Getting to Know Adaptive Golf Hero Gianna Rojas
Gianna Rojas is an inspiration. The 60-year-old New Jersey-based adaptive golfer was born with a left arm much shorter than the right and no fingers on her left hand. That, however, hasn’t stopped her from enjoying life - and golf - to the fullest. And now she’s actively paving the way for other differently abled people to follow suit. She’s inspiring everyone she encounters to be more open-minded, accepting and creative about the expansion of adaptive golf programming.
Rojas will be at January 2023’s PGA Merchandise Show Jan. 24 - 27, running a demonstration of shots hit by her and other adaptive golfers on a Power Tee practice and game-improvement station. Those attending the PGA Show’s Demo Day, can meet Rojas in person on the range at the Demo Day, hitting powerful, one-armed shots fueled by the innovative training system. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of PGA Show week, she will also be available for interviews and meetings in Booth 2191.
When did you decide enough was enough and you were ready to be a golfer?
I decided to play golf when my husband, his friends and their wives were meeting every Saturday and Sunday morning at the golf course. And I was feeling like that 13-year-old girl who was left out and not included. About 10 years ago, I asked my husband how we can figure this out. I've already figured out how to raise a family and I do everything else. So why not golf?
You swing only with your right arm. What’s the process been for you to get to where you hit the ball consistently like that?
It’s been a lot of trial-and-error, but mostly error. I had a prosthetic left arm prototype made specifically for me, but it was not functional. After trying this and that to swing in one way and trying to swing another way, I wound up just dropping the left arm completely. My left arm is underdeveloped. Because it's from birth, it's developed shorter and without fingers. So, the distance between my elbow and shoulder on one arm, and the distance between my elbow and shoulder on the other arm, are not the same. So even adding those fingers to my hand, or a prosthetic to my hand, still does not allow me to reach the club with my left arm so we just dropped it.
What's your average score and can you beat the folks in your regular foursome?
If they play my way, then absolutely. I've challenged people, even my husband, to play one-handed and he got through maybe the second or third hole before he admitted he just couldn't do it. I’ve broken 100 once, but I'm usually around 110 or 114 – which brings me to be a 34.4 handicap. That’s about what it is for an average golfer with two hands. If I can't keep up, I just pick up. People need to understand it’s not harder, it's not impossible – it's just different.
How far do you hit your driver and 7-iron?
176 yards has been my longest drive measured, but I average probably 130 or 140 – that’s my consistent spot. My 7-iron goes about 85. My challenge is getting the ball up in the air. Loft is my friend, because I don't have the ability to pull up from the left arm. That's where your loft is coming from. Your trailing arm is usually your guide. That's why some of the trial-and-error was where I would try to hit left-handed – I would probably hit a lot further because I would have a better turn – but hitting one-handed righty with what’s my trail arm is my power and allows me to hit straight. Now that's all I can do, though. I don’t have to shape a shot. Left-handed, I was not able to control the swing as much.
Have you worked with golf pros?
I've asked a number of them when I first started, with reviews from Hank Haney, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Michael Breed. This is kind of the crew that I run in, in what I'm doing. So, when I first decided to try this, I met a couple of them at some of the golf shows here in New Jersey. Getting up on stage, I became an example. And that's really where the birth of Adaptive GolfHers nonprofit came from – from me trying to find somebody to help me. But nobody had experience dealing with people with disabilities that we encountered. So now this topic has become such a seed that’s been planted. Way before I got on board, there were many pioneers with this. I just happened to be the one with the big mouth telling everybody about it. It's my story. It's for me to inspire, and to find that 13-year-old girl that nobody wanted around and have her get out there and say ‘not today bully, go pick on somebody else. I'm gonna go play golf.’
How do you parlay your enthusiasm, your drive and your inspirational story to create adaptive golfers right there?
My story and journey were not couple years, I was the new kid in school. And I was a new kid who was visibly different in a society that was not as open as it is today. My 1970s was a bit rough. There was a stigma and a bias that was taught too easily. I'm a military brat. My father was in the Navy. We were taught ‘don't look, don't stare, don't ask questions. That would be rude.’ But when a little boy is tugging his mom’s arm and telling her that the girl he’s staring at has a funny hand, she would say ‘no, that's not nice’ and doesn't even acknowledge me, and they walk away. I'm invisible – and he didn't get his questions answered. So, I’ve put it in my sights that one of my survival tactics is something that society needs, which is that people with disabilities need to make the conversation okay to be had. We have to start the conversation because society has been taught ‘don't.’ So instead of ignoring us or being invisible, I'm trying to also empower those with disabilities to make sure it's okay for other people to talk about it.
What's that process like of getting to know other adaptive golfers and helping them get involved?
It’s been pretty easy because I’m one of them. They see me as someone like themselves, more so than someone who is able bodied, talking about what people with disabilities need – not that there's not any goodwill in that. It’s just that when the message is coming from someone who has something like you it’s much more congruent than having the message come from another source. In a sense, my purpose is to be the example – if you want to call it exploitation, then I'm exploiting myself and my story and my journey, in hopes that that a 13-year-old girl sees me on the news and says, ‘Hey, Mommy, if she can, maybe I can, too.’
What has golf brought into your life that you didn't have before?
