Having enjoyed a stellar 15-year career in the Armed Forces, former REME Platoon Commander Kate Surman had a bright future in front of her. However, after being struck down in 2014 with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that eroded her entire jaw, she has since been forced to deal with some intense hardships and challenges.
Yet despite losing a much-cherished career in the military, and battling the consequences of regular chemotherapy, Surman - with a little help from the On Course Foundation Charity - continues to go from strength to strength, and this year she makes history by becoming the first female Simpson Cup player when she lines up for Team GB at St Andrew's Links in May.
We spoke with her to find out a little bit more about her story. This is what she had to say...
1) Could you please provide a few words on what it means to line up for Team GB in the Simpson Cup this year?
I have had my sights set on the Simpson Cup ever since I first learnt about it 4 or so years ago. To go to the qualifiers for 4 years running has been an incredible learning curve and, particularly after missing the cut by 1 shot last year, it means a huge amount to now be part of the team. It almost feels apt that it has happened the year we are lucky enough to play at the Home of Golf, and I feel full of nervous excitement!
2) Tell us what it means to you to be the first female player to play in the Simpson Cup too...
I think it proves the point that anything is possible if you believe it can happen. i have worked hard for years now to try and prove myself amongst the men, and as a beginner in the golfing world. I have been really surprised by the reaction of the male members of On Course; completely believing in me, and backing me to do it. It's been lovely, and epitomises what the charity is all about - rebuilding that family of people who understand each other, and all that we have lost.
I hope that it makes other ex-servicewomen realise there is no stigma in terms of gender attached to the Simpson Cup. As with many other things, if you think there is a barrier, there often is, but it shouldn't make any difference. And with golf in general the handicap system covers everything. Whoever you are, and whatever your background, gender or disability, having a fair handicap ensures everybody can compete together - again, something that On Course Foundation promotes, and the appeal for all members to not feel singled out or different.
3) Could you please tell us about your time serving in the Armed Forces?
I have no family history in the Armed Forces away from National Service - my family are actually farmers! For me, it all started with enjoying the outdoors, loving sport and realising a nine-to-five job would never float my boat. I threatened to leave school at 16 and work on the farm but my parents said that I should get an education first. I went to a school careers evening and the Army stand drew me in. Being sponsored through University doing an engineering degree, leading men and women helping to protect our country, travelling and playing lots of sport... it felt like I couldn't go too far wrong.
After a year at Sandhurst being put through my paces I commissioned into the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and got posted to Germany as a Platoon Commander. My first day at the Battalion was also the first day of pre-deployment training for Iraq, so I had to learn quickly and hit the ground running! I had a number of very interesting jobs in the Army; from managing a workshop of REME tradesmen, training junior soldiers at The Army Foundation College Harrogate, REME Officer Recruiting, and commanding Gurkha mechanics, to deploying again - this time to Afghanistan with the Cavalry.
Sport was also a huge part of Army life for me, playing anything and everything, while also getting to travel the world playing representative rugby, hockey and a crazy sport called kabaddi!
In total, I was signed on the dotted line in the Army for 15 years.
4) Please tell us more about your battle with cancer? How long have you had Ewing's Sarcoma; the struggles you have faced, and still continue to face?
Before deploying to Afghanistan I tried to get what I thought was a filling that needed to be done. Cut a long story short, the pain got worse and worse throughout my operational tour. I got through it like we all do, thinking people are losing limbs or their lives out here, so just 'crack on'. I took shed loads of painkillers and was embarrassed that I had perhaps eaten too many sweets as a kid, but little did I know my pain was a tumour that had eaten its way through my jaw.
I had to have a gruelling year of very intense chemotherapy back in 2014, with surgery to remove my whole lower jaw and rebuild it using my left fibula. The biggest challenge was dealing with everything at once: losing my hair, my beloved career in the Army, my ability to play sports, my smile, my teeth, my fertility, my freedom. The physical side of things was hard, like learning to talk again, living without teeth and with a weak leg, the torture of chemo and all its side effects. But the mental element has been especially tough - remaining positive and driven when everything seemed to work against me.
I continue to face a number of challenges. Aside from the continual oncology and maxillofacial appointments, scans and x-rays, fertility problems have followed the damaging effects of chemotherapy. I am also still having regular restorative dental work currently, with surgeons still trying to find a way of getting me some teeth.
5) How did you come to be involved with OCF, and how has the organisation helped you over the years?
During my illness prior to medical discharge from the Army I was sent away from the Regiment I was attached to and put into a Personnel Recovery Unit that I was administered under. They got targeted by OCF, and asked me if I would like to attend one of the On Course introductory events. I was very sceptical at the time as I was still wearing a wig and very weak from chemo, but something made me go along.
I'm glad I did, because since then, I have never looked back! Suddenly from feeling very isolated, dealing with medical discharge, the loss of a military career, and physical disfigurement - all alone - I was surrounded by people that 'got it'. I could compare scars and denture plates with others and not feel down about it - instead, actually tease each other with that black military humour and laugh out loud again. On Course gave me something to aspire to; learning a new sport, and a focus on improving my handicap. And, of course, the huge focus of aspiring to be the first lady in the Simpson Cup! On Course helped me accept what has happened to me and establish a new normal.
6) Could you please tell us what a typical day in the life of Kate Surman looks like?
There is certainly no such thing as a typical day for me - every day is different, and that is what typifies me. I am now self-employed in order to factor in all my hospital appointments. I have fingers in many pies, but I have mostly recreated all the things I missed from the Army in my new life. I have set up a small camp-site on the family farm, and maintain and manage that. I love welcoming people to the countryside and meeting different folk from all over the world.
I do the odd bit of farming now and again. I am also a clay pigeon shooting instructor, and teach adults and kids. But I get the most reward from instructing autistic children at a school each week.
Additionally, I do dog sitting/walking. I guide for Blind Veterans UK. I do a lot of freelance leadership development work for different management levels in companies, apprenticeship and graduate schemes, along with team-building days on the farm too.
However, sport and exercise is a common theme in every day for me. I need to do it for my mind as well as my body, and ensure time is spent playing golf, in the gym, cycling, swimming, and basically playing any sport that's going! I am also into travel, my enduro bike, the farm and country pursuits.
7) What does the future hold for you?
Thats a tough one. I would love to know what that looked like! But here goes...
- I would love to have a family one day.
- I would also love some teeth!
- I would love to develop my little campsite into something bigger and better.
- I would love to go on more travelling adventures (I've just returned from a solo motorbike trip through Patagonia).
- I would like to continue to develop people with regards to shooting, leadership, teamwork, their confidence etc and use the countryside as a means to do it.
- Golf-wise, I would love to tee off the first successfully at St Andrews! No, I'd love to win Club Champs at my local club, and perhaps be Lady Captain one day too. Ultimately, I want to get down to single figures, continue to do my ambassador role for OCF and introduce/help more people be involved and benefit from the charity in the same way I have. And hopefully one day I will compete in the Simpson Cup in the US too!
8) Finally, could you please make a prediction for the Simpson Cup, and your thoughts on how to cope with the pressure?
I certainly have to be positive and say that us Brits need to bring it home this year after a few years just ducking out! Coping with the pressure and playing in this format is my single biggest challenge and something that affects me, even at my home club when someone is watching me or I have something on my mind. I think my best coping mechanism is to smile and enjoy the occasion, and gain every bit of experience from it that I can, whatever happens. Being outside your comfort zone really is the only way to develop.