Brendan Pederson was a great golfer in high school – but when his mother, Sue, boasts of her son’s accomplishments, it makes Brendan a bit bashful.
The Virginia native, now living in Durango, joined the U.S. Navy and served for 13 years. He spent six years flying McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets, aircraft stationed on U.S. aircraft carriers around the world.
But something happened in 2017, and Pederson began losing control of his motor abilities and cognitive functions. He retired from the Navy as a lieutenant commander and traveled with his family to doctors and hospitals all over the country.
He spent about a year at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and all doctors can say is Brendan has “a neurological disorder of unknown origin, unknown cure and unknown name,” Sue Pederson said.
“Whatever it is,” Brendan said, “I’m getting weaker.”
Now, he has trouble walking and talking, he said Saturday while sitting in a chair on the driving range of Hillcrest Golf Course. He had to relearn golf, for the most part, Pederson said. He remembered a bit about the flight path of the club – that he needs to swing back to a certain point, stop, then swing through the ball – but it wasn’t easy.
He wore a tan hat Saturday with a logo of a golfer and the words, “Adaptive Golf Program.” A SoloRider golf cart – with a chair that swivels and “restores functional capacity (to play the game of golf)” for people with trouble standing – was parked a couple of yards behind him.
When the organization started in 2013, he said there were four students. The list has since grown to 61, Asmuth said. Dozens of golfers went to Hillcrest on Saturday for a tournament hosted by the Adaptive Golf Program, a nonprofit organization now raising money to buy another SoloRider golf cart.
“It (golf) allows them to feel that they can do it. It gives them that extra push,” he said of his students. “I know people with disabilities, when they hear they can’t do something, they sit back, don’t exercise, don’t socialize. I want to help push them to be part of society, part of regular life.”
And Asmuth is in a unique position to encourage people with disabilities – a crash left him with a traumatic brain injury when he was 6. He had to relearn how to walk and talk, he said. And golf, which he played since he was a toddler, became almost impossible.
“I could never see the ball. I don’t have depth perception. I had to relearn everything,” he said.
Despite doctors telling him he would never play again, he persisted. The ball got a bit clearer in his vision and his shot got more precise, Asmuth said.
“Because I overcame what they said I wouldn’t, I feel like I can talk to people and say, ‘You can do this,’” he said. “It was coming from someone who was told, ‘You can’t do this.’ Just because they tell you you can’t, doesn’t mean they’re right.”
Leigh Parker golfed on weekends at Hillcrest Golf Course for the better part of the past 10 years – that’s what you do when you work full-time, she said. She’s a member at the Hillcrest Golf Club but didn’t discover the Adaptive Golf Program until she retired about a year ago and frequented the course on weekdays, Parker said.
She came to Hillcrest on Saturday to show her support for the dozens of players with disabilities.
“It’s great to get folks with some challenges outside; it builds confidence and self-esteem,” Parker said.
“Golf is a hard one – it’s a physical activity, and we’re learning how to use our body in the ways we can. We can adapt, and a lot of folks can adapt to use what they have,” she said. “I think it’s making them feel that they can overcome the challenges they have – there are always possibilities.”
The Adaptive Golf Program also gives people with disabilities a means of “socialization and integration into society,” Asmuth said. Volunteers and athletes are supportive – most are stoked when someone hits a ball and few laugh when someone whiffs.
The community offered the Pedersons a sense of support, Sue Pederson said.
“We’ve had great support from this community and the military community – that’s the gift, our community connections,” she said. “What happened to Brendan has happened to many people; the real gift is the Durango community.”