Being a champion is defined as much by what happens off the playing field as on it, an aspect of greatness often underappreciated by fans. Very often it isn't until our heroes face the challenges that confront us all that we fully embrace the fact that they are human after all. Golf fans got a heavy dose of that reality this week when Annika Sorenstam went into labor and gave birth to her son, William Nicholas McGee, 13 weeks premature.
One of the reasons Sorentsam walked away from competitive golf while still being one of the best players in the world was to start a family. She set aside her 72 LPGA victories and 10 major championships after the 2008 season and, on Sept. 1, 2009, she and husband, Mike McGee welcomed their daughter, Ava, into the world. When they found out their next child was to be a boy born early this summer, life couldn't have been rosier.
*Sorenstam and husband Mike McGee say they are "cautiously optimistic" after son Will was born nine weeks premature. Photo by AP *
But the next chapter in parenthood is off to a much more challenging start, one that will be filled with uncertainty for months to come. In the early morning hours of March 21, Annika awoke Mike and told him she was bleeding. After consulting by telephone with a friend, Dr. Matthew Siebel, they knew they needed to leave their Lake Nona home in Orlando and get to the hospital immediately.
"I drove fast and it was like a blur," Mike told GolfDigest.com. "We weren't sure what had happened and were scared that we may have lost our son. They were ready for us at Winnie Palmer Hospital and immediately did an ultrasound. When we heard his heartbeat we were immediately brought to tears of joy. "
That initial joy was soon replaced by the reality of the uncertainty ahead. The worst fears were assuaged -- for the moment -- but the endgame was still not entirely in focus. By 3 a.m., Annika was in a room on the fifth floor, the area of the hospital that handles high-risk births. About 9 a.m., she began to have contractions, which doctors tried to stem with magnesium.
Annika and Mike were comforted by the fact that the OB-GYN who delivered Ava, Dr. Marnique Jones, was on call. "I knew the pain Annika was in," Mike says. "She was so strong." By 1:00 p.m., Annika started to dilate. That's when they were told Annika was likely experiencing placenta abruption, in which the placenta separates from the uterine lining, a condition that usually occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy and affects only about 1 percent of all pregnant women.
"There are many causes for it, none of which fit Annika other than bad luck," Mike says. Dr. Michael McMahon, who works under Dr. Gregor Alexander at the Alexander Center for Neonatology, came in soon thereafter to tell Mike and Annika that an emergency Caesarian section may have to be performed. McMahon assured them that 95 percent of babies born after 27 weeks survive and that they were in a hospital well equipped to handle the situation.
By 3:30 p.m., Annika had dilated to three centimeters and doctors told her she would likely have to deliver within the next 12 hours. By 4:00, she was in actual labor and the entire process started to speed up. The concern level also increased.
"We realized the severity of the situation when several of the doctors told us how sorry they were," McGee explained. "That is when Annika said, 'We should call him Will. He's going to need to will himself through this process.' We both cried and held each other. It was a moment I will never forget," McGee said, choking up as he recalled the moment.
"We value our family more than anything in the world and it was a simple reminder of how precious life is," Mike says. "We weren't sad, just scared and tired." Around 5:30 p.m., the birthing process began with an epidural, a regional anesthesia. By then some family and friends had arrived to lend their support.
"I remained calm and supportive in front of her, but inside I was very nervous," says McGee. "They wheeled her away and I finally broke down. I prayed until they allowed me to go in. I was able to hold her and by 6:33 little Will entered the world. Once they got him breathing, we were able to hold him briefly, but were obviously more concerned that they start whatever work needed to be done."
At that point Dr. McMahon and his team took over. By 7:00 p.m., Annika was sitting up in bed and starting to get some feeling in her legs. "She was very energetic and showed that she's a champion in life," says McGee. "She was talking on the phone and answering well wishes. Amazing!"
The weeks ahead will be challenging, but both Sorenstam and McGee are optimistic. "Right now Will's vitals are right where they should be," McGee says. "He remains in NICU in an incubator. Things seem good so far and we are cautiously optimistic. He could be there anywhere from five weeks to two months. We are so thankful for the doctors, nurses, and specialists who perform these miracles every day. They are heroes in our minds. "
One of the attributes that carried Sorenstam to such great success on the golf course was her unshakeable will to win. Covering her career was the greatest privilege I've had in this job. I will maintain until I can no longer write that from 2001 through 2006 -- when she won 46 LPGA tournaments in 124 starts, finishing in the top-three 76 times -- I saw golf played as well as it's ever been played over an extended period of time by anyone, male or female. But that's just part of who Annika is. This week, and in the weeks ahead, we will see the true champion she is where it matters most -- as a mother.
*-- Ron Sirak