Ever since she first picked up a golf club at the age of three, Prout sophomore Nicole Scola has spent her life developing routines that turned her from a beginner to the state’s best female golfer.
The routines start the moment she wakes on tournament day, when she eats breakfast and gets some stretching in before heading to the course. When she arrives, her routines run like clockwork. She heads to the range to hit a few balls and using a swing resistance tool to loosen up – “You don’t want to use all the good shots out there,” she says - Scola heads to the putting green to take several 10-15 footers and chip to check out how the greens are running so she can place shots to kick-in distance. When she’s done there, she heads back to the range and hits five to 10 more shots at the range, mentally playing the hole out in her head.
When Scola reaches the first tee, the routines continue. After reading Dr. Bob Rotella’s book, Golf is Not a Game of Perfect, she’s adapted a more positive mindset, worrying less about imperfection and more about what she’s capable of doing. Her pre-swing routine never changes – teeing the ball up, stepping back, picking a line in front of the ball, getting back in there for a couple more practice swings before letting it fly.
Nine times out of 10, Scola is somewhere in the short grass and her routines continue throughout the round. Every shot from the fairway looks the same, every shot from the rough looks like one she took earlier and her approach in the sand - if she even finds the beach never changes. On the green, she’s just as consistent, whether or not the putts are finding their mark.
Golf is a game of routines and the routines have obviously worked for Scola.
But the routines don’t stop there for the 16-year old. Scola has similar routines in her everyday life. She carefully monitors what she puts into her body and prepares herself when she is going to be expending a significant amount of energy, but it has nothing to do with her golf game.
Nicole Scola has Type 1 Diabetes and with it, she must test her blood several times on a daily basis, inject insulin if her blood-sugar levels get too high or drink juice if her numbers start to get a little low. Diabetes is part of her and thanks to a carefully regimented routine, she has found a perfect way to balance her life, disease and sport without anyone noticing she is something other than a perfectly healthy teenager.
Scola was 12-years old, playing the game she loved and in her second summer of playing tournament golf, showing signs that she was something special on the course.
Leading a youth tournament at New England Country Club in Bellingham, Mass., Scola wasn’t feeling great. She was never one to complain about feeling sick or pain – “I can fall down the stairs,” she says, “and not cry” – but knew something was wrong. Her body temperature was up and down, the stomach pains were unbearable and eating wasn’t an option. At this point, swinging a golf club wasn’t either.
Accompanied by a baby-sitter at the time, Scola went to a walk-in to see what was going on. Sitting in the waiting room in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, trying to fight off whatever was happening to her, Scola was trying to get herself together to finish her tournament when the doctor walked in with the news that changed her life.
“She came in and said ‘You have sugar in your blood,’” Scola remembers. “I thought ‘Oh my god my parents are going to kill me.’ I said to her ‘I don’t eat that much chocolate; I don’t eat candy’ and I had been 95 pounds at the time and was losing some weight.”
“(The doctor) sat down and explained it to me and I think at that point you’re in a daze.”
The doctor told Scola she had Type 1 Diabetes.
Diabetes is a misunderstood disease. Type 1 Diabetes was formerly called Juvenile Diabetes because doctors thought it only affected children; it was also thought to be a genetic disease; it was also thought to be caused by diet.
None of that is true or false. Fact of the matter is, Type 1 Diabetes is still misunderstood except for one thing – there is no known cure.
Genetics can play a part, but there isn’t enough evidence to say one way or the other. The disease can also be triggered by auto-immune disease that cause the pancreas, which creates insulin that regulates the body’s blood sugar levels, to stop functioning.
A person with a functioning pancreas will have a blood-glucose (commonly called blood-sugar) level of anywhere from 80 to 120 regardless of what they eat or drink.
Diabetics can eat or drink what they want, but must account for the intake of carbohydrates and sugar by taking insulin, either through shot or a insulin pump, which connects to the abdomen by a small catheter that barely goes below the skin.
Diabetes is not the flu. You cannot skip a day of medicine or forget to test your blood-sugar levels. After being told of her condition, Scola was taken Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence – a trip she says she doesn’t remember – to help get her blood-sugar level down from the 300 level at the time she was diagnosed and educate her and her family for the start of a routine that will be with her the rest of her life.
