Golfer Carling Coffing Brings Her "A" Game
She manages diabetes while shooting for the LPGA Tour
As an energetic young tomboy, Carling Coffing desperately wanted to play sports, just like her all-American wrestler of a dad and two athletic older brothers. But after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1991, at the age of 5, the would-be competitor was sidelined by a strict eating regimen and multiple insulin shots a day.
That is, until she turned 10, and her dad suggested the whole family try playing golf together. As soon as the sixth grader swung a club for the first time, she knew she'd found her sport. "Golf was a great fit for me—it's a slow pace and I could eat and take shots on the course—and I fell in love with the game," says Coffing, who immediately started hitting the links every single day.
In fact, as long as the temperature was at least 32 degrees in her native Middletown, Ohio, the dedicated athlete could be found out on the golf course, driving, pitching, chipping, and putting to her heart's content. All that practice paid off with the Ohio State High School Championship in 2002; Coffing went on to captain the golf team at Ohio State University before turning pro in 2008.
Today, after three long, tough years on the LPGA Futures Tour—the training ground for the Ladies Professional Golf Association—the young golfer is finally gaining some career momentum: Coffing has continued to lower her stroke average each season, and last summer she won the Golf Channel's Survivor-esque reality-show contest Big Break Sandals Resorts, which allowed her to play in two LPGA tournaments and one European event last year. The communications major is also poised for success with her other passion, sports broadcasting, with a new guest-hosting gig on Tee It Up Ohio, a local golf show.
All the while, Coffing has been building up quite the fan base with her wholesome good looks and easy on-camera style, something that's abundantly clear whenever you see the crowds go wild for her patented "birdie dance"—a saucy little hip-shake number she performs every time she finishes a hole under par. Earlier this year, the perky, personable 25-year-old took time out of her busy tour schedule to chat about why she used to check her blood glucose in the bathroom stall in high school, how she manages carbs on a predominantly fast-food diet on the road, and why she thinks a blood glucose–related breakdown actually helped her win Big Break.
Q. You were diagnosed with type 1 at a very young age—what do you remember about the experience?
Well, when I was 5 years old, I was very sick—I was drinking a lot, going to the bathroom a lot, and then I started to get flu-like symptoms and was throwing up all the time—so my parents took me in to the hospital. I'm from farm country, Ohio, and this was 20 years ago, when a lot of people were still unfamiliar with how type 1 even worked, so I spent a whole week in the hospital. Then I was put on a strict schedule: I would have three meals every day at the same time, then three snacks, and it was all very regimented. I had to stick exactly to the program, which as a 5- and 6-year-old was a little bit tough, but my family was very positive about it, and they were all very involved. I was on insulin shots for many years, five [or more] shots a day, but things got a little better as the years went on. I was on that strict diet until, probably, eighth grade, and then it became more relaxed . . . and I could do more of what I wanted during the day.
Q. The teenage years can be challenging with diabetes. How did you balance high school and your health?
Honestly, the teenage years were very difficult for me, because I was kind of shy in high school and didn't want anybody to know I was diabetic. I was so nervous that people would think I was different, so for a long time, I actually didn't tell anybody. I would take shots in private—I would go to the school nurse but tell my friends I was just going to my locker—and test my blood sugar in bathroom stalls. People thought I was just very thirsty when I would go low and drink juice; I'd say, "I just love juice!" It was so bad.
Now that I'm older, I'm proud of my diabetes, because it's something I have to deal with on a daily basis and it's something that I do a good job of dealing with, and I want to share my story with everybody. I also want other diabetics to see me out there as a proud diabetic. I want them to know that it's not setting me back—that I'm dealing with it and they can, too—especially teenagers, because I hope they don't have to take the same route I chose.
