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Pro-Golfer Hank Lebioda Talks Triumphs Despite Crohn’s Disease Diagnosis

Positive. Humble. Fearless. These three words perfectly describe 24-year-old Hank Lebioda, Web.Com tour professional golf player and Crohn’s Disease patient. When I interviewed him at Golf Fore Guts in Florida, I was so impressed by his outlook on living with a chronic disease. I couldn’t wait to share his story with my readers.

Lebioda was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2012 during his freshman year of college at Florida State University. Like many of us, he didn’t know much about the disease. One thing he did know was that he wanted to play golf.

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“I had three and a half years [in college] to test the waters. To see if I can actually play golf at a high enough level and make a living out of it. It was an adjustment,” said Lebioda.

He had a full team of people at the university helping him from a strength coach to a nutritionist. As Lebioda juggled treatment options, he continued traveling to golf tournaments.

“We would travel with a box of Ensure. We would go to restaurants that would be comfortable for me to eat at where I wouldn’t have issues on the course the next day. It even got to the point where I would map out the golf course and see where the closest bathrooms were,” said Lebioda.

hank 3We can all relate to this. We’ve all had to make adjustments in our daily lives as we deal with uncomfortable symptoms. As a news anchor, I use commercial breaks to go to the bathroom. I also work to keep my emotions in check. It is easy to get sucked into the competitiveness of my industry, but Crohn’s Disease helps keep me grounded. Lebioda also believes his diagnosis helps keep him humble. He remembers a specific tournament against the University of Florida where he stood out like a sore thumb.

Lebioda wears a purple ribbon on his cap while he plays at the Golf Fore Guts Tournament in Wesley Chapel, Florida.

“If you watch college golfers, they will be carrying their own bags. Well, I wasn’t allowed to do that and it was a little bit of an ego shock for me. But I said, ‘This is what I have to do’, and I ended up finishing 12th in my first event after I got back from my diagnosis. My assistant coach walked with me that entire tournament. I had a push cart and made a bathroom stop every 4-5 holes,” said Lebioda. His team ended up winning that event for the first time in 20 years.

After graduating from Florida State University, Lebioda joined the Web.Com Tour where he has been playing now for almost 2 years. He is using his platform to raise awareness about Crohn’s Disease and is now a spokesman for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. Lebioda wants to show kids the power of being fearless.

“One thing my dad taught me growing up is that there are two options: You can be part of the solution or part of the problem. Was I going to go, ‘Oh woe is me. No one understands what I am going through. No one else my age is going through this.’ Or, was I going to say, ‘I could bring awareness and show people you don’t have to live within this boundary of Crohn’s. It’s not something that will hold me back,'” said Lebioda.

Lebioda posing with two young golfers at the Golf Fore Guts Tournament in Wesley Chapel, Florida.

We all have this choice to make everyday. When we wake up, we have to decide whether Crohn’s Disease is going to defeat us or motivate us to be better. I know it can be hard when we’re going through a flare-up; when the pain takes over and we just want it to all go away; when we think we’ve found the right medicine, but then the symptoms creep back in. I know it’s easy to feel defeated. But everyday we get the chance to fight back. We get the chance to be proactive, do something to help ourselves, and put it all into perspective.

“It’s something I can live through and show people it’s not the end of the world. You can be a high level professional athlete with this disease and it’s not something I am going to be afraid of. It’s possible to live with it and live a great life,” said Lebioda.

crohn's disease

Teen Golfer With Crohn’s Disease Inspires Young Athletes

When I was first introduced to 18-year-old Parker James, I forgot he had Crohn’s Disease. He and his mom were even visiting the news station for an interview about their golf tournament where they plan to raise $50,000 for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, and yet somehow I still forgot. You might be thinking, well, Inflammatory Bowel Disease is an invisible illness and the symptoms can’t always be seen, but that’s not why I forgot. It also wasn’t a lack of sleep (I get up at 3 a.m. for work, so it’s a common assumption). I forgot Parker had Crohn’s Disease because as soon as he introduced himself to me, I saw incredible confidence and vigor. I saw ambition, drive, happiness and contentment. These were all things I didn’t have when I was 18-years-old. No, no, no. I was either in denial that I had Crohn’s Disease, angry at my body for not being as healthy as I needed it to be, or in so much pain during a flare-up that I had no energy to think at all.

