Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Sports

EYES WIDE OPEN

Nicole Jeray has heard all the jokes about sleeping on the job. Over the years, she has learned to laugh at herself when she awakens in the fairway during golf tournament rounds or on greens when it is her time to putt.

Her life as a touring professional has been anything but typical since 1996, when she was found to have narcolepsy, which the Mayo Clinic describes as a "chronic sleep disorder characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep."

But she has persisted since her 1994 rookie season on the LPGA Tour. Last week, Jeray, 45, went to the LPGA's annual qualifying tournament for the 22nd year, competing against a field that included 21 players younger than 22.

For most players, the week of Q-School is the most dreaded time of the year, but Jeray knows the two courses at LPGA International in Daytona Beach as well as anyone. In 22 trips to Q-School, Jeray has earned full LPGA status seven times, gained partial status eight times and left with nothing seven times. She missed the event's 72-hole tournament cut in 2014 for the first time.

This year, she retained partial status by tying for 36th at even-par 360 for five rounds. Her only hiccup came in the final round Sunday, when she played the last four holes at 4-over par.

"I suppose I ran out of gas when those last holes played dead into the wind, and I let them get to me," said Jeray, of Berwyn, Ill. "But at least I improved my status and will get some LPGA starts next year."

Jeray said she should play every tournament the way she played at Q-School. She seems to perform better under pressure, she said, "maybe because I want it really bad."

That determination showed on three golf tours this year. She competed all season on the Symetra Tour as the oldest player, recording two top-10 finishes and five top-20s in 21 Symetra events. She played in two LPGA Tour events but missed the cuts.

And Jeray earned a starting spot as the youngest player in the 45-and-over field at the Legends Tour's Walgreens Charity Championship in November through a qualifying tournament with a birdie in a four-way playoff. She capped off the event alongside her LPGA idols by posting the low round with a final-round score of 66 to finish second, edging out the tour veterans Pat Hurst, Juli Inkster and Rosie Jones by one shot. That runner-up Legends Tour finish was worth $18,000 — Jeray's largest professional paycheck, and only $576 less than what she earned on the Symetra Tour this year.

"I didn't expect to finish second, but I wanted to play decent golf because I've been playing well all year," said Jeray, who has three wins in her Symetra Tour career.

But she has not always been able to meet her expectations because of the debilitating effects of narcolepsy. She has also wrestled with associated ailments: temporary sleep paralysis, in which she can hear and see what is going on around her but cannot awaken, and cataplexy, a weakness and loss of motor control often triggered by strong emotion, especially laughter.

"If she gets too jacked up, she falls asleep," said her boyfriend, Jody Keepers, who was her caddie at Q-School. "She has to stay completely level emotionally for five hours just to play a tournament, which means she can't get too excited about birdies or mad about bogeys."

Before Jeray was properly medicated, driving to tournaments was nightmarish. She said she had been stopped by the police at least five times for falling asleep at the wheel and had two fender benders.

Once, she awakened to see her front bumper underneath the back of a tractor-trailer going 70 mph.

"When I woke up, all I saw was the back of that truck, and I slammed on brakes and fishtailed all over the place," she said. "It's a total miracle my car didn't flip."

Another time, while struggling to stay awake while driving, she stopped at a gas station, and officers in three police cars made her get out of the car and take a sobriety test. She ended up getting a police escort to her hotel.

Jeray's cataplexy has been another problem that stems from emotional response. She has become too excited about perfect drives and passed out on the tee box. And she has laughed so hard, she has fallen down steps or off counter stools while eating.

"People have no idea what she goes through every day just to live, much less play professional golf," Keepers said.

Jeray also experienced sleep paralysis in her travels, as she did on a plane while returning from a tournament in Asia. When it was time to disembark, Jeray could hear the voices around her, but she could not move. Flight attendants called security, and after a while, Jeray finally roused.

"It's an awful feeling not to be able to wake up," she said. "It could be a dream that the plane is landing or it could real, but I can't tell the difference."

Jeray found relief in 2000, when she was referred to a sleep specialist while playing a tournament in Houston. Dr. Todd Swick, a neurologist who is the medical director of Houston Sleep and Neurology Associates, switched Jeray's prescription to help stabilize her symptoms.

"When I first met Nicole, she was having cataplexy five to 10 times a day," Swick said. "Now, she may experience it once or twice a month, her daytime alertness is controlled, and her personal and professional quality of life has improved."

Swick estimates that 1 in 1,500 people has narcolepsy, which typically starts in adolescence. Often, it is mistaken for depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"About 70 percent of patients are misdiagnosed," he said. "It's very common to misdiagnose it because narcolepsy is not really on anybody's radar."

But it is a concern for Jeray, who attended a Narcolepsy Network Conference in 2000 to learn more about the disorder. She made changes in her food and water consumption, began taking regular short naps and gained awareness of how her physical health affected narcolepsy.

"I was young and just kept going, never thinking about how dangerous I was," she said. "My doctors never told me not to drive, and I didn't tell anybody this stuff was happening all the time because it was embarrassing. I tried to hide it."

Now, Jeray speaks at conferences about narcolepsy, raises money for national support groups and education, and says she feels better than ever.

She acknowledged her disappointment in failing to earn full LPGA status for 2016. But Jeray appreciates her journey.

"My goal when I played golf used to be to stay awake for 18 holes," she said. "Now, I want to give others with this disorder incentive to go out and live their lives."

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