There’s not a sportsperson out there who hasn’t at some point had to contend with the pain and frustration of serious injury, yet the challenges that have befallen Swede Julia Engstrom have been more profound than most.
Engstrom was the LET’s Rookie of the Year in 2018, aged just 17, and clinched the Women’s NSW Open title in 2020, before adding the Lacoste Ladies Open championship.
It was there that her back struggles began, leading to a diagnosis of two slipped discs. The injury was so severe that it led to trapped nerves and numbness in her legs. Sidelined for the 2021 season with a spinal disc herniation, she has restarted on the long road back to the upper reaches of the Ladies European Tour.
While missing a year of tournament battles has been mentally tough, the upbeat 21-year-old suggests what she’s gained has been so much more valuable – the courage, strength, resilience and sense of self-understanding that only someone battling back from serious injury can experience.
RSNG How did you stay relaxed through what must have been an incredibly stressful period in your life?
JULIA ENGSTROM, LET STAR “I can’t say I would have been so relaxed about things if I was getting towards the end of my career, or perhaps if I didn’t have so many people around me who were telling me to relax, and that everything would work out okay.
“It’s strange because I am one of those people who, in a time of need, will really reach out and lean on the emotional support of others. I am glad of that – I am glad that I am that type of person; and I am also glad that I have good people around me who could offer that support.
“I appreciate that is not the case for all people – some either don’t have that support network, or perhaps prefer to go into their own shell as a coping mechanism; but that is not me.”
RSNG Yes – a number of golfers would rather battle through challenges alone, rather than admitting to struggling?
JULIA ENGSTROM “Yes that may well be true, but not for me. The phrase ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ is very appropriate and I have always believed in that.
“Certainly, I don’t see it as a point of weakness to reach out to others. I think through the pandemic we have all had to do that anyway, and there is a much greater acceptance these days of mental health and telling people you are struggling.”
There is a subconscious level that eventually takes over within you – if you are a positive person, then that positivity and optimism will rise to the top, ultimately
RSNG Were you able to take solace that most players have been through significant injury scares?
JULIA ENGSTROM “Yes I was. I’ve always looked at Rory McIlroy’s career and he has always been my favorite golfer to watch and admire. Naturally he has been through significant injuries, mostly ankle but also neck injuries.
“I studied what had happened with him and the way he approached recovery, from a mental perspective; so yes I think there is always a lot of looking outside yourself and realizing you are not alone in it.”
RSNG Did mental health come into it a lot for you?
JULIA ENGSTROM “Of course I had moments when I was low, and I have moments where I perhaps felt doubt that the career I had dreamed of for so long would become a reality; but I feel there is a subconscious level that eventually takes over within you.
“If you are a positive person, then that positivity and optimism will rise to the top, ultimately. For me it got to the point where I was powerless to rush myself back physically, but I was also powerless when it came to my mind telling me I would get back. I just had to wait.”
RSNG But therein lies the frustration and, for some, the problem, when they rush themselves back?
JULIA ENGSTROM “Yes and that is something I needed to avoid – that feeling of going quicker than my body would allow.”
RSNG What was the toughest part of that? Perhaps it was most difficult in those last weeks before returning?
JULIA ENGSTROM “Actually it was the other way round. The difficult days are those at the start. It is a new thing, a real and genuine shock, and you are searching around looking for answers, a proper diagnosis, and a realistic timeframe.
“When you have that, acceptance takes over, and even though we had to revise that timeframe, which was a hard thing to take, the difference between being out for five months or six months is really not so great. It was the early months that really took a toll mentally.”
Seeing younger players and being around made me realize that even though I had experienced a major setback, I was still a long way up the track
RSNG So when you reached acceptance, what distraction techniques did you use to pass the time?
JULIA ENGSTROM “I decided I needed to go after things that would really put me in a good place mentally. I didn’t want to detach myself completely from golf because that would be distancing myself not just from the sport but from my recovery, and I wanted that connection to stay; so I did some volunteering at my local golf club which was really nice.
“Sometimes you get so far down the road that it’s easy to forget where you have come from, so seeing younger players and being around them was nice – it made me realize that even though I had experienced a major setback, I’d still come a long way and was still a long way up the track.
“I also went back into learning with some university studies, and of course spent some much-needed time with friends and family.
“Although it has been a very frustrating time, I feel I have made the most of it and gained something mentally from the experience.”
RSNG What parts of your game fell off the most?
JULIA ENGSTROM “Well the swing and power off the tee is obviously the thing that goes first, and comes back last. Putting I could return to sooner than some of the high-impact aspects of my game, so that is okay, but I am still on a slow build-up to really hitting the ball the distances I want to. It’s to be expected, and I am comfortable with that.”
RSNG Where are you setting your sights for victories in future?
JULIA ENGSTROM “Nowhere! When you have been through so much, just to be playing again is the pleasure and the thrill. I know if I can stay injury-free in future then I will have a good career and the wins will come, but right now I have had a taste of what life may be like without golf, which makes me just appreciate and make the most of every day I have on the course, or the driving range.
“I’m sure my focus will change to becoming more competitive as time goes on, but for now I am very content and very happy just in the knowledge that I am playing, because that is the biggest relief I have.”
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