Gabi Fagerlind had no words.
Slouched over on the side of the fairways at Otter Creek Golf Course in Ankeny, in the middle of her final round at the Iowa Class 4A state golf meet, the Western Dubuque junior was mentally and physically exhausted from a month of hell.
Less than three weeks prior, her older brother, John, passed away from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident at the age of 22. The night before the final round, Fagerlind became ill with a stomach bug and was frequently vomiting throughout the day, sometimes literally in-between holes. In need of a seconds-long break, she took a seat at the edge of the fairway.
The last thing Fagerlind deserved in that moment was to get hit by another player’s golf ball. But it happened.
“It definitely shocked me,” Fagerlind said. “When it hit me, I just needed a little rest and I wasn’t too focused on what was going on around me, even though I should have been. It was a big shocker and I wasn’t expecting that. I mean, what do you even say?”
After all she had been through, and still dealing with while on the state stage, this wasn’t going to be the moment to give in.
“She was sitting down, just trying to get some shade and relax for a second,” said Gabi’s father, Mike Fagerlind. “She had a cold rag on her forehead and out of nowhere a ball bounces off her bag and hits her. By then, the spectators knew she was sick and we could hear them say, ‘Boy, could anything else go wrong for her?’ I just looked at my wife and said, ‘If they only knew what she’s been through.’”
Bobcats coach Amy Haldeman was confident her team would have a chance at making the state meet this spring. With senior Hannah Fangmann, freshman McKenna Stackis, junior twins Ella and Hanna Kluesner, freshman Addy Jones and Fagerlind, the Bobcats were primed for their first trip to state as a team in seven years.
“We knew we had a special group this year,” Haldeman said. “And we knew Gabi would play a part in that.”
Gabi has been around the game her whole life. Her parents, Mike and Ann, have owned and operated Timberline Golf Course in Peosta for 23 years. Before that, Mike was the manager at Thunder Hills Country Club. Gabi even works there, pitching in with just about everything.
“She was born into it,” said Mike Fagerlind, who played prep golf himself at Denver High School in Denver, Iowa. “She plays out here, works out here, and a lot of her free time is spent at Timberline.”
It was hard not to get swept up in that type of environment.
“I grew up playing with my dad, working out there at the golf course,” Gabi said. “It was easy to get into it and enjoy playing the game.”
Gabi played in the No. 5 position for the Bobcats this spring, and ranked third on the team with a 45 average over nine holes and was fifth for 18 holes with a 97 average. She was part of a deep lineup that rallied to win the Mississippi Valley Conference Mississippi Division title by smashing the school record with an 18-hole score of 295 in the final round on May 17.
But Gabi wasn’t playing in that final round, as tragedy struck her family two days earlier.
Gabi is the youngest of five children, and she was very close to her older brother, John. The lives of the Fagerlinds changed forever on May 1, when a crash was reported at about 4:45 p.m. on Holy Cross Road near Schneider Road, south of the town of Holy Cross.
Officials did not provide specifics of what caused the wreck or how it occurred, but noted that it was a single-vehicle crash. John was airlifted to Iowa City for medical treatment after the wreck.
Surrounded by his family, John passed away on May 15 due to the severity of his injuries.
“She took it hard,” Mike said. “They were close.”
Gabi wasn’t sure how to cope with the heartbreak. But turning to the game she loved and her Bobcat teammates was a good place to start.
“The team was a big help,” she said. “Having nice teammates and nice coaches being there for me, and just going to practice and trying to have fun. What happened with my brother, it was really hard and just going out to play helped because I didn’t want to let him down. I wanted to be there and help the team. It was nice to get out and have a nice distraction from everything.”
That’s also why, due to arrangements for her brother, it was tough on Gabi to not be able to play at the Class 4A regional meet on May 24. The day before the state-qualifying event, the Western Dubuque coaches and players paid their respects to the family at John’s wake.
“I think that meant a lot to her,” Haldeman said. “We were one of the last ones there that day, and we were all there in our golf attire. She was surprised because she thought we weren’t coming. I think it meant a lot to her family, because they are very spiritual and they know this stuff happens for a reason. That’s what’s going to get them through it and that’s helping Gabi, too.”
John’s funeral was on the 24th, so Gabi wouldn’t be playing as the team looked to qualify for state as a team for the first time in seven years.
