Kelly Okun is a professional golfer living with celiac disease
Kelly Okun isn’t your typical 25 year old. Sure, she enjoys classic hobbies such as photography and hiking and she graduated from college a few years ago like many of her peers, however, Kelly is also a professional golfer gaining steam and currently taking on the golfing world head-on. She also happens to have celiac disease.
We recently chatted with Kelly to learn more about her life on tour and how celiac disease has affected her life and her game. Here’s her interview:
I loved playing sports growing up in Chicago, so when I moved to Florida when I was 9, I thought I would give golf a try. I fell in love the sport and kept up with lessons throughout middle school. However, it wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I began working with my swing coach, Martin Hall, and competing in tournaments. At that point, I was still playing basketball in high school. I knew I wanted to give myself the best chance to golf in college, so I fully committed myself to golf.
I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012, when I was 19. I was just finishing up my fall semester of my sophomore year of college.
I am currently finishing up my second year as a professional golfer. After competing at the LPGA Qualifying School this summer, I will be a Symetra Tour member again for my third year. I have competed on the Eggland’s Best Ladies Professional Golf Tour for the last three years as well as on the Australian LPGA Tour last year. I was also a member of the Ladies European Access Tour.
To play on the LPGA Tour. I would love the opportunity to travel and raise awareness for celiac disease on such a large platform.
During season, I try to work out about three times a week. With off-season approaching, I am hoping to get into the gym more. On the golf course, I split up my practice into chipping, putting, and long game sessions. I spend the majority of my time on short game, and I like to play as much as possible. Sometimes, I will take my drills onto the course to change things up a bit. I also work with an awesome mental coach once a week.
When I was playing at Penn State’s tournament, I had a rash on both of my elbows that refused to go away. When we got back to campus later that week, I went to a dermatologist, and she biopsied it. She told me I had dermatitis herpetiformis, and that the only treatment was a strict gluten-free diet. She then told me that a 1 out of 4 celiacs has DH, so she sent me to a gastroenterologist for that biopsy. Fortunately, this process only took me a couple weeks. In between endoscopies and other tests, I began researching celiac disease and what being gluten-free meant. That’s how I ended up finding Beyond Celiac. I was so glad Beyond Celiac had step-by-step instructions for going gluten-free and simple lists I could follow. I also liked learning more about celiac disease – seeing what the long-term effects would be to my health were more motivating to go gluten-free immediately than anything a doctor said.
Other than the rash, I did not notice any symptoms pre-diagnosis. I figured I just reacted poorly to some foods, but that that was normal. Afterwards, my body digested food much more easily and I had more energy than ever before. I also realized that my joint pains may not have been just from being an athlete, and that comforted me.
There are a couple people on my mom’s side of the family who have celiac disease. My mom carries the gene, but it has yet to activate for her. None of us looked into our family history or realized we had this gene until I was diagnosed.
At first, celiac disease hindered me socially. I did not trust many restaurants in my college town, and I hated feeling like a nuisance with my friends. However, I learned that as long as I asked the right questions when we went out to eat, I could make an educated guess if it would be safe for me to order something. I learned to bring snacks just in case or even meals if I knew the restaurant didn’t have any safe options I decided early on it was better for me to nag the waiter than it was for me to end up in a bathroom all night. Luckily, more options appeared as more people became aware of celiac disease and gluten sensitivities. Equally as great, my friends were really supportive and let me pick the restaurants.
The same proves true today on tour.
On the physical side, I notice that I have more joint pains and more frequent injuries than other golfers. I like to think I have a high pain tolerance, so I attribute that to celiac disease. I also had to trade in my long-term contact lenses for dailies because any cross-contamination with gluten causes corneal abrasions.
I have found a handful of chain restaurants that I trust, though I try to find host housing or hotels with kitchenettes when I travel. I am pretty protective of my golf game, and I don’t like unnecessarily risking getting sick before a tee time. Sometimes that means heading to the local Walmart to find a frozen meal for my microwave.
One of my goals this off-season is to come up with a more nutritious meal plan for when I travel. The best I came up with this past year was separately microwaving gluten-free chicken nuggets, rice and vegetables!
On the road, you will always see me with gluten-free almond butter banana sandwiches, Larabars, and nuts. These are my go-to tournament foods! I am going to start adding in other foods that are easy to travel with like avocados, apples (for my almond butter!), spinach and vegetables for on-the-go salads, and other healthy foods.
Unfortunately, there have been a couple instances when I was glutened before a tournament. For example, when I was playing in Morocco for the Ladies European Tour Qualifying School, I had to have a friend’s dad explain my allergy to the waiter in French, but I don’t think either understood the repercussions of cross-contamination or even gluten itself touching my meal. I don’t know what part of the meal caused it, but I spent almost the entire night in the bathroom and the rest of the week exhausted. Fortunately, language barriers aren’t a common issue, so I just stayed positive and learned what I could from my week in Africa. I also definitely spent the rest of the trip eating boiled eggs and my rice cakes with peanut butter.
Generally, I believe having celiac disease increases my likelihood of getting injured. I have learned not to take it personally the last couple of years, and it is nice to know why the injuries last longer than other golfers’, but it does sometimes prevent me from practicing or competing.
I try to see that recovery time as an advantage for my career, whether I am putting in extra work with my mental game or expanding my network through writing and social media.
Keep up with Kelly’s golfing career on her website, kellyokungolf.com.