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Parker is different. He is an honors student at renowned Saddlebrook Preparatory School in Wesley Chapel, Florida where he attends classes in the morning and trains at the Golf Academy in the afternoon. He is an avid surfer and plans to travel to Cyprus in the summer to ride the Mediterranean waves. He has traveled to over 30 countries and even lived in London, England for a few years. Parker plans to attend a college in California next year and major in Public Relations and Advertising. The most impressive trait of all, however, is his outlook on life with chronic illness.

After a few minutes of taking Parker and his mom around the newsroom before their interview, I remembered Parker has Crohn’s Disease. I find out he has Rheumatoid Arthritis, too. Needless to say, this sweet young man has already been through a lifetime of illness. He’s had flare-ups, debilitating pain, colonoscopies, mouth sores, trial and error with medicines, and the list goes on and on. Not only has Parker come to terms with his disease, he has learned to use it to fuel his passion for golf. He has melded his competitive and hardworking spirit with the humility and focus he has gained from Crohn’s Disease to become unstoppable.

Life Outside the Lights family, meet Parker James.

Parker multitasking on the couch at home: Getting his Remicade infusion while doing some work on the computer. Go Parker!

What’s it like being a teenager with Crohn’s Disease?

“It’s been kind of a roller coaster. It started when I was about 10-years-old and started off strong with lots of inflammation. It was tough to find out what medicine to use. I started with 6-MP and now I am on Remicade. Most kids are into the party scene and growing up I’ve had to stay away from all of that. That’s where going to a golf academy has really helped me stay on a good path.”

Yoga has really helped subdue my symptoms. Do you feel golf does the same?

“Everyone feels nerves and sometimes that upsets my stomach, but I feel that [golf] almost takes away other pains Crohn’s can bring. The nerves and focusing on golf and winning distracts my mind from the pain. I use golf to fuel me as a motivation. With Crohn’s, you can’t quit. Every day you are fighting. This compares to golf. [Crohn’s Disease] motivates me to rise and play better. With golf, no matter what day it is, you can shoot the best score of your life and still not be happy with it. I feel that Crohn’s has helped make me a better player and fighter.

Notice the purple ribbon on Parker’s golf bag.

Golf Fore Guts is the first golf tournament for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation in Tampa Bay. Tell us about it.

“Being a second semester senior and being almost done with school, my mom and I figured this would be the best time to work on this event. We decided to start this and it’s going to be a lot of fun. The event takes place at Saddlebrook Golf Academy [in Wesley Chapel, Florida]. We have an auction with items including a 2010 Phil Nicholson signed master’s flag, a signed football from a Tampa Bay Buccaneers player, Tampa Bay Rays tickets and Titleist clubs. Hank Lebiota, a Web.com PGA tour player, is coming. I am excited to have him. He has Crohn’s Disease and if he can do it, anyone can.”

image001You may not be on the PGA tour, but you are already such an inspiration to kids with Crohn’s Disease who want to play sports. What’s your message to them?

“I am glad that I have the opportunity to inspire younger kids to not let their illness or disease get them down especially with athletics. With athletes, your body is your everything. I want to let kids know that with a disease you can rise above it and play. I was raised in Coral Gables in Miami, Florida. The weather is perfect all the time so you can play sports every day. I played football, soccer, and lacrosse. I tried to not let Crohn’s defeat me and hold me back and that’s the message I want to give kids with illness or really anyone. Don’t let anything hold you back from your passions and dreams.”

What do you tell yourself when you’re going through a flare up, but still want to live your normal life?

“Actually I have a little saying I created: ‘I am better.’ I have it written on my golf glove right on the thumb with a purple ribbon. I have a purple ribbon on my bags, hats, and this purple bracelet I wear. ‘I am better.’

Parker and his mom, Sara James, are hosting Golf Fore Guts on Saturday, April 14 at Saddlebrook Resort & Spa in Wesley Chapel, Florida. They plan to raise $50,000 for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. Please consider signing up or donating.

You may also be interested in: “I Want to Prove you Can Do Anything: Crohn’s Disease Diagnosis Transforms Young Girl” and “Fearing a Crohn’s Disease Flare-Up Clouds Our Reality.”