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An inside look at Cal's life-changing golf class

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JUNE 24, 2013

In a dimly lit room at the back of the RSF, past the rows of treadmills and tired faces on the first floor, change is brewing. Change is littered all over the floor in tiny, multicolored balls and silver golfing clubs. It is in the faces of the room’s occupants, some of whom have never been inside the RSF before. This summer at UC Berkeley, one class, Golf With Marty, will historically change the way golf is taught at the collegiate level.

“After all, it’s not every day that you see people who are blind hitting a golf ball,” quipped class coach Marty Turcios.

However, his physical condition puts him in a unique position as a coach. Turcios has cerebral palsy, a congenital condition affecting the nervous system that requires lifelong therapy. There is no cure. But none of this stops Turcios. For the past two decades, Turcios has become one of the first coaches in the world to teach golf with cerebral palsy. Having personally instructed between 50 to 100 golfers in his career, many from high schools around the Bay Area, Turcios is now coming to Cal to teach golf, and anyone from any background is invited.

A new kind of summer class

Marty Turcios, coach for "Golfing with Marty"
Marty Turcios, coach for Golf With Marty

Golf With Marty is part of Fitness for All, a collaborative project pioneering increased sports accessibility to every margin of the Berkeley community. Last spring, Fitness for All and its advisory committee commanded national headlines with the acclaim of their first-of-its-kind two-unit Goalball class. Riding a current of optimism, Matt Grigorieff and Jessica Adams, lead coordinators for Goalball and recent Cal grads, have dedicated themselves to making Golf With Marty every bit as successful.

For the 3,647 Berkeley students with disabilities (according to the Office of Equity and Inclusion in 2012) as well as 1,500 disabled Cal staff and faculty, Grigorieff and Adams’ efforts open countless opportunities. In this class, students who have never been able to play sports now train shoulder-to-shoulder with RSF regulars. Everyone gets one-on-one attention with coach Turcios — no one is pushed away.

Ed Roberts would be proud. Roberts, a Cal alumi and prominent leader of the disability rights movement, fought to make UC Berkeley and the country more tolerant and accessible for everyone. Golf With Marty continues his progress. Aiming to provide a rewarding experience for each and every student, the class inaugurates an exciting new chapter in Cal’s history.

“UC Berkeley has always been the leader in making all fields of education accessible,” explained junior Judith Lung, who is visually impaired. “This class continues Cal’s legacy in accessibility in sports and fitness.”

To accommodate everyone, the class is modified — not, as Lung puts it, “compromised.” The class is held indoors on the lowest level of the RSF, a convenient on-campus location that is wheelchair-accessible.  Special equipment, such as target nets and custom golf balls, improves the precision of swings.  In this manner, Turcios teaches golfing fundamentals and technique.  He advises newcomers to train with him before heading out to the golf fields.

“Before you go out and spend time and  money, you should have a good idea what you are doing,” Turcios said. “I’m going to teach you the game.” He has seen firsthand how people fall out of love with golf and outlines how newcomers to the game sign up for costly private lessons and buy expensive gadgets before even playing.

“It’s not worth it,” he summarized.

Lessons learned

For junior Ann Kwong, simply hitting a golf ball brings bursts of joy. Kwong, who is also visually impaired, held gnawing doubts before entering the class. In a sport in which a diminutive ball must travel through an impossibly vast playing field, having eyesight can be particularly helpful. Uncertainty racing through her mind was paralyzing to her judgment.

“Why should I come to golf?” she asked. “I don’t think I can play golf. I don’t know what I am hitting.  I can’t see what I’m hitting. So I don’t think I will enjoy it.”

Kwong took a leap of faith. After a few lessons with Marty, her misgivings completely died away. Again and again, she putts the ball with satisfying consistency.

Anne Kwong, Internal President for the Disabled Students Union, adjusts the golfing tee
Ann Kwong, internal president for the Disabled Students Union, adjusts the golfing tee

“Have an open mind,” she advised.  “Don’t be afraid of failure and not hitting something for the first time. Because with practice and an open mind, you will learn the proper skills to hit  (the ball).”