Q. You decided to get an insulin pump just before you joined the LPGA Futures Tour. What prompted the change?
[In college] I was going low on the golf course a lot, and I just felt like if I was going to play golf for the rest of my life, as a career, I had to take my diabetes more seriously, and figure out a better situation that would give me more control and a little bit more freedom. I'm very into working out, and I needed [a regimen] that would let me exercise for two hours at a time where I wouldn't have to stop to have six juice boxes just to make up for it. So I decided to try out [an] insulin pump the summer after I graduated, and I loved it right from the start. It's fantastic! Now, if I want to play more golf or work out harder, I just turn my pump down a little bit. . . . It's more freedom. I also went on a continuous glucose monitoring system, which warns you that you're going low before you actually go low, and now I feel like I'm one step ahead of my diabetes.
Q. Tell me about your debut in the professional golf world.
Getting your start on the Futures Tour is not glamorous—you're basically a rookie living out of your car, eating fast food. I mean, you're on the tour to get experience and to try to make it on to the LPGA Tour. At the end of the year, the top 10 girls get to move on to the LPGA—so it's like throwing a bunch of dogs in a cage fighting for one bone [laughs]; it's cutthroat.
I had a travelmate last year—we traveled together all year and played 20 tournaments. We were probably on the road three out of every four weeks, and it's the same old routine: You get in your car, pack your whole life into that car, travel to a tournament and play; you share hotel rooms—sometimes with two or three girls, just to save money—and sometimes you make the cut, sometimes you don't. It's a lot of pressure. Nobody has caddies, because that's very expensive. You're not playing for very much money, so you have to try to save as much as possible, which also means a lot of fast food.
But at the same time, you get to see 20 different states, the traveling is awesome, you meet so many cool people, the experience is amazing, and you learn so much about your golf game. When you do have those good rounds, it keeps you going, and keeps you coming back from week to week.
Q. That sounds like a difficult lifestyle for someone with diabetes, to say the least. How do you manage your health on the road?
When I'm on tour, I'm playing golf six days a week. I usually get up and work out in the morning and make sure to eat breakfast beforehand, so it's easier for me to control my blood sugar all day. Then I'm off to practice, and out on the golf course for about six to eight hours. While I'm out there, I try to either have my monitoring system on or to test my blood sugar every couple of hours. The thing for me is balancing my basal rate, on the pump. Once you figure out how activities affect you, it makes it a lot easier. For me, I need to put a temp basal rate that's a lot [lower] when I'm on the [driving] range, because it takes more effort—I'm just pounding golf balls over and over again and exerting a lot of energy, so I need to turn the pump down quite a lot, because it's more strenuous.
Although I don't have to stick to an eating schedule now, I ate like that for so many years, it's kind of like I'm still on the clock. [Laughs.] It's like, "It's 12 o'clock: It's lunchtime." Even if I'm not remotely hungry, my body knows it's time to eat. I still try to have small meals throughout the day, because it helps keep my blood sugars steady; if I go too long without eating, I'm not quite sure where my blood sugar is going to go.
Typically, I have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks. I try to eat very clean—I like grilled chicken breast, vegetables, oatmeal; those are all just standard for me—but one of the difficult things is that when you're on tour, you pretty much live off fast food. But it's not too bad as long as you don't give in to the temptation to eat bad things. It's definitely possible to manage it. What I do is go online and always check nutritional facts, and I give myself at least two options at every single fast-food joint that I know will work for me. Like, I'll go to Wendy's and get the chicken sandwich with the orange slices or go to Subway and get the turkey on wheat with Baked Lays [potato chips].
When I'm on the golf course, if my blood sugar does go low, I make sure to have glucose tablets or [soda] in my golf bag.
Q. Have you ever had a really scary low on the golf course?
I've never passed out, because I'm always very prepared with glucose tablets. But [before I got a pump], I did have tournaments where my glucose went so low that I had to withdraw, and others where I went very low and didn't withdraw but played through and played awful—you're so shaky you can't hit the ball straight at all.
Life on the golf course since the pump—I'm not perfect but I definitely have a lot less lows. Now, whether I have a tee time early in the morning or late in the afternoon, it doesn't really affect my diabetes. The pump has helped a lot.
