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  • Gina Kim

Pressure of #1

When Dan Brooks, the Duke women’s golf coach, asked me on a recruiting visit if I believed that I could be number one, I confidently exclaimed “Yes!”. Because of this one-word response, my life changed forever. Coach Brooks offered me a spot on the Duke women’s golf team, seeing in me a drive to be the best.

However, I now know that I wasn’t fully confident in my answer. I wanted to impress others, to make them think that I thought I could be the best in the world.

"I worked for hours on end to prove myself, to make the statement of 'I can be number one' my reality."

My golf career before arriving at Duke passed by like a blur. In high school, I enjoyed the accomplishments of making it on the Junior Ryder Cup and Junior Solheim Cup teams, and receiving Rolex First Team All-American.

However, I didn’t enjoy the full experience. I was buried so deep in my thoughts about maintaining my ranking and living up to expectations that I failed to make memories and enjoy the process. My lofty goals consumed me and left me without a clear purpose. After the success I found in junior golf, I transitioned to college with a daunting new goal: to win a national championship and break records. I felt this was the only way I could prove to Coach Brooks that he was correct in choosing me to represent Duke. At my first college tournament in Minnesota, I felt extremely isolated and miserable. I questioned if I fit into the team culture at Duke and if I was measuring up to the standards of a Duke golfer, which were set incredibly high by successful preceding teams. In my college debut, I finished terribly and was crushed.

I had always wanted to be a pro golfer, but freshman fall made me question my goals and values solely based on poor results. I knew that I had to remove the pressure I placed on myself to be a legitimate team member not only to perform like myself, but to simply enjoy the experience of being a Duke athlete. I decided to leave my expectations behind and focus on being kind to myself. I ended up winning the final tournament of freshman fall alongside my teammate Virginia Elena Carta. It was my first glimpse into the winning mentality of trusting and enjoying the process.

The following spring I continued to experience ups and downs. There were moments when I was on top of the world, but even more moments when I felt like a failure. At ACCs my freshman year—a month before NCAAs—I remember shedding tears of anxiety and disappointment on the course. Reforming the result-oriented mindset ingrained in my mentality continued to be a tough obstacle to overcome. With nationals right around the corner, I had my worst meltdown ever. I still distinctly remember telling my assistant coach Jon, “I feel like an absolute failure. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m sorry I’m not doing as well as you and Coach expected me to do when you recruited me.”

Coach Brooks and Jon both had a serious talk with me, emphasizing that they prioritize the development of their players, meaning their mental habits, diligent practice, and personal growth, over their scores. While it did make me feel better, I knew I had to do something to stop feeling miserable and frustrated on the course.

"In the midst of pressure, I made a promise to myself that I would redefine what it meant to be number one in MY own terms."

I had to dig even deeper than I did in the fall to recover a mindset of positive self-talk, and to maintain this mental state even in stressful competition settings. I learned that to perform my best, I needed to release the strain of being number one in results, and instead be my own number one advocate. In the midst of pressure, I made a promise to myself that I would redefine what it meant to be number one in MY own terms

The intense mental preparation led me to win the 2019 NCAA championship with my team. This never would have been possible without going through the struggles I had faced throughout freshman year, and having the self-awareness to change my mentality.

It’s ironic how I achieved my biggest goal of winning a NCAA national championship without worrying about the results themselves. After my freshman year, I realized the purpose of coming to college. I had to go through hardship and question my goals in order to reaffirm them. I knew I had come to the right place.

Sophomore and junior years passed by quickly due to the pandemic. All athletics were put on hold, forcing me to take a refreshing break from golf. It motivated me to not take competition—a huge part of my identity—for granted once the quarantine finally subsided.

Now as a senior I am beginning to look into what the future will look like after Duke. Although it seems daunting, I am extremely excited for the next chapter of my life.

"Golf brings me a sense of purpose and makes me happy, something that my freshman year self— defined by a single-minded, result-oriented mindset — never could have experienced."

I am currently in the process of earning tour status for next year, which is another one of my biggest goals. But my time at Duke isn’t up just yet; I am excited for my last year as a leader of the Duke golf team. After looking up to leaders of the team in the past and questioning if I was good enough, it is a full-circle moment knowing that I am now in a leadership position. In my three years being on the team, I have shifted my focus to being content with myself and working hard each and every day.

Most people only see my accomplishments and success as a score. Maybe they think, “She’s already accomplished everything. She has a perfect life.” But I’m still a work in progress. I still have days where I feel like I’m not doing enough. The more goals I achieve, the more my expectations go up.

"Now being number one doesn’t mean being at the top of the rankings to me; instead, it is being the best version of myself and enjoying my final year of college. "

My chapter at Duke is about to close. It seems like yesterday I was at my first college tournament and walking on East Campus as a wide-eyed freshman. Now, as I walk by the same sites, I feel nostalgia. Coming to Duke was the best decision of my life, and I have grown so much as a golfer and person. Today, if you asked me whether I believe I can be number one, my answer is an authentically confident yes, though for a different reason than years ago. Now, I know I can be number one, not only in results, but in my own happiness.

- Gina Kim

(Photo Credits: Anya Button & Gina Kim)


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