For the most part, Debbie Blount is your average college student trying to get through the semester amid homework and a busy after-school schedule.
She enjoys her history class but struggles with statistics, a subject she calls the “curse of” [her] Existence. “She has just majored – interdisciplinary studies – and spends much of her time off campus playing women’s golf – her favorite part of the day.
But just a year earlier, she had worried that she would not fit in with her classmates who were around 40 years younger than her.
Blount is a 63-year-old student at Reinhardt University in Georgia and a popular member of the women’s golf team. She has a couple of decades on most of her classmates, instructors, and head coaches, but they don’t see her as a maternal or grandmotherly figure. Instead, they see her as a friend, a role model and a reliable teammate with an exceptionally straightforward drive.
As one of the oldest student athletes in the USA, her friends call her “Ancient Eagle” after Reinhardt’s mascot. “Ancient” may be a gross exaggeration of Blount’s age, but she likes to think that she is imparting some wisdom to her young teammates.
“It’s a game, we’re in it together … we’re really lucky to be doing this,” she said of the things she keeps track of while playing. “There are much more serious things in life than playing golf and I think they are taking some of that in.”
She pursued college golf after her husband’s death
College was nowhere in sight for Blount when she graduated from high school in 1976. Her parents pushed her to become an X-ray technician and told her it would be a stable career. You were right, she said, even though she suspected she might be a good PE teacher too.
But before she set out to become an X-ray technician, she discussed the possibility of college with a career counselor who only suggested one school – Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia, not far from Blount’s birthplace.
“Reinhardt was always in the back of my mind,” she said.
It wasn’t golf at first. Blount first came to a golf course at the age of 33 – after meeting her husband, Ben. Her husband loved the game and she wanted to spend more time with him, so she started golf as a hobby. But Blount, always the athlete, felt “a little driven”. She made up for the lost time with constant training and eventually competed in some local championships. Golf became part of her weekly routine.
When her husband died after years of illness, she moved to Vail, Colorado to teach full-time skiing. But when her father died a few months after her husband, she was rudderless.
“I was a little lost,” she said.
After her death, she came across a 1970s yearbook from Reinhardt University, where her husband’s mother had worked in a dormitory – another sign that “Reinhardt calls,” she said.
“I looked through those yearbooks and wondered if it would have been me.”
Her golf game was getting stale now. She lost a championship that played against her friends at her golf club. She asked a young caddy at her club where he was playing. Reinhardt University, he told her.
“There it is again,” thought Blount.
The idea of going to school at 62 was initially daunting. Blount wasn’t sure if she could keep up with full-time teaching – but “golf calls,” she said, and after meeting a Reinhardt coach and putting her skills to the test, she decided to start over as college Student in the first year.
She’s been on the team for a year now. While it would be easy to complain about her busy school schedule or the meetings she canceled after a long day of practice, Blount said she was just plain grateful for the opportunity – one she skillfully and courageously earned.
“I will live the dream,” she said. “I’m looking around here and can’t believe I’ll make it.”
She fits in with her younger teammates
During a recent practice on Monday afternoon on the driving range, Blount was relaxed and dizzy with her teammates, all of whom were in their late teens or very early 20s. She made them giggle and cheered them on (at a golf-appropriate volume). “The girls”, as they call their younger teammates, thought about which accessories they would wear to their next tournament.
“We’ll be hot,” she said at some point about her swing. “But my last name is Blount, I can’t be hot.”
Blount missed a putt during an exercise and shrugged it off with a smile. She believes positive thinking is the key to success, but maybe she wasn’t thinking positive enough for this putt.
She talks about her younger teammates with the same exuberant love that she uses when talking about her dear friends at her golf club. Blount never had children, but she said that so often she is in the group of close-knit young women who show her what it might have been like to have a daughter her age. Her parents write Blount notes, thanking her for the “wisdom” she has brought to her team, she said.
Blount said she was afraid that she “wouldn’t bring anything to the team,” but those fears were unfounded. Lauren Welte, a player who Blount has hailed as a formidable leader, said the 63-year-old is an “incredible” addition to the team. Welte wasn’t enthusiastic about playing next to a six-year-old at first, but after trudging through 18 holes together in the pouring rain – their first meeting – she was completely sold.
Different people have different views on what makes Blount such an important member of the Reinhardt team. In terms of skill, although she doesn’t send the ball quite as far as her teammates on her first game, Blount hits “the most directly of all of us,” Welte said, often shooting in the mid-80s.
Evans Nichols, the 26-year-old head coach of the women’s golf team, praised the “good energy” she brings to the team, a living reminder that “golf is a lifelong sport”. And while younger players can strike after a bad game, Blount is a symbol of stability, said Bill Popp, Reinhardt’s vice president for enrollment and athletics, a role model for students who haven’t yet honed their emotional game.
Motivating the young women on her team to improve her game gave her an idea of what she will do after graduation. Although she may still “ride into the sunset” with her boyfriend and “play the retirement game”, she believes she will probably end up coaching young people – maybe as a research assistant at Reinhardt.
For now, however, she thinks short-term: She has just been nominated for the homecoming queen. She has already recruited the girls to help her find a dress for the event, a request they were happy to accept.
The CNN Wire
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