“Seeing them all at the wake meant a lot,” Gabi said. “It was really cool that they all came together to support us the night before districts. But, I was also really disappointed because I’d played through the whole season and was working hard to get to state, and to not be able to play had me feeling left out.”
The Bobcats pulled through, finishing second at their regional by 2 strokes to Cedar Falls at Irv Warren Golf Course in Waterloo. Western Dubuque qualified for the 4A state meet as a team for the first time since 2014.
“It was hard without Gabi there, and just knowing they buried her brother that same day,” Haldeman said. “We played for Gabi and her family. She was actually worried she wouldn’t be able to play at state, like she would lose her spot. We assured her that would not be the case. It was certainly more important to be there for her brother that day. We got second place by 2 strokes, and I think if she was there we would have won it.”
Even on one of the darkest days for her family, the Bobcats were able to provide Gabi with a little bit of light.
“She really wanted to play at that district tournament,” Mike said. “Unfortunately, it was the day of the funeral. So, when they made it, that gave her some hope and more incentive to play well at state. Those past three weeks leading up to that were pretty rough on her.”
STATE EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER
Gabi entered the state meet in Ankeny on June 1 driven to compete and contribute for her team, even with her brother weighing heavy on her mind.
The first round was solid, if unspectacular. Gabi shot right at her average with a 97, and the Bobcats were sitting in eighth place out of 10 teams.
“She played OK that first day,” Mike said. “Everybody kind of just played OK, and we were looking forward to her improving in the final round.”
If Gabi was going to improve, she was going to have to do so in the most trying round of her life. In the middle of the night, she came down with a nasty stomach bug that had her vomiting and weary throughout the next 24 hours.
“I really didn’t want to let my team down,” Gabi said. “I really wanted to play. I didn’t want to give up that opportunity and wanted to improve my score from the day before. When you think about it, I probably shouldn’t have been playing in my condition, but I had a good round going and I just didn’t want to let myself, my brother or my team down.”
As the No. 5 player, sometimes Gabi’s score doesn’t count. So, despite her personal loss and illness, she was determined to play a part in the Bobcats rallying in the final round.
“She’s always been a quiet girl, doesn’t say too much,” Haldeman said. “She doesn’t strike you as someone to get sick and just keeps playing. She’d throw up, feel better and keep grinding. A couple holes later, throw up again. Just keep going.”
Then, get hit by another player’s ball. What else could go wrong?
“The ladies in her group could see she was sick, then she gets hit by the ball,” Haldeman said. “One of the girls said, ‘What more could this girl go through today?’ Little did she know, Gabi’s had the worst month of her life.”
But Gabi kept going. Through it all, she played shockingly well.
“Our family, we’re not quitters,” Mike said. “If she said she had wanted to quit, I’m not sure what we would have thought. We always told our kids to fight through the tough stuff in the competition.”
Gabi ultimately improved her score by 10 strokes from the opening round with an 87. Her two-round total of 97-87—184 placed her in a tie for 35th overall (out of 70 players) with teammate Addy Jones. The two of them tied for the third-best scores on the team over two rounds.
“My brother was such a hard worker. He would never stay home and do nothing,” Gabi said. “It was in my head that I had to keep going and keep trying. Just do what he would have wanted me to do.”
The Bobcats jumped up to sixth in the team standings, and missed out on third place by only 11 strokes. Gabi’s efforts proved to make a huge difference: without her scores the Bobcats would have finished ninth.
“She had her head down on a table in the clubhouse afterwards, just totally exhausted,” Haldeman said. “I asked her, ‘Why’d you do this?’ She just said, ‘I didn’t want to let the team down.’ It was unbelievable that she played that well, it really was.
“I think by the time she finished up, some of the other parents knew that her brother died and they couldn’t believe she was there playing. Initially, she didn’t even want to tell us that she had gotten sick. She didn’t want to give up. It was an inspiration. She overcame a lot, and she did it for her brother. He would have been there watching us. Maybe he still was.”
The whole experience has made Gabi’s family, teammates and coaches proud of her unrelenting perseverance.
“Just dealing with all of this adversity will make her stronger,” Mike said. “Everyone’s just so proud of her.”
Gabi believes the hardships of the past two months will make her a better person and a stronger player moving forward.
“I really think it will,” she said. “If I can go through all of that and still play well, I’m hoping I can play well under better circumstances. I just want to honor my brother by being a hard worker like he was.”