The first hole
Nicole Scola doesn’t remember the first time she picked up a golf club, but does remember learning the game.
Her father Nick, a lawyer, would come home from work wanting to play some golf. His wife Jill allowed it, provided he took Nicole with him. So began the first golf routine of Nicole Scola’s life.
Nick and Nicole Scola would head to Vineyard Valley Golf Club in Pomfret, Conn., where Nick showed his daughter the basics of a golf swing and let her play as long as she want. When she started, it was usually about 10 swings, which she says got her 50 yards down the fairway before she’d curl up and fall asleep in the golf cart as her father played a few holes. It became a routine for the two.
“Back then it was you’re 3-years old, 4-years old, 5-years old, 6-years old, go out there get the grip correctly, try and get some resemblance of a golf swing” she says, “and have some fun with it.”
By the time she was 7, Nick Scola had run out of basic lessons to teach Nicole and she started taking private lessons, which she continues today with Jeff Dantas, a pro who teaches in Seekonk, Mass. Scola still remembers the first lesson, where she was taught to “turn the key” on the downplane of the swing, and how she executed it the next day on the course.
“I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” she says. “… I remember doing that and the next day on the golf course being like, ‘Hey dad, I’m turning the key.’”
Her game went from turning the key to turning heads.
When Scola was 11, after four years of lessons and some rounds of nine holes where she’d win a soda or two off her father and his friends, her parents let her try a full 18. It took her exactly one round to do what many recreational adult golfers still aspire to do – break 100.
“I was 11 years old and I was shooting high 80s,” she says. “My parents said that was really good.”
She was winning U.S. Kids Golf Tournaments and playing well but most of all, she was having fun.
Then came that fateful summer.
At the turn
Nicole Scola is happy that she was diagnosed during the summer. It gave her time to adjust to treating the disease and with support from her family and friends, she started to adjust to life with diabetes.
Soon enough, summer was over and Scola was headed to St. Michael School in Pawcatuck, Conn., for her eighth-grade year.
“It hit me like a brick when I went to school. Even though I was in a class of 13, you have to check every two hours, go to the nurse for injections and it overwhelmed me,” Scola says. “You’re going to eighth grade year and you’re supposed to be the cream of the crop and supposed to have it easy before high school, but I was emotionally drained from it.”
“It took a while to get used to it and think she’s going to be OK. I had to (put trust in her) and it was tough,” Jill Scola says. “I work in Massachusetts, my husband’s over in Connecticut and you have to send her over to school and there’s a lot of time where she had to do it herself. I had to put a lot of trust in her to do that.”
When she went to her endochrinologist for her first A1C reading – which measures the average of extra glucose in your blood for the past 2-3 months – the news wasn’t what Scola expected.
“It was like 9 or 10 or something crazy,” Scola says. “It was a wakeup call because when I started hearing I could go blind or my legs could lose circulation and I could never play golf again, it was like ‘what do I have to do’ and I just did it.”
And that’s when Scola and her mother began a routine.
The two would sit down and go through the numbers on her glucometer to see what her numbers were, developing a strategy to help get her levels down. For a soon-to-be teenager, it was a lot to take in.
“What we got down to was once a week, her going through my numbers, sitting with me, saying ‘we have to do this every morning’ or send me a text to say ‘you have to check now,’” Scola says. “At 12 or 13 you’re a teenager, you think you’re all that and I can say that; I thought I was. I just didn’t pay 100 percent attention.”
By the time Scola got to school at Prout, she had things figured out. She tests in the morning, between her second and third class, again at lunch, before or during golf before dinner and again just before bed. She’ll also test if things aren’t feeling right just to be on the safe side, or if she’s inadvertently skipped a normally planned test.
The toughest part was explaining to everyone that she didn’t have to eat “just fish and salad.”
“It was tough for the people around me to grasp it,” Scola says. “Even today I have teachers, who if they see me have pudding or a pretzel, things that aren’t normally bad for kids, they say ‘Can you eat that?’
The answer is yes. Scola has explained to many people why she doesn’t have to avoid snacks, or the traditional Italian meals prepared by her family.
