An MS diagnosis has only fueled Vail Director of Golf Alice Plain’s passion for life—and for helping others do the same.
Moving briskly around the golf shop at Vail Golf Club, Alice Plain conveys a relaxed energy and confident authority that befits her role as PGA Director of Golf at one of the busiest courses in the Rockies. She strikes up easy conversations with regulars and supervises her staff with a collegial efficiency that’s ultimately reflected in the club’s 4:07 pace of play—an edict that even applies to golfers riding the popular Golf Bikes she introduced at the course this year.
The 47-year-old Plain often rides her bike to work and two years ago completed the Triple Bypass. She skis and plays hockey throughout the winter and actively embraces the outdoor life that drew her to Colorado more than 20 years ago. Watching her play golf—which she did collegiately on the Oklahoma State University golf team and professionally on the Futures Tour before becoming a PGA member in 1993—you’d never know she suffered from multiple sclerosis.
What started as numbness in her legs in December 2005 soon began to manifest itself with blurred vision, fatigue and other symptoms of the disease that attacks the central nervous system and interferes with the transmission of nerve signals between the brain, spinal cord and other body parts. Six months of MRIs, spinal taps and other tests later, she officially became one of the approximately 400,000 Americans with MS. Official estimates vary on how many Coloradans are afflicted—from one in 550 to one in 800—but the incidence is significantly higher here than in any state outside the Pacific Northwest.
Plain, however, clearly hasn’t allowed the disease to define her. Despite not being able to feel her legs some days, she continues to pursue her passion for teaching the game she grew to love as a girl in South Bend, Indiana. And after figuring out that stress exacerbated her MS symptoms, and that she could no longer relieve that stress by exercising seven days a week, she learned to filter it in different ways. One way, she says, is by always walking and not keeping score on the golf course. “The only competing I do is in charity events,” she says, “and that’s fine. I’m just happy to be outside.”
To accept just what she could accomplish on any given day is an approach Plain credits to working with the Avon-based Can Do MS program in 2008. Started in 1984 by Jimmie Heuga, the Olympic skier who would not let a 1970 MS diagnosis prevent him from living a full life, Can Do MS provides classes for individuals afflicted with MS—and their partners—in exercise, nutrition and mental motivation to improve the physical condition and outlook on life.
“Jimmie was a huge inspiration for me,” Plain says of Heuga, who died in 2010. “I’d see him on his trike bike and Sit-Ski all the time. He truly changed the minds of neurologists who believed people with MS should limit their physical activity, and the Can Do MS program was extremely helpful to me and my partner, Shelli, to have a map of how to live life down the road.”
Plain obviously sees golf as part of that life. She’s learned, for instance, that a wider stance and “walkthrough” follow-through helps her better maintain balance. And because she loves to teach, she is committed to helping other “adaptive athletes” find joy in the game.
At Beaver Creek Golf Club this May, for example, she worked the entire day with Lori Bryant, a single-digit handicap who had quit the game she loved to play with her husband and sons shortly after being diagnosed with MS two years ago.
“I get tired a lot, my mobility is not very good, I have a lot of stiffness and a lot of numbness and can’t move my body very well,” Bryant said before her encounter with Plain. “I’m looking for how I can consistently strike the ball again.”
Understanding firsthand Bryant’s situation helped Plain connect with her student, and by the end of the daylong one-on-one lesson, Bryant was striking the ball with power and accuracy. “There were probably ten things I learned from Alice that we are going to practice back home,” Bryant effused at the end of the day. “It was awesome.”
Her husband, Randall, more than seconded that emotion. “You have to spend a lot of time trying to find your new normal,” he said, tearing up. “And our normal before had been playing golf together all the time. And today was a sign that that normal could come back. So I was real pleased with that.” Plain also draws motivation from the PGA H.O.P.E. (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere), a six-week program the PGA of America has launched to support veterans by introducing them to the therapeutic and rehabilitation benefits of golf. PGA Professional David Windsor from Florida’s Adaptive Golf Academy led the local training. “He really got me jazzed,” she says. “He had great ideas about working with people with all kinds of disabilities— veterans with prosthetics, missing limbs, and PTSD, as well as people of all ages afflicted with arthritis, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis and other physical conditions.”
One of the adaptive aids Windsor suggested and Plain has employed is the tall tee—“kind of like kids use in tee-ball,” she says—which she fashioned by cutting down a golf shaft and inverting the grip to create a pedestal from which a seated golfer (in a wheelchair, for example) strikes a ball with a short-shafted driver. “I can’t tell you how much fun it is for people to hit the ball off this thing,” she says excitedly before striping one down the range.
By finding her “new normal” and giving back to others with disabilities her gifts as a golfer, teacher and person, Plain serves as “an inspiration to all of us,” says PGA Colorado Section Executive Director Eddie Ainsworth. “The leadership she brings to our industry through her professionalism and positive attitude always makes her a joy to be around. What a great lady.”