Kwong credits all of her success to Turcios’ dedication as a coach. Turcios, universally known for his patience, can be found on his knees, resetting the golf ball and tee along with Kwong and Lung. This subtlety is integral. Once visually impaired people stand upright in preparation to take a swing, they lose physical connection with the ball they have just primed. Though a sighted person needs only stare at the ball to gauge the next move, a nonsighted person has to conceptualize the ball’s relative position.

“A sighted person can learn by modeling through observation,” Kwong explained. “I can’t do that. I’ve had previous instructors where, (when) I couldn’t hit the ball and I couldn’t do this position … they will give up.” But she’s had a completely different experience with Turcios: “Marty is so patient. If I’m not doing (a swing) correctly, he’ll patiently explain it again. As many times and as slowly as I need. Marty will tell me, ‘This is how you grip,’ (and he’ll) get on the ground with me and show me how to align. I really appreciate him physically showing me instead of just telling me. When I get frustrated, he says, ‘Don’t worry about it. Practice, and you’ll get it. Don’t overthink. Remember GPA. You’ve got this.’ That really, really helps.”

GPA refers to “Grip, Position, Alignment.” The pun is a Turcios original and highly appropriate. On a day when thinking about college classes was distracting from gameplay, Turcios found a way to get Kwong to rework her attention. Many students recall how specific and tailored Turcios’ lessons are to individual needs. Before players swing, Turcios delivers precise instructions from minute foot readjustment to chin extension. He demonstrates what he means, each and every time. Players take a shot. Bull’s-eye.

With more than 47 years of golf experience, Turcios possesses a gold mine of information. Sophomore Alisha Howell knows this firsthand. In her lessons with Turcios, Howell has come to appreciate the nuances and lingo of the game.

“I learned that different golf clubs are used to make the golf ball go different distances,” Howell said. “I learned a lot of vocabulary: putting green, driving range, seven-iron and nine-iron — and how you tell the difference. Before this class, I thought those were some kind of construction tools.”

Breaking glass ceilings

Grigorieff explains why hiring Turcios to coach Berkeley’s accessible golfing class alters history.

“From an institutional point of view, the gym is one of the last places you will find an employee with a disability working,” he said. “That’s just the reality of it, unfortunately, and by hiring Marty, we are trying to break that notion and have UC Berkeley employ people throughout society. People with disabilities don’t work in the fitness area, and we want to change that.”

Turcios himself is no stranger to discrimination in the work place.  In spite of decades of success in his very own foundation, cynics have doubted and criticized him at every step of his career.

“I’ve had people come into my class and walk out and never come back,” he recalled.  “Or they call their supervisors and say, ‘How dare you call this a golf class.'”

Turcios’ experiences with discrimination are common in workplaces all across the country. Despite two decades of expanded civil rights to disabled people under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, unemployment for people with disabilities remains a major economic problem for many. According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy of the U.S. Department of Labor, only 20.7 percent of people with disabilities participated in the American labor force last May. In the same study, 69.1 percent of people without disabilities participated in the labor force.

Unemployment rates are equally telling. In May 2013, the unemployment rate for people without disabilities nationally was 7 percent (down from 7.7 percent in May 2012). The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was nearly double that. Last May, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 13.6 percent (up from 12.9 percent one calendar year before). For junior Desiree Robedeaux, external president of the Disabled Students Union, the enormous economic inequality between those with and without disabilities is a telltale sign of social injustice.

“There is no reason why a person with dyslexia, a person with cerebral palsy and a person without a disability cannot coexist in the same work place — people with disabilities are just as capable if not more capable of success (as) those without disabilities,” she said, clarifying, “Because life has presented these individuals with so many challenges that these individuals have overcome, disability should be embraced by employers and should be perceived as a factor that shows strength and perseverance, not incapability. ”

For Lung, overcoming obstacles — in this case, mastering her drive — is met with open arms. Though self-described as “athletically-challenged,” Lung is prepared to give golf her all.

“With practice and learning from the best teacher in Marty, I can be good at a sport too,” she said.

Judith Lung, with a smile, drives the golfball across court.
Judith Lung, with a smile, drives the golf ball across court.

Golf With Marty” is held every Wednesday.  Two identical classes run back-to-back from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.  Enrollment is ongoing, and space is still available. The program is made possible by grants from the National Alliance for Accessible Golf in partnership with the U.S. Golf Association

Image sources: Sean Conners, staff

Contact Alex Mabanta at [email protected]

JUNE 24, 2013

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