Despite aches and pains, Rankin rises to challenge

Reilley Rankin watches her tee shot during the second round of the LPGA Q-School Final at LPGA International.

Reilley Rankin watches her tee shot during the second round of the LPGA Q-School Final at LPGA International.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Reilley Rankin was editing her speech at the Rolex Awards Reception right up until she walked on the stage. She was, to use her word, petrified to stand in front of a packed ballroom in a little black dress and talk about June 9, 1999, the day that changed her life.

And yet, Rankin did what she always does – rose to the challenge and left those around her standing in awe.

The LPGA gave Rankin the 2013 Heather Farr Perseverance Award for overcoming an accident so bad doctors believed she would never walk again. And while the body cast and the broken bones and bruised organs are the most well-known parts of Rankin’s life, as she stood off the 18th green at LPGA International after the third round of Q-School on Dec. 6 and talked about life right now, we learn that while those old wounds have healed, there is so much more to this story.

Rankin, 34, finds herself back at dreaded Q-School after a season she’d like to forget. Eight straight missed cuts to end the year left her with a grand total of $9,233 in earnings for the season.

In November, she scoured the family house on Hilton Head, S.C., for loose change, rolling pennies and dimes and quarters to try and pay her Q-School entry fee. She even went into her dad’s closet and took all the shirts she had bought him for Christmas over the years that still had tags on them and sold them on eBay.

Altogether she had $1,300. Not nearly enough.

And then, a family friend – an angel, really – phoned to say he would pay the rest.

“I didn’t have the money together until the day it was due,” Rankin said. “But in my mind, I was going to Q-School somehow.”

That’s Rankin. Those who know her well know she’s the ultimate fighter. They’d also say that for a woman with so much talent, the fight shouldn’t be this tough.

You can Google Chimney Rock in Lake Martin, Ala., and watch people jump from 67 feet, or the equivalent of a seven-story building. Rankin watched college friends do it that fateful summer day. In fact, it was a group of kids who taught her to stay like a pencil on her way down. Rankin panicked though, and landed as if she were sitting on a chair.

She broke two vertebrae in three places and cracked her sternum right down the middle. She bruised her heart and lungs and was a half centimeter from being paralyzed.

When a doctor told Rankin she would never walk again, she thought, Who is this guy to be saying that?

“Instantly my imagination took over and I clearly remember visualizing myself as Forrest Gump, breaking out of my brace and running out of his office,” Rankin said in her speech.

Visualization is what got Rankin through the toughest 24 months of her life.

“As far as I was concerned, it rained every day for nearly two years and I never missed a single day of practice,” she said.

Rankin returned to the University of Georgia two years after her accident and led the Bulldogs to the 2001 NCAA Championship title. The idea that she had done something extraordinary was lost on Rankin until she was recently honored with the Heather Farr Award.

In her mind, there was no option but to return to the game better than she left it. The award and the speech, however, forced her to come to grips with the fact that she had, indeed, defied the odds.

“I guess I never knew how rewarding adversity could be,” she said.

Rankin qualified for the LPGA in 2004 by virtue of her finish on the Futures Tour money list. She showed steady improvement on the LPGA until 2008, the year her mother – already diagnosed with a rare form of dementia – fell ill with cancer.

Because her mom didn’t have health insurance, Rankin took the money she had saved to buy a house and poured it into saving her mother.

Mary Rankin is now mercifully in remission, but can no longer call her daughters by name because of the dementia. Rankin’s parents were unable to travel to Naples to see Reilley accept her award. The last time Mary saw her daughter play a round of golf was at the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open at the Broadmoor.

“My mom just got bad so quickly,” Rankin said.

She packed enough clothes for a week to help out her parents in Hilton Head and wound up staying home for two years. Her world is currently stuffed into an Orlando, Fla., storage unit.

Caroline, Reilley’s younger sister and rock, is caddying this week. When Reilley finishes a thought, she often turns to Caroline to see if what she said made sense. Ever since the accident, Reilley has relied heavily on Caroline to navigate life, and when she thanked her sister during her speech in Naples, the whole room reached for a tissue.

“You have played so many roles in my life,” said Rankin, choking back tears, “and quite literally put my feet on the ground when I could not move. You are my most precious asset and I couldn’t imagine life without you.”

Rankin said she could’ve written the whole speech on Caroline.

It wasn’t long ago that Rankin came to realize that her concerns over finances and her lingering aches and pains were taking a toll on her game. Her mind, her focus, is so strong she typically operates under the assumption that nothing can stop her.

Writing that eight-minute speech, however, forced Rankin to relive her accident in a way she hadn’t done before.

Simply being out on the LPGA was never an accomplishment to Rankin, who feels like she hasn’t scratched the surface of her potential.

“The hardest thing for me to swallow or deal with is if there’s a day that my body doesn’t allow me to do this,” Rankin said. “Or money.”

She can try and block out her need for financial help, but when she’s sitting at the kitchen counter rolling quarters to pay for Q-School, it’s a hard fact to deny.

Rankin currently sits in a tie for 18th at Q-School with 36 holes left. The top 20 players earn their cards for next season, but, even after they qualify, players still have to find a way to get to tournaments.

“She said to me a few days ago ‘For real this time Caroline, this time I really do feel like I’ve made some progress,' ” Caroline said.

The younger sister recounted the conversation with a smile, knowing Reilley’s never-quit attitude will somehow, someway allow her to prevail.

When Reilley was a kid, Mary Rankin hung a sign in the house that read, You only see an obstacle when you take your eye off the goal.

Reilley took those words and wrote them on her heart. They are with her every day.

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