With three older brothers, sports were a constant for Kapaun Mount Carmel senior Jordan Relph from a young age. She played football with them in the backyard. Basketball in the driveway? Of course.
A natural athlete, Relph competed in basketball, softball and gymnastics.
In an eight-month period, she battled mononucleosis, swine flu and cytomegalovirus, which together devastated her autonomic nervous system. She struggled with fatigue, migraines and was prone to injuries until she was finally diagnosed with a collagen disorder, as well as Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, which increases the heart rate dramatically when not lying down.
Relph couldn’t play basketball, gymnastics or softball. Pickup games with her brothers ended.
So Relph turned to bowling. Four years later, she has a 184 average and has her sights on qualifying for the Class 5-1A tournament in March.
“I was not allowed to play basketball, which was my favorite sport, and I didn’t want to have nothing to do,” Relph said. “So I chose bowling. It’s something to do. I like to compete with others. It’s not my love, but the competitions are fun.”
The first signs that there was something wrong appeared in gymnastics. Doing a cartwheel on the beam had always been easy, now she couldn’t do it without falling off.
She suffered from such extreme fatigue that she was sleeping 22 hours a day. Migraines were debilitating. She struggled to walk or even lift a pencil.
Eight months after her first hospitalization in March of 2009, she was diagnosed with POTS.
She was subjected to tests and more tests, spent time in the hospital for unstable vital signs, and was evaluated over a three-day period at the Mayo Clinic.
She had 61 appointments in 2010 and more than 70 in 2011.
“Jordan was so calm” through it all, her mother, Joan said. “She wrote an essay for college. She was calm, because as she wrote, ‘Had I shown how I really felt, they would have thought I was psycho.’ ”
It was 2011, Relph’s freshman season, when she chose to go out for bowling. Her first game was in the 30s.
After taking lessons from professional Rick Steelsmith, Relph quickly improved and had a 127 average her freshman season.
“She has good hand-eye coordination and the athletic ability to do the game of bowling,” Steelsmith said. “It isn’t as easy as you think when you have a heavy, weighted ball on one side of your body.”
Relph’s average improved to 161 as a sophomore and to 167 as a junior.
But through all this, Relph has never been healthy.
“When she was struggling with her health, it was hard for her to practice, to do the things you need to do to improve,” Steelsmith said. “She still improved. That’s a testament to her. She’s a really good athlete.”
Relph was so weak her first two years of high school that doctors restricted her smiling, talking and laughing because they might increase her heart rate.
She clung to her dad, Ray, as she walked into bowling matches, and often afterward, he had to carry her to the car because she was so weak.
But Relph stuck with it.
“ Bowling was all right, but the lessons with Rick, I really started to like bowling a lot,” she said. “He helped me out a lot and he made it fun. He’s really good at explaining the oil patterns and how to pick up different splits and spares.”
Relph’s health has improved.
“To me, if I didn’t know she had this as a freshman, I’d think she was over it,” Kapaun coach Marie Thomas said. “I’ve hardly ever seen her miss practice because of it.”
Relph initially planned to bowl only her freshman season and then return to basketball. But basketball is not an option.
“I’m on a heart medicine, a beta blocker,” she said. “It keeps my heart rate low. It won’t let my heart rate go high. Running up and down the court isn’t possible. I would pass out or I would have trouble breathing.”
She’s frustrated by not playing basketball.
“I’m definitely bitter about basketball,” she said. “I don’t really go to any of the girls basketball games or go watch them or anything. If I went, it’d be real hard because I’d feel that I should be out there playing.”
The goal now is the state tournament. The City League meet is two weeks away and the 5-1A tournament is in a month.
“I definitely should have made it last year,” Relph said. “I just kind of had my worst series at regionals. I was pretty upset.
“So this year, I’m going to make it.”