“What (the doctors) told me was you can have it, you just have to account for it,” Scola says. “…It’s not bad in the sense of the sugar, but it can be bad if you don’t account for it with the insulin like your pancreas normally would.”
Scola’s golf game took off well before she started playing for Prout. When she was 13, she wanted to play in a women’s league at Winnapaug Country Club, a public course located near her home in Westerly.
On the first day of the league, she broke 80 for the first time.
Playing for Prout last season, she immediately became a scene-stealer both for her scores – which were routinely at or below 40 – and her on-course demeanor.
After a successful season where she played No. 2 for the Crusaders and helped the team win their first Southern Division title in school history, she finished tied for 13th at the RIIL Individual Tournament, playing from the white tees. On the second day of the tournament, she played with Cranston West’s Mike Chase – easily a foot and 100 pounds bigger than Scola’s 5-2, 125-pound frame – and was Chase’s biggest cheerleader in the round while she was busy firing a 80, shooting even par on the back 9.
“She was the best. She was really personal out there,” said Chase after the round. “She was always talking, always in a good mood with bad shots and bad holes. I was really impressed. She was one of the better playing partners I’ve ever had.”
“What can be the downfall is (players) putting their emotions on the line. When you’re annoyed, angry or going for the kill, it can get people to say ‘Oh, she looks nervous, I can overtake her,’” Scola says. “You can go three holes and have the nerves overcome you and when they do, it’s tough to come back.”
Scola went on to crush the competition in the girls tournament, shooting a 74 at Point Judith Country Club, 10 shots better than her nearest competitor.
Not much has changed this season. Scola, now playing No. 1 for the Crusaders, is regarded as one of the state’s best golfers, male or female, but will face a challenge this spring in the girls tournament.
After playing in South Carolina last spring, Juliet Vongphoumy – who famously won the RIIL Individual title as a freshman playing from the girls tees - has returned to La Salle for her senior year.
“Juliet and I have played for a while and both of us have improved our golf game immensely. Will I say I’m nervous? Yes,” Scola admits. “Ultimately, what I think is if I go out there and play my best I’m going to be happy.”
Scola is too young to receive offers from colleges, but she has been active in sending out highlight tapes and her resume. Her size is a challenge and she isn’t as long as some of the top female golfers she competes with on a regular basis, but Scola doesn’t pay it any mind.
“It’s drive for show, putt for dough ultimately,” Scola says. “If I play against someone who’s 5-foot-10 and can bomb it 280 but can’t make a putt, you’d hope a college coach would look at the score and I think they would.”
In the clubhouse
Once in a while, someone who doesn’t know Scola will see her go to her golf bag and pull out her glucometer and, not knowing what it is, will accuse her of using a phone on the course – not allowed in any tournament – or a measuring device.
But it isn’t always her competitors who are unaware of her diabetes.
“I didn’t know,” Prout coach Tom Townsend says. “…I never knew it, she doesn’t tell anyone about it and it’s a part of her life and she deals with that. You’d never know.
“…I don’t know if the other kids know. It’s like brushing her teeth of combing her hair. It’s a part of her every day routine.”
Scola tries to avoid any confrontation and usually lets players know she has diabetes before a round, but if something like that happens, she calmly explains herself and goes about her routine.
She’ll put a test strip into the glucometer, prick her finger, place the blood drop into the strip and wait for the result. If she’s low, she’ll have an Adam and Eve Fruitable juice box or granola bar; if she’s high, she’ll find a secluded spot and give herself an injection in her abdomen. She can’t call a timeout to wait for her levels to return to normal, so she’ll grind out a hole or two and then get back to attacking the course.
The disease hasn’t stopped Scola from doing what she loves. She aspires to play in college and if things work out, on the LPGA Tour. She deals with the faux-caffeine high from having a high blood-sugar and the irrationality a low can bring on.
Testing her blood, accounting for what she eats and giving herself injections are a part of her routine and for Scola, it’s a part of her life, much as trying to stick a nine-iron close or draining a long putt.
“It was definitely difficult for me the first couple of years because nobody had it,” Scola says. “…It has allowed me to be more independent because I’ve been able to take care of myself on a golf course and it has allowed me to feel a sense of accomplishment that I’ve been able to overcome this and work with something that a lot of people find difficult to live with their entire life.”