Inclusion, camaraderie, and a sense of belonging. I have a sense of identity that I didn't have before. And golf gave me this other part of my character that’s just awoken. I've become the person that's running out there in front of everybody. I give golf that credit because it brought me this sense of purpose that’s become my identity now. It’s not like I can quit this job. I didn't sit down and purposely decide I'm going to do this. It kind of happened to me. I was also a March of Dimes poster child as a little girl – I even sat on Arnold Palmer’s lap for a photo shoot as a little girl, not knowing who he was or what golf was. And then when my husband was playing so much and I wanted to try, I was reunited with the March of Dimes as the community director for Hudson County. I thought that was my purpose because I'm thinking I'm back with the March of Dimes, and I'm living, walking, talking, breathing it. It's been my whole life of being a person with a disability. And then I got five years into it and they had a big reorganization and I got a phone call. They said I was no longer an employee of March of Dimes, that they laid off people. They said they laid off 150 positions. Then a friend of mine challenged me and told me I had something with golf because I was using my golf abilities to talk about my disability, which brought attention to my birth defect and the fact that I was able to play golf, network and find sponsorships, that kind of business relationship stuff. We started Googling. I was just going to be a website or a resource, and then someone told me it’s a very untapped topic in the golf industry. Not that it hasn’t been spoken about but that nobody’s ever really picked up on it right. Everybody hears that it's a wonderful idea, but nothing really was coming back to the other organizations that pioneered this. So what pushed me into getting the nonprofit to the PGA was calling Reed Expo – the organization that puts on the annual PGA Merchandise Show – and told them they had all these amazing adaptive resources that have pride to be present at the show – usually in the form of one booth lost in the sea of all the other booths. And I asked them if they would ever consider putting in an adaptive resource section? And they said yes. So for the last five years, there’s been a platform at the PGA Show for all things adaptive golf, and it seems to have just exploded into the industry's knowledge and exposure. It's awesome. The biggest challenge was lack of exposure. We can talk about it, but if you've never seen it, then you've never felt it. We now have a designated hitting area for us – with 30 or 40 adaptive athletes hitting balls. And if you’re walking by there, you have to stop and just watch and take notice.
What’s your biggest message?
Trying to help create that how in people instead of asking if they can. Because even self talk will come back as a no – you have two knee replacements, a hip replacement, scoliosis in your back, etc. So, I ask myself how can I do it? I've already decided to do it but just have to figure out how. That's my end goal. We just use golf as the conduit.
Looking back now, I’m thankful for that March of Dimes layoff call because it sparked me to create Adaptive GolfHers. And it also already gave me the foundation of a nonprofit and how to work this. So I sat down ready to go. Where we're going now is the relationship with Power Tee – I really didn't try to focus on the business side of it more so than the message side of it. And I’ve built these amazing relationships with these different products, services, resources and organizations that are out there. And the conversation now back with Power Tee is bringing awareness to another population that could use that product and may get even more benefit from it. We're now talking about ability, rehabilitative and physical therapy, and using golf as a physical therapy, as opposed to thinking about it coming from the golf industry side. This is all going into the allied health and rehabilitative industries, which I'm also very active in because those are my individuals that I'm trying to get all these resources for in the first place. Which is why the organization is called Adaptive GolfHers – it's about golfers first. I'm not from the golf industry. I'm not a PGA Teaching Professional although I'm going to teach PGA and LPGA pros that interact within the golf industry. This other approach is to not put golf into somebody but rather bring somebody's abilities to golf and find out the best way for them. We go into senior homes, clear out the dining area and move the tables, and we'll bring the residents down – many of whom are lethargic – and we’ll putt around in the dining area around some blue painters’ tape on the floor that line holes. And they’re sitting up tall and enjoying an activity like that. Or in a hospital where kids that are terminal and bedridden – how can we help bring them some joy and a sense of fun in their day? We wheel the beds outside with their medical equipment and let them hit balls from their beds. So that's the different aspect of golf and that's where my drive is. I'm trying to empower using golf as a social benefit – which is more the reason why everybody plays golf anyways. It's the one that nobody talks about.
Do you have regular events?
We were up until COVID. Since then, we’re running monthly clinics in collaboration with the PGA Tour Superstores and with TopGolf. Now I get invited to go to other programs and talk to them about setting up an adaptive clinic.
How did you first discover Power Tee?
About four years ago at the PGA Show. Clare from Power Tee and I also have a mutual adaptive athlete friend – John Bell. We want to make people okay with our disability. It's a completely different mindset. Once that switch goes off with someone, most of the time we're used to being tucked away or hidden away or we're doing it to ourselves. If you can just help somebody switch that, and golf is just a conduit to find that switch. But Power Tee’s product is even more powerful in this space with the health and allied health and rehabilitative spaces, where now maybe they look at their system for seated golfers or golfers who have knees or backs or injuries and still want to be able to tee up a ball but physically may have challenges doing so, this is a no-brainer. We run some clinics with the Helen Hayes Hospital in New York, and they have golf on their rehabilitative list of activities. They’ve designed a small range and practice area within their facility on their grounds. Most of those people are knee replacements or amputees, and this is on the rehabilitative stage – just try to get them out of bed and find something they enjoy doing to get them out of bed and get them out of their head. Having something like this at their facility is just taking away one more of those barriers.
What can people expect when they come to see you at the PGA Show Demo Day?
They’re going to experience it our way because we're going to ask them to hit our way. That's what I've been doing at the show for the past five years – trying to help the industry step into our place. And the only way to do that is self-adaptation. So, we'll put you up there in a chair, on the Power Tee. They usually drop the trailer, and we have two Power Tee boxes. We have them hit their way a couple times, and then we'll shift them to hitting our way. And I'll blindfold them, I’ll have them sit on a chair, I'll have them one-hand putt. It's funny because when I blindfold people, the first thing that they think of is what we think of – that they don't think they can do it. And then they hit and realize it goes just about the same as their normal shots. It’s an incredible ‘aha’ moment – that’s the best.