RICHMOND - In their high school careers, the vast majority of student-athletes never sniff the state finals in their sport in the most ideal situations, but one Richmond High School athlete with Kokomo connections beat the odds to the peak of the mountain on Oct. 1.
Esther Etherington has not had an easy life. Before she was a state-qualifying golfer for Richmond, her life was a series of overcoming constant obstacles from her birth. From beating early childhood cancer to suffering blindness in her right eye, competing at the highest level of any sport was going to be a tall task for her. But whether it was learning the piano, shining in choir or excelling in school, Etherington has had the same attitude about it all: No excuses allowed.
“I like to think that it started with my parents, but my disability has never been an excuse for anything in my life. I just had to learn to work around it, whether that was in school or playing the piano or anything like that,” Etherington said. “So when I started playing golf, my eye, I just really had to adapt, whether that was depth perception or sunlight or on the putting green. But it was never a question of what I wanted to do.”
Etherington’s father, Joe, called her a miracle. She was born at 26 weeks, weighing 1 pound, 15 ounces, and blind in her right eye. After she was born, she spent more than two months in the newborn intensive care unit, which began a 10-year, very “medically busy” chapter in Etherington’s life, Joe said.
Now a senior in high school, Etherington posted an 80 in her golf sectional, and another 80 in the regional, which was enough to secure her high-school goal of reaching the state finals. But the road to the state finals was a long and hard one.
A fight to survive
The first five years of Etherington’s life were spent heavily in Riley’s Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. Eye procedures and various health issues and check-ups plagued her, but Joe said the hospital not only did everything it could to keep her in good condition, it might have saved her life.
At 5, Etherington was diagnosed with a malignancy in her bronchial tube. It was cancer, and her bronchial tube was clogged with a tumor. The solution was a hard one, and involved removing a third of her right lung, which brought another four-to-five years of check-ups, doctors’ appointments, and medical attention.
She was a miracle from birth, and continued to be a miracle through the Etherington family’s labor of love in taking care of her. After a long and difficult 10 years, Etherington found she loved basketball.
A fight to fit in
Both of Etherington’s parents were three-sport athletes. Joe was a football player, baseball player, and wrestler for Kokomo High School, where he graduated in 1982. Her mother, Rachel, played basketball, volleyball, and tennis for Richmond High School. The family moved from the Kokomo area down to Richmond in 2005.
This competitive spirit was passed down to and further reinforced in Etherington as she grew up. She said she shares the same determination her parents always had.
“I think originally it comes from my parents and the family that I’ve grown up in. Both of my parents were high school and college athletes, and that is something that just the determination overall has come from them,” Etherington said.
She wanted to compete as well, she said. It couldn’t be stopped. Growing up, Etherington said she loved basketball and played it heavily in her early and junior high years. She wanted to keep playing, but unfortunately her predisposition put a limit on how far basketball could take her. Joe explained the moment he knew she would need to switch sports, with tears in his eyes.
“I just remember it was a very snowy night in late winter in her seventh grade year, and we were coming from her second basketball tryout. She just said, ‘Dad, I’m not going to make it, am I?’” Joe said. “And I said ‘No, you’re not, but you’re good at plenty of things.’”
It was one of the toughest conversations of his life, he said, but what came next would change her journey for the better, and take her places nothing else could.
The grass is always greener
A family friend, Jeff Spurrier, in Richmond reached out to the Etheringtons in the spring of 2017, encouraging her to get involved with golf. The team was a little lean on numbers for the golf program, Joe said, and so Etherington found golf and golf found her when she needed it most.
Through getting Etherington involved in golf, Joe said Etherington would attend the First Tee program in Richmond, founded by Bo and Bob Van Pelt. Bo is a PGA professional golfer from Richmond, Joe explained, and the program would take a dozen of the program’s players to a golf academy in the summer.
“Bob Van Pelt loved Esther, and he sent her to this golf camp. It was Gongaware Junior Golf Academy in Franklin. She had a set of junior clubs, and didn't even have real golf clubs. But he loved Esther, and she went down there. After that four-day camp, she came home and said, ‘Dad. Mom. I want to golf,’” Joe said.
Her love for golf was off and running, and Esther joined the Richmond golf team as a freshman. Despite the obstacles of having little to no depth perception, dealing with glare issues, and using a rangefinder to measure every shot, Etherington said she couldn’t get enough of the sport.
As a freshman, she was the No. 5 golfer on the team that made it to the state finals that year, but admittedly didn’t perform how she wanted to. It was here she set her own goal of reaching the finals for herself as an individual and taking another step forward in her golf game.
“I didn’t know how I felt at first about not playing basketball. In fact, I was pretty upset about it. I was just pretty torn as an eighth-grade kid. But I think that golf originally my freshman year, we had a wonderful team. We made it to the state finals that year, and I got to see the example of two great leaders. After my freshman year I started playing golf in the winter time. I had a swing instructor and then I started doing some summer tournaments. So my whole golf journey has grown from my eighth grade year to my senior year. I’ve just added to it each year and it’s 100 percent been the right decision for me,” Etherington said.
Falling for golf paid off for Etherington in ways she never imagined. Like her love for school or piano, she put the work in and mastered her technique the best she could so she could compete with the best. And then she did.
At the state finals this season, Etherington finished tied for 74th. She had conquered her goal, despite the odds, and now has leveraged golf into her future career plans. Etherington has committed to Franklin College to major in elementary education, and to play on the golf team as well.
“It was just wonderful, full of a lot of good emotions. It just all kind of paid off for one moment, which is kind of crazy. It doesn’t happen to very many athletes. So that was a goal that had been on my bucket list for a long time,” she said.
For Joe, looking back on the journey Etherington has been trekking through for her entire life, for her to reach her goals and overachieve despite all odds against her, he couldn’t be more proud.
“Take the athletics out of it. We’ve always been very proud of Esther with her grades and her choir and piano. Everything she’s done, she’s just a great kid,” Joe said. “To see her though, now, get into this golf thing and see her success. It’s special for Rachel and me. It’s special.”
The Indiana Golf Coaches Association presented Etherington with the Mitchel J. Winger Award on Oct. 8, designated to an athlete who has overcome a certain handicap in the pursuit of playing the great game of golf.
The Etheringtons still have deep connections in Kokomo as well, and Joe wanted to thank Kevin Lechner, Brian Cossell, Lane Lindley, Tim Weir, Rex Gingerich, Bruce Tafflinger, Chris Avery, Marianne Christie, Steve Parrott, Joe Hynds, Uncle Jim Etherington, Uncle Dan Etherington, Aunt Ruth Wikel, and Grandpa Dean Etherington for their continued support and communication with the Etherington family and throughout Esther’s journey.