A healthcare worker who had her promising golf career cut short at 18 after a “tummy bug” turned out to be a crippling chronic bowel disease has made an emotional return to the golf course 15 years later – after becoming a non-playing captain of the Welsh ladies’ national golf team.
When Laura Roberts, 33, suddenly collapsed on the 18th hole of a golf course just months before she was due to head to America on an athletic scholarship in 2007, she didn’t realise her entire life was about to be torn apart.
Following a “nightmare” year spent in and out of hospital – suffering from agonising pain, diarrhoea, weight loss and fatigue – she was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a lifelong condition where parts of the digestive system become inflamed.
But Laura from Holyhead is keen to highlight the positives for, having thought she would never be on a golf course again, she completed a couple of “playful” rounds with pals in June and July last year – before being named captain of the Welsh national side which recently competed in the European Championships.
The proud mum to twins Oliver and Oscar, six, said: “When I was growing up, all I ever wanted to be was a professional golfer. I picked up my first plastic club before I could even walk.
“But one day I collapsed while playing, and the next day my entire life was upside down. I was in constant agony.”
Everything she has been through, since the day she slumped to the ground in pain while playing with friends at Holyhead Golf Club, has made golfing now feel incredible.
She said: “I just played a few playful rounds of golf for the first time in over a decade and it felt incredible. I never thought I’d be playing again, and I felt young again.”
Seeing how happy she was to be back on the greens, her friend and fellow golfer Tara Davies, 33, suggested she apply to become captain of the Women’s National Golf Team.
And to her jubilation, she was given the voluntary role travelling around Europe with the team following a rigorous interview in June.
She said: “I had only just been back on the golf courses for the first time, and my friend told me this was an opportunity for me to be back in a competitive environment.
“At the interview, I just said I wanted to motivate the ladies and show them what they deserved to achieve.”
As captain she has been tasked with assisting in team selections, analysing play and working alongside the coaches to improve player performance.
And in early July, she led the Welsh women’s national squad to the quarter finals of the European Championships in Conwy, Wales, where they sadly fell to eventual champions England.
Laura said: “Being out there on the course with the girls was an incredible experience. It made me feel like I was living the moments I had lost, which were stripped from me when I was younger.”
She added: “I thought my days on the golf courses were long gone, but I want to show people that even if you have Crohn’s, or any chronic illness, you can still live your life and your dreams.
“Being chosen as captain, to help motivate the girls, and being part of the team was a dream come true.”
Until Laura collapsed as a teen, her future seemed mapped out.
She was overjoyed to have been offered a scholarship to play golf at the Ohio State University in the USA and she dreamed of becoming a professional player and travelling around the globe.
She said: “I never had any symptoms and I was completely fit and healthy. But suddenly I just collapsed, and I woke up in hospital the next day.
“My life was never the same again.”
Following an emergency appendectomy that evening at Gwynedd Hospital, Laura thought her problems would go away but sadly it was only the beginning.
At the time, she was studying for a degree in Children’s Nursing at Bangor University, and her family thought her symptoms were caused by stress from the course.
But in the space of a year, her weight plummeted from 10st 7lb to 8st 7lb and her health continued to deteriorate rapidly.
She said: “I have always thought of myself as being a tough cookie, but I couldn’t understand why I was in constant pain.
“I looked so frail, and I couldn’t do anything.”
By 2008, Laura had spent most days in and out of hospital and was prescribed steroids to deal with the pain – while still suffering from diarrhoea, passing blood, vomiting, weight loss and fatigue.
Summer 2009 brought a breakthrough when a colonoscopy revealed she had Crohn’s disease.
Recalling the moment she found out, she said: “I remember feeling so happy I was diagnosed as I finally knew what I was dealing with and wasn’t going out of my mind. I felt liberated.”
But that September, she had to have emergency, life-saving surgery to remove her bowel after medics discovered she had a burst abscess and perforated bowel.
She said: “The surgery saved my life. I remember them telling me that if I didn’t have it I could die from sepsis if I got an infection.”
But it was also a horrific ordeal to face and she said: “Going through surgery where you think you might die was incredibly traumatic, even to this day.”
Laura also hated losing her “stunning” long and glossy brown hair because of the cruel condition.
She said: “I have endured an incredibly difficult 15 years, full of tears, pain, agony, heartbreak, and even losing my hair which was the toughest thing of all.
“But I feel stronger than ever, and I think Crohn’s has forced me to become tougher.”
Now Laura stills lives with her condition every day, which affects over 500,000 people in the UK, according to Crohn’s and Colitis UK.
But she has finally learned to cope with the pain and manage what she eats, which is often limited to just plain chicken, and is hoping to spend more time teeing up golf balls.
Laura, who even scored her first ever hole in one in June, said: “I still flare up every now and then and get pain which requires management at hospital, but it’s so much less.
“I have gone back to playing golf now, which has been amazing. I will never be the same level as I was before, but I feel so grateful.”
And while she isn’t playing competitively quite yet, she is now training four hours a week in between working as an assistant practitioner at a stroke unit, looking after her children and her captaincy duties, and hopes to compete in county golf tournaments next year.
Reflecting on her achievement of becoming captain, Laura said: “It’s an incredible honour to represent Wales on this stage. I won’t ever be the golfer I maybe had the potential to become, but it’s a dream come true.”
Now Laura is encouraging people to speak to their doctors to try and get an early diagnosis, and urging people to speak up about Crohn’s.
She said: “It can be quite embarrassing when you can’t control your bowels, but if you can find out early, you can start making changes to your life and be in a better place.
“But this disease doesn’t define me. I am honest about my condition and I’m passionate about raising awareness so that others can understand more.”
She added: “I have had times when I’ve felt like a failure but you do get through this and I hope my story will help others who are living with this disease and give them hope that you can continue with a normal life and pursue your dreams.”
To find out more about Crohn’s disease visit www.crohnsandcolitis.org.uk