After Arthritis Shatters Tennis Dream, Cee Discovers Golf July 22, 2019 | Stevens Point, Wis. By David Shefter, USGA

Nicole Cee admits that golf was a godsend after rheumatoid arthritis ended a burgeoning tennis career. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

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From the time a racket was first placed in her hand at the age of 3, Nicole Cee dreamed of walking out at Centre Court at Wimbledon and Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open.

The only child of a former tennis touring professional aspired to follow in her father’s footsteps until the day when Cee’s aspirations were shattered. Diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA), an auto-immune condition that according to WebMd.com afflicts 50,000 kids in the U.S., Cee, then 12, saw a dream die.

“Having that stripped away from me was like having a knife in the heart,” she said.

But a new opportunity arose, thanks to modern medicine and a benevolent instructor. While doctors told Cee that playing tennis could create future health issues, golf didn’t have those risks.

Four years after first picking up a club, and admittedly struggling to break 100, Cee finds herself among the nation’s elite juniors, having qualified for the 71st U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at SentryWorld.

“I had a big celebration because four years ago I didn’t think I would be able to do this,” said the 17-year-old Cee, who qualified at Stuart (Fla.) Yacht & Country Club.

Cee’s remarkable journey began in New York City, where her parents, Kristian and Melissa met. Kristian, a native of the former communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, defected to West Germany as a teen in 1967. He eventually made his way to the United States, where he played tennis at Southern Illinois University and Florida International University before playing professionally until 1978. Although he never made the main draw of a Grand Slam, he did play in the qualifying events for Wimbledon and the US Open. He eventually migrated to the corporate world and became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

He married Melissa, a former University of North Carolina gymnast who made a bid for the 1984 USA Team in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and Nicole was born in 2001. By the time she was 8, Nicole was one of the top tennis players in the Northeast in her age group.

Grooming a tennis prodigy in Manhattan, however, can be challenging. Courts are relatively hard to come by and costly to reserve.

Kristian brought Nicole to Florida at age 9, where noted coach Gabe Jaramillo took notice of her. Jaramillo is no stranger to coaching stars, having worked with the likes of Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Monica Seles and Jim Courier.

“He picked her,” said Kristian.

Nicole became one of the youngest enrollees at the Club Med Academies in Port St. Lucie. Club Med combines training in tennis, golf, volleyball, soccer and swimming with an academic curriculum. Her regimen involved practicing from 6 a.m. to 9:30 with a half-hour break, then classes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., followed by two more hours of training. Cee quickly  became one of the top 50 players for her age group nationally.

In late 2013, a month after turning 12, Cee was competing in the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament when she began feeling unbearable pain. After losing an intense match, Cee came off the court crying and hyperventilating, something she never did, win or lose.

“My back and knees were in so much pain,” she recalled. “I couldn’t even turn.”

Initially, doctors thought it was growing pains; Cee sprouted 6 inches during that time. But as the pain persisted, Cee’s parents realized there was more to this. Kristian even considered removing Nicole from the academy and returning to New York, where his wife still works during the week as the head of human resources for a large bank.

Nicole Cee collected plenty of tennis hardware before arthritis forced her to quit. (Kristian Cee)

Finally, after months of searching for answers, a blood test revealed she had JRA. A New York-based pediatric rheumatologist, Dr. Nancy Pan, put her on Humira, a biologic that targets inflammation affecting the joints. Once-a-week injections almost immediately eased the pain.

But with doctors advising against returning to competitive tennis, Nicole found herself in a dark place. Not only was she going through adolescence, but now her one passion had been taken away. Furthermore, it was difficult to watch friends compete in top junior tournaments, including Wimbledon and the US Open.

“It was like [being] in a tunnel,” said Nicole. “I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t working out. I wasn’t playing tennis. I knew nothing about golf at the time. It was just miserable.”

Her only experience with golf before the diagnosis was of the miniature variety, and it wasn’t happy. She accidentally dropped the putter on her foot, causing a fracture.

Otherwise, Cee’s only exposure to golf came when she would run past the academy’s facility en route to the tennis courts.

“All the [golf] coaches knew me,” she said. “I was the little girl with the Wilson tennis bag. They would always say, ‘Hi Nicole.’ When they stopped seeing me run to practice, they asked what’s wrong. It was a very sensitive subject. I told them I can’t play [tennis] right now.”

Don Law, then the head golf instructor at the academy, asked if she wanted to try a new sport, knowing the rest of his students were much further ahead in their development. At first, she could barely make contact, but her competitive instincts and indefatigable work ethic took over. Within eight months, she was breaking 80 and competing in U.S. Kids and regional junior tournaments.

Cee, a 4.0 student, now talks glowingly about a game she never considered seven years ago. Her father has never played the game – it’s not something kids in communist Czechoslovakia did. Kristian’s father, an obstetrician, played professional ice hockey. Combined with her mother’s gymnastics background, Cee was blessed with athletic genes. Now 5-foot-11, she displays a languid and sinewy swing.

That doesn’t mean tennis has totally left Nicole’s thoughts.

“She still has some scars,” said Kristian. “She knows all of the Americans playing in the juniors at Wimbledon, the French Open and the US Open. It’s difficult because she knows she could have been there.”

Golf, however, has filled that competitive void. Last year, while her mother was in the process of relocating to Jacksonville, Fla., Nicole met noted instructor Todd Anderson and short-game guru Mike Shannon at TPC Sawgrass. Since the beginning of 2018, both teachers have refined her game, while being cautious about not exerting too much pressure on her lower back and knees.

“I owe a lot of my success to them,” said Cee. “I had such a great foundation with Don and the academy. The turnover to Todd and Mike has been such a smooth and easy thing. I have a good bond with them.”

Her physique might draw comparisons to another pair of golf sisters whose Czech-born dad was a professional tennis player and Grand Slam champion: Jessica and Nelly Korda.

Kristian has contacted Petr Korda, who won the Australian Open in 1998, as well as another Czech-born Grand Slam champion, Ivan Lendl – three of his five daughters (Isabella, Marika and Daniela) competed at a high level – about supporting a golf-crazed daughter.

Cee’s ability has caught the attention of college recruiters. In November she plans to sign a national letter of intent to play for the University of South Carolina in 2020. Ultimately, she aspires to play professionally, trading the famed grass courts at Wimbledon for places like Pebble Beach and The Olympic Club, two future U.S. Women’s Open sites.

Competing in this week’s U.S. Girls’ Junior is just another step in a remarkable journey.

“I’ve heard a lot about it and how amazing it is,” said Cee of the championship. “It’s a huge deal. Just being able to go there after having only four years of experience, I just have to enjoy the moment and not take any of it for granted.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

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