Steele also being inducted into the Montana Women’s Golf Association Hall of Fame that week, she decided to enter just to see what she could do. Plus, she had an entirely different mindset this time.

“I think I put (golf) more into perspective – just really understanding that there’s more to life than golf, and it makes me relax a little bit more on the golf course,” she said. “I try not to get as worked up. If something is not going right, it’s OK. There’s more time left; there’s more opportunity for me to do things.”

John had been watching Steele hone her game at The Ranch Club, and knew it was only a matter of Steele being able to shoot the same scores competitively that she had been shooting in practice. He knew she hadn’t lost her competitive edge, and knew also that she had gained something else to play for.

“She stands over that putt and thinks of the donor,” he said. “... I think that’s what makes it a great story, is Joanne’s love of the donor to give her that chance of giving it back to everybody else.”

It just so happened that “that putt” was a 20-footer for birdie that forced a playoff against Rose Stepanek, whom Steele coachs at Montana. Steele won on the first extra hole.

“I had nothing to lose on that putt,’’ Steele said. “It just kind of found its way in.’’

Beating Stepanek made the win slightly bittersweet, and talking about it makes Steele step back into the role of coach and motivator.

“Rose has come a long way in the past three years. I look at her now . . . and see where she is and what she’s done, and I think it’s absolutely incredible.”

It’s a statement that could be returned to the coach.

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