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RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Fifteen years after being diagnosed with the spine deformity scoliosis, Stacy Lewis has arrived at a pinnacle of women's golf.
Lewis, 26, rebounded after losing a three-stroke lead early in the third round and captured the Kraft Nabisco Championship -- the LPGA season's first major -- by three strokes Sunday over defending titlist Yani Tseng for her first LPGA Tour victory.
"It's unbelievable; I can't even believe it. I felt like I was going to throw up all day," said Lewis, who wore a back brace for seven and a half years and then had spinal surgery at age 18, delaying what would become a four-time All-America career at the University of Arkansas.
Lewis' recovery from scoliosis has resulted in awards and golf magazine cover stories, but her achievements have also provided inspiration to young athletes and others whose lives are in jeopardy.
Last December, Lewis traveled with her mother to Africa for two weeks to try to better the lives of HIV/AIDS affected orphans through an organization called Golf Fore Africa started by LPGA Hall of Famer Betsy King.
"I saw things there I never thought I'd ever see in my life," said Lewis, who met the young girl she sponsors on her trip to Rwanda. "It was such a shock to me that people live the way that they do [there], but they are so happy and so grateful. It just makes me thankful for everything that I have. [The trip] gave me a renewed purpose of what I'm doing out here."
Lewis' ascension to her first LPGA title in the tournament's 40th anniversary edition not only involved her scoliosis recovery, but overcoming self doubt. After a distinguished career at Arkansas, Lewis turned pro in the summer of 2008. Three weeks later in the U.S. Women's Open, her first tournament as a pro, she finished third after leading through three rounds.
But her immediate success didn't continue, and Lewis was not able to secure exemption status for 2009 without returning to qualifying school.
"I thought coming off that Open it would be kind of instant success and I'd be rolling right along," she said. "But I kind of hit a rut a little bit at the end of my rookie year, and I was kind of lost.
"I was, well, it didn't help I was halfway across the world by myself playing in Japan and Korea and all that for the first time, and I wasn't playing good golf. I didn't know what I was doing with my swing, and it was kind of like why am I doing this? What am I doing out here?"
Lewis now knows exactly why she's on the LPGA Tour. She beat the world's best player, she earned $300,000, the biggest paycheck of her career. And she provided a keen example that athletic success is attainable despite severe adversity.