Deachman: Brooke Henderson and the power of role models

The 25-year-old LPGA star stopped by her former elementary school in Smiths Falls, and gave a masterclass in generosity, grace and decency

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After each of the three six-foot putts that Brooke Henderson sank on a recent weekday afternoon, the gallery erupted with loud applause and cheers.

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Mind you, the 25-year-old LPGA star was definitely the hometown favourite: The “gallery” comprised about 50 students from Chimo Elementary School in Smiths Falls, where Henderson attended Grades 5 through 8, as well as handfuls of school staff, former teachers, sponsors, school board officials, family and friends.

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The”green,” meanwhile, was a small putting mat in the school gym, a room that will soon be renamed the Brooke Henderson Gymnasium in honour of the sixth-ranked female golfer in the world.

“This school has meant a lot to me,” Henderson said following the ceremony. “I have some of the best memories here… and it’s amazing they’re going to name the gym after me, because I did enjoy spending a lot of time in here.”

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To watch many of the students’ faces, the greatest honour being bestowed seemed to be that of Henderson’s presence on them. It wasn’t simply the awe of meeting a top-tier athlete and Olympian, although there was certainly some of that. And it wasn’t just the complimentary swag the youngsters received — T-shirt, visor and sports bag — although who doesn’t like free stuff?

Rather, it was Henderson’s generosity, grace and decency; her smile that despite its near-permanence nonetheless felt warm and genuine; her innate ability to relate to others eye-to-eye and make them feel that they matter. As remarkable as her skill is on the course, she is no less deft at shrinking what seems to be an ever-widening chasm between fans and their heroes.

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She lets them know — believe, even — that it could be them standing in her Skechers shoes, or whatever equivalent footwear their particular dreams might produce.

“It’s awesome,” said Grade-6 student Piper Ridge, who sometimes watches golf on TV with her grandfather. “It’s so cool to meet someone that was in the Olympics. And she showed me that I can do what she can. I really like acting, so I might try that.”

“It’s a big part of someone’s life to meet Brooke,” said Madi LeBlanc, also in Grade 6. “She’s an athlete and also a big part of this school, and she showed us that you can honestly pursue anything that you like.” Henderson, LeBlanc said, inspired her to see where volleyball might take her.

“She teaches us that if we work hard, we can do whatever we want,” added Grade-5 student Oliver Krotki.

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Henderson cited her older sister Brittany and fellow LPGA golfer Morgan Pressel as role models when she was growing up. “And we’re friends out on tour now,” she added of Pressel, “which make it really special.”

It’s not surprising that Henderson’s peers on the LPGA tour chose her as the recipient of the 2019 Founders Award, given annually to the player “whose behaviour and deeds best exemplify the spirit, ideals, and values of the LPGA.”

In truth, her behaviour and deeds exemplify the values we should all hold dear.

Henderson on Thursday downplayed any adjustment she might have had in becoming a role model herself at such a young age: she was a month shy of her 18th birthday when she won her first LPGA tour event.

“I’m just trying to be the best that I can all the time, and it’s pretty cool that these kids wanted to come and hear me talk for a few minutes.

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“I hope that I can inspire and motivate them to chase after their passion and their dreams, because life is short, and you want to go after your dreams and goals as much as you can, and make the most out of life.”

According to her former teachers, that attitude has always characterized Henderson, who, while predictably the school’s top female athlete when she graduated in 2011, was also a straight-A student with top honours.

She was, said Kathleen Williamson, who taught French to Henderson in Grades 5 and 8, a driven student who, even at 10, had some sense of where she was going.

“She and (swimmer) Bailey (Andinson) were in my class, and I remember them coming up to me and Brooke saying, ‘Madame, Bailey and I are going to be in the Olympics.’ And I was like ‘’Well, that’s good. Now go sit down.’” Henderson competed in the Olympics in 2016 and 2020. Andison competed in 2020.

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Henderson’s Grade-8 English teacher, Jennifer Strickland, remembers a 13-year-old who took on responsibilities — walking youngsters to school or quietly slipping a lunch to a needy schoolmate — without seeking recognition. “She was a leader in the school, put-together and exemplary, yet did it humbly.

“Then when everyone else was going home to play some gaming system, she’d go to the golf course and hit 200 balls in the rain.”

Tracy Staples taught Henderson the English curriculum in Grade 7 and seemed just as excited and inspired to be there as any of the students. She recalled a positive, conscientious and well-liked student who, while balancing her own sports and academic demands, still made time for others. “She was willing to do anything to help her fellow classmates. She was a true ambassador for the school, participated in all the events and was just a delight to teach. She just led with character, dignity and grace.”

She is, in every sense, a true role model, and one who, while inspiring students to aim as high as they can imagine, hopefully also encourages others to set similar examples.

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