Q. Speaking of, rumor has it that you have an affectionate nickname for your insulin pump.
I call my pump "Hank the Panc," because it works like a human pancreas. It started right when I got it. I just thought, "If this thing is going to be on me all the time, it should have a name." I'm that kind of person—I like to have fun with a lot of things—and so I decided on Hank. It's really cute because when I've talked to little kids with diabetes, I've had a lot of them name their pumps, too.
Q. How's your glucose control these days?
When I'm on the golf course, I try to keep my blood sugars between 100 and 150, just so I'm in a nice, safe zone for me to play golf and be exercising a lot. When I'm off the course, I like keeping my numbers nice and steady in the 90s. I like where my blood sugars are right now. I have the "dawn phenomenon," where your blood sugar tends to be higher when you wake up, and I'm working with my doctors right now, trying to adjust my regimen to get those high morning blood sugars down a little bit. That's my new goal.
Q. Last spring you filmed a stint on the Golf Channel's Big Break Sandals Resorts, which aired over the summer. What was that experience like?
Well, we filmed 10 episodes in 11 days in the Bahamas, and it was like a diabetic's nightmare—it absolutely was. Being a diabetic is all about scheduling your day, planning everything, and for [the producers] it was, "Sit around till we tell you what to do, and then do it really fast," which was difficult. All of a sudden, they'd say, "We're going to have a challenge now: You're going to run 150 yards, hit a shot, run back, and jump over this wall." And I'm like, "Oh, can I get 20 minutes to set my basal rate, please?" But the answer was always no, so I just tried to go with the flow.
The other problem was that the food they were feeding us was tropical island food. They'd say, "We're going to have shark fin primavera for lunch," and I'd say, "I have no idea how many carbs are in shark fin!" So my carb counting got really off, which also affected my blood sugar. I really struggled, and my numbers were not good—they were in the 300s, and then I would go low and they'd be 50. I was playing this balancing act of going up and down and up and down.
I almost got eliminated in the third episode. I came up with this fantastic shot in the end to save the day, but then I just broke down and cried. It was fabulous for reality TV, but horrible for me. Because when your blood sugars are so up and down, any diabetic knows that your emotions really get you. So I sat at lunch and cried my eyes out, and they filmed me. I was so embarrassed about the whole situation that when I wasn't eliminated, I decided I needed to change things up. I talked to the personal chef we had and said, "I just want you to make me grilled chicken breast and toast for every meal," and that's what he did. That was the turning point for me: My blood sugar got more together, I had no more breakdowns, and I was able to really concentrate and ended up winning a lot of challenges and then winning the whole thing.
Q. As part of your prize package, you got your "big break" to play two LPGA events last year, where you established quite a fan following. Why do you think your galleries are so packed?
I think it's because people love the Big Break, but I also have this thing called the "birdie dance." It's not a huge ordeal, but if I make a putt, then I shake my hips back and forth and wave to the crowd. I just feel like, in golf, you hit way too many bad shots not to celebrate the good ones. And people seem to like it—to the point where now I'm not allowed not to
Q. As you've experienced more success, you've made it a point to get further involved in diabetes advocacy. You also visit support groups for children with diabetes and this June, you're speaking at the JDRF Children's Congress in Washington. Why is raising money—and awareness—so important to you?
I'm just trying to raise as much money as I can, in any way I can think of. I feel like, you know what, we're so close to a cure with diabetes research, and I feel like with this disease, if we can keep working hard in the next 10 years, then maybe none of us will have to deal with this anymore, so I want to do my best to help.
[When I talk to children with diabetes], I give a little speech about my life and I tell them about the bad times and about the good times. I want them to feel like they're not alone in this world. I'm most down about my diabetes when I feel alone—I feel like "Why me? Am I the only person in the world that has to deal with this?"—and it's such a bummer. So I want kids to know that there are so many of us out there, and we all have good days and bad days. We just have to keep going and keep doing our best. But we're all in this together.