CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After putting out on the ninth green Thursday at Finley Golf Course, Hank Lebioda sprinted toward the nearest men’s bathroom, about 150 yards away. This wasn’t totally uncommon. He charts on-course restrooms as if they were tricky green complexes.
The Florida State junior has been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract that affects about 1.4 million Americans. He has the condition mostly under control now, thanks to medication and weekly injections that he administers himself, but it wasn’t too long ago that the 21-year-old faced the prospect of shelving his golf career.
Lebioda was a top-five recruit coming out of high school, but his body began to betray him even before he arrived on campus in fall 2012. The previous spring, he contracted salmonella and dealt with the effects for months – even during his senior prom. As his buddies raged by the beach, Lebioda spent the after-party in bed. A few days later, he labored through the Sage Valley Invitational, the premier junior golf event in the country, and was so ill that the only thing he could keep down was Pedialyte.
That summer, he battled irritable bowel syndrome and complained of frequent stomachaches and diarrhea. At times, the cramps on the course were so intense that he’d drop to one knee and hope the rush of pain would subside.
“The hard thing was that Hank is like any great competitor,” says Seminoles coach Trey Jones. “He doesn’t want any sympathy. He doesn’t want anybody to feel bad for him. He internalized a lot of it, and he wasn’t that transparent about everything going on with him.”
But he couldn’t hide later that year at the South Beach Amateur. Despite staying in a swanky hotel in Miami, eating the finest meals and riding a cart during competition, the fat and muscle melted off his body at an alarming rate. In all, he lost 20 pounds in four days.
Somehow, Lebioda still finished second, but when he returned home for Christmas break, he said, “my parents didn’t even recognize me.” He spent the next week and a half in bed.
Hank’s father, David, specializes in gastroenterology and immediately sensed something was amiss. After scheduling the first of three colonoscopies, Lebioda took a laxative to flush out his system, but it didn’t work. The next morning, at 3 a.m., he rolled around on the floor, writhing in pain.
Tests confirmed that he had bowel obstruction and mild-to-severe Crohn’s. The connector between the small and large intestine was inflamed, which was why he was in such severe pain but unable to pass anything through. An abscess had formed there, too.
Hopped up on steroids, antibiotics, painkillers and anti-inflammatories – “you name it, I was on it” – the only option seemed to be surgery, which would require three months of bed rest. Such a long layoff would not only force him to skip the spring semester of school, but it also prompted a few quiet and somber discussions with his father about what a future without golf might look like.
“The outlook was grim,” David says, shaking his head.
But under the care of his father and his six partners, Lebioda responded well to the aggressive treatment and was discharged from the hospital after a week. His doctors prescribed a new medicine called Humira, which called for Lebioda to pinch the skin on either side of his belly button and give himself four 10-second shots, once a week, with a device that looked like a giant BIC highlighter.
“I’m petrified of needles,” he says, but he’s gotten so used to the procedure that he recently guided one of his father’s patients through the process while in the middle of a practice round.
Still, his weight remained a significant issue – he was down to 140 pounds, with no muscle, no fat and no energy, after being bedridden for three weeks. Worse than the shots, Lebioda soon found out the hard way that his diet was about to change completely. No milk. No fried foods. No salad. No acidic foods. No caffeine. Heck, he couldn’t even sleep on his stomach anymore.
“The whole situation made me realize that I need to grow up and manage myself better,” he said.
After a few weeks at home, he was well enough to at least consider a return to Florida State. The school’s nutritionist and chef collaborated on a strict meal plan, and any time Lebioda wanted a bite to eat he simply texted the chef. Because he was still too weak to lift, run or train with his teammates, he worked with the athletic trainer on the underwater treadmill to improve his agility.
Within three or four weeks, he returned to hitting balls. Less than a month later, he qualified for the team’s first spring tournament, the Gator Invitational, but head coach Trey Jones insisted that he use a push cart in competition. Lebioda stopped at every restroom during his round and finished 12th that week, the beginning of an improbable run that led to him being named the ACC Freshman of the Year.
“Being a gastroenterologist, you know too much and you know how these things are supposed to end,” David Lebioda says. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and this is probably the best outcome I’ve ever seen with someone who started out as bad as he had.”
College kids aren’t supposed to grow up this fast.
After Hank’s high school graduation, his grandfather moved into the family’s home in Winter Springs, Fla., just north of Orlando. He was 91 years old, fading fast, with signs of dementia, but Hank took personal responsibility for him. Sometimes, he’d go out at midnight just to grab a carton of strawberry ice cream, and they’d sit together on the couch, two old men, watching Cubs games on WGN.
Jones jokes that Lebioda has “the diet of an old man,” because they basically have to eat the same foods.
For a while, Lebioda slammed three or four Ensure shakes a day. He’s learned how to eat salmon and boneless chicken 20 different ways. A typical dinner consists of a turkey sandwich on white bread, with no mayo or cheese. On the course this week, he’s nibbling on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and packs of fruit snacks. Standing 5 feet, 11 inches, he’s now up to 180 pounds, or about 40 more than his worst state.
More than anything, he has learned what to avoid. If he drinks a few beers – never more than two or three – he knows he’s going to pay for it with cramps and diarrhea. Coffee with creamer never ends well. Scarf down a cheeseburger or any kind of red meat, and he’s pretty much doomed to go find a bathroom.
“But as much as everyone says, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ my life has simplified a lot,” Hank says. “I cut out all the extraneous events that I didn’t need. Nothing was hanging over my head anymore.”
He’s back in control of his future.
Lebioda has captained the team each of the past two seasons. He’s served as the Seminoles’ Student Athletic Council representative. He’s on track to graduate in December – five months early – with a degree in finance.
And the best part? With his medical condition steadily improving, his golf game has never been better.
After a solid sophomore campaign, Lebioda has taken his game to new heights this season, with seven top-10s, a trio of runner-up finishes and a top-15 national ranking. Part of that improvement can be attributed to his time spent with swing coach Scott Hamilton, with whom he began working last summer. For years Lebioda played a “high school hook” – a push draw that every prep star hits because it maximizes distance. The smooth-swinging left-hander has turned that shot into a controlled cut that keeps the ball in play, and a sharper wedge game has become his greatest strength.
“Scott has really helped me simplify my game,” he said. “The only thing I have to worry about now is scoring.”
Entering this week’s NCAA regionals, Lebioda’s 70.69 average is the second-best on the team, only a few ticks below standout sophomore Jack Maguire (70.63). Together, they’ve paced Florida State to six wins and the No. 1 ranking in the country.
But there are still a few awkward moments.
He knows the location of every bathroom on the course, so on Thursday, a few seconds before he had darted toward the hut about 150 yards away, he hopped into a cart with a rules official and gave him a nod, like, “Hey, let’s roll.” FSU has contacted both local and national officials and cleared Lebioda to take a ride to the restroom whenever he needs it because of his medical condition. This particular rules official hadn’t yet gotten the memo, so he denied the request and Lebioda took off running, unable to wait any longer. A few minutes later, the official spun around, picked him up and apologized profusely for the misunderstanding.
“It comes furiously and you can’t wait like I did,” Lebioda shrugged.
But if that’s the extent of his troubles, well, he’ll take it. This is about the best-case scenario for a guy who two years ago thought a career in golf was a long shot.
“He has a mission now,” David Lebioda says. “He enjoys his health, but he knows that success is fleeting and can be taken away at any time. He’s savoring the life he has.”