Kaylin Kline is trying to mend her broken heart.
“I still cry a lot,” the St. Mary’s freshman said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. It was the worst. I felt like my life was basically over.”
Starting a new chapter in her athletic life, Kline has found glimmers of hope and happiness on the golf course, developing an appreciation for a sport that until recently she thought “was for nerds who couldn’t make other teams.”
A year ago, Kline entered eighth grade coming off prodigious seasons playing for the Pioneer varsity soccer and basketball teams. She was the first seventh-grader to start on the soccer team in three decades and was a contributor off the bench during basketball season, highlighted by a 21-point performance in the sectional playoffs.
At the time, Kline had no idea it would be her final basketball game.
A devastating diagnosis
Having struggled with fatigue and shortness of breath during the spring AAU basketball season, Kline’s condition worsened while playing for the WNY Flash premier soccer club last summer.
During a game in late August in which she couldn’t run halfway up field without feeling lightheaded and tightness in her chest, Kline came to the sideline with tears in her eyes and said, “Dad, something’s wrong.”
Doctors at Children’s Hospital discovered an abnormality in Kline’s heart and referred her to the Cleveland Clinic. She was diagnosed with hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, a genetic disease in which the heart muscle thickens and has difficulty pumping blood.
The Klines know they were fortunate. Studies have found HOCM to be one of the leading causes of death from sudden cardiac arrest in athletes under 35. Many athletes don’t know they have the condition until it’s too late. Autopsies found that both Loyola Marymount University star Hank Gathers and Boston Celtics standout Reggie Lewis had HOCM after they collapsed and died while playing basketball.
“When we went to the Cleveland Clinic, Kaylin was in congestive heart failure, less than 50 percent of her heart was functioning, and she was at a high risk for sudden cardiac arrest,” Jason Kline said.
There is no cure for HOCM. Patients are treated with medication and, in some cases, surgery while being instructed not to engage in physical activity that raises the heart rate above a range of 120-130 beats per minute.
That was devastating news for 13-year-old Kaylin, who “since first grade has had her goals set on being a college athlete in basketball or soccer,” her father said.
‘A really, really tough year’
The Klines are a sporting clan.
Jason Kline was an All-American pitcher at Canisius College who played two seasons in the minor leagues and has been inducted into the Western New York Baseball Hall of Fame. He has been a physical education teacher for more than 20 years, coached boys basketball teams at West Seneca East and Holland before taking time off to coach his daughters’ travel teams, and now coaches the girls team at St. Mary’s.
Kaylin’s mother, Michelle, was a synchronized swimmer at Canisius. Older sister Myla is on the Lancers’ varsity soccer and basketball teams, 12-year-old Kierra is a junior varsity athlete and 11-year-old Clayton is active in travel leagues.
“We’re bred to be athletes, so to speak,” Jason Kline said. “Our family revolves around sports and to have one child at the heart of her development, at 13 years old, told she’ll never play again, it has been a struggle, emotionally. You’re at home at the dinner table and you want to praise the success of other the other kids in sports, and your daughter is crying because she can’t be a part of it.”
A 15-second jog is enough to raise the heart rate above 120 beats per minute. Not only could Kaylin not play her favorite sports, she couldn’t participate in physical education classes or outdoor recess. Anxiety over the situation compelled Kaylin to transfer to the Holland Central School District for the second half of her eighth-grade year. She missed 45 school days while traveling to the Cleveland Clinic every other week.
“It was a really, really tough year,” Jason said.
The Klines haven’t given up on Kaylin one day being able to again play the sports she loves. She is taking part in an experimental Yale University study that allows her to lightly exercise under her father’s supervision if there is an automatic external defibrillator on site.
“People say, ‘Oh, well, that’s great,’ but it’s not great when you are standing on the sidelines watching your daughter exercise and wondering if she is going to go into cardiac arrest,” Jason said. “We'll go to soccer practice, doing some drills, kicking the ball around, and she’s fighting back tears the whole time. It makes it really difficult. She’s really fragile right now, emotionally.”
‘This kid is something special’
Golf was one of the few sports deemed safe for Kaylin. She had never swung a club before last November when she began taking lessons at the Brighton Golf Dome with Marlene Davis, a St. Mary’s graduate who has competed in two U.S. Women’s Opens and an LPGA Championship, and has been a teaching professional since 1989.
After a few lessons, Davis called Jason and told him, “This isn’t your typical girl here. This kid is something special.”
Kaylin continued to miss playing basketball and soccer too much to enjoy learning a new game, however. When the winter weather broke, the Klines took a trip to North Carolina and toured the famed Pinehurst Golf Resort. Jason took Kaylin out for her first round, but after five holes, she had enough.
She stuck with the lessons, though, and at Davis’ urging, Kaylin entered a tournament at Mill Creek in Churchville in June. The goal was to break 130 in her first 18-hole round, Jason said. She wound up shooting a 49 on the front and 52 on the back.
“She’s very new at golf, but I would say she’s a superstar athlete, which makes her very easy to teach,” Davis said. “She has great physical skills, strength, coordination, balance. When people have those qualities and you are teaching a skill like a golf swing, it really makes a huge difference.”
As fate would have it, Jason Kline had purchased the Rolling Hills par-3 golf course in Chaffee last summer, a few weeks before Kaylin’s heart condition was discovered. A quarter-mile from the family home, Kaylin is able to drive a golf cart to the course to practice her iron shots and short game as often as she likes.
“I believe in God, I always have, and we have a strong faith connection. That’s part of the reason we are at St. Mary’s,” Jason said. “You can take that however you want, but I think there is something to that.”
‘Let’s fall in love with this’
With no girls golf team at St. Mary’s, Kaylin set out to play with the boys. She not only made the 12-player varsity roster, but earned a spot in the top six for Thursday’s opening Monsignor Martin match against St. Joe’s.
Playing in the Erie County Junior Golf Series at Grover Cleveland last weekend, she shot a 39 on the front nine. Six pars in nine holes during her fourth round on a real golf course, 10 months after taking up the sport. “That’s unheard of,” St. Mary’s coach Mark DiPirro said.
“I foresee great things for her future,” DiPirro said. “She’s constantly practicing, texting me for suggestions on how she can improve her game. She’s a sponge. Everything you teach her, everything you tell her to do, she immediately does it and corrects her game.
“The other thing that is most beneficial is she is learning from, I think, the best teaching pro in Western New York,” DiPirro added. “Marlene has one of the most beautiful swings you’ll ever see, and she is emulating Marlene.”
Kaylin has been inspired by Davis’ lessons and the success her coach had as a player, which includes qualifying for last month’s inaugural Senior Women’s U.S. Open and the Senior LPGA Championship in October.
“Marlene is amazing,” she said. “She made something out of my life when basketball was over. I look up to her a lot. She’s probably my biggest role model at this point.”
Kaylin has high hopes for her freshman season. She wants to qualify for both the girls and boys All-Catholic tournaments and be the medalist in at least one St. Mary’s match.
Yet, the larger goal is for golf to replace the void left when Kaylin was forced to give up her old passions.
“Let’s fall in love with this,” Jason said. “She knows that they can’t take golf away.”
All it takes is the bouncing of a basketball or squeak of a sneaker for tears to form in Kaylin's eyes. A good round on the golf course helps her cope.
“I’m trying to adapt to the new sport, but I definitely still miss basketball,” Kaylin said. “Doing well in golf makes my day happier and definitely takes my mind off things. It’s another day that’s a good day instead of a bad day. Just trying to take away as many of the bad days as I can.”