Wiedmer: No one has turned tragedy to triumph better than Jordan Thomas

Staff file photo / Jordan Thomas, former McCallie golfer, practices at Bear Trace Golf Course in 2012.

Jordan Thomas had every reason to cry, mope, fall into the worst depression imaginable that August afternoon in 2005. He was 16 years old and about to enter his junior year at McCallie School when every dream he'd ever had for his life was shattered.

A boating accident led to both of Thomas's legs being amputated just below the knees. No longer would he seemingly be able to play golf on a competitive level. No longer would he move through life on two strong legs as he always had, swatting the little white ball well enough to become captain of the Blue Tornado golf team.

No longer would he have the chance build on a junior career as, in his words with a slight chuckle in his voice: "Probably the most prolific junior golfer in the history of the Vince Gill Junior Golf Tour."

And there have been times that tragedy has momentarily gotten the best of him. In recalling that awful day 17 years ago, Thomas said recently, "There are days when I think, 'Why did this happen?' or days when I'm really struggling, and people don't see that. They don't see the behind-the-doors stuff the challenges I face on a day-to-day basis."

And those are emotions any of us could understand, if not be consumed by.

But that's not the emotions or mindset that Thomas held most tight to his heart and soul in his darkest hour. Instead, looking around at other young people in the same physical shape as him - but kids whose families didn't have the same financial advantages his did - Thomas was moved to start the Jordan Thomas Foundation not 10 days after his accident. Its goal was to provide artificial limbs for young folks in need until they turned 18.

"I just remember seeing so many kids who didn't have parents, didn't have health care," Thomas told CNN a few years back. "I just knew that the future was grim for them."

Seventeen years later, the Foundation has raised at least $4 million and is currently supplying over 80 young people with the prostheses they need to have an active life.

photo Staff file photo / Jordan Thomas poses with fans at a "CNN Heroes," rally at The Hunter Museum of Art at the Bluff View Art District in Chattanooga in 2009. Thomas lost both his legs below the knees in a 2005 boating accident and shortly thereafter was inspired to start the Jordan Thomas Foundation to raise money for children and teenagers in need of prosthetics.

"Kids outgrow prostheses like they outgrow shoes," said Thomas. "They usually need to be replaced every 12 months, 18 months at the most. And they're not cheap. They can run $50,000 for a single prosthesis. Plus, insurance often doesn't cover 'activity limbs.' That is why we are committed to assuring that every child has access to the prostheses they need to do whatever they want to do in life. Limbs are not a luxury. So we're also constantly working with insurance agencies to help get these prostheses covered."

This how the 33-year-old Thomas has made life better for others. This is why he was a Top Ten CNN Hero of the Year in 2009, winning the National Courage Award that same year. It's also why he was named a Tennessee Ambassador of Goodwill and Point of Light recipient in 2020.

And all that acclaim for his philanthropic endeavors is well deserved, overwhelmingly so.

But on July 20, atop Pinehurst's No. 6 golf course, Thomas accomplished something for himself, something no one could give him, but something he had to earn with the golf skills most believed he had lost forever. On that hot and humid day, Thomas won a much-coveted United States Golf Association medal for obliterating the field in the inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open's Multiple Limbs Amputee Flight. Crushing that division by 18 strokes, Thomas finished a stunning fifth overall with a three-day score of 226, which also earned him low amateur honors.

I've probably had over one thousand messages from people with ties to McCallie," said Thomas. "It's been constant messaging since I won. People from all over the country. And what a wonderful opportunity this has been to get some attention for the Foundation."

The Foundation is never far away from his thoughts, even when he's competing for a USGA medal.

"Man, it's the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, every single day of my life," he once told Golf magazine. "For me, it's confirmation that I was kept on this planet to do this very thing. The accident may have taken my legs, but it's given me back so much more in the ability to help others."

Yet as much as he understandably loves his charity, golf is also almost always on his mind. And those thoughts are occasionally accompanied by a devilish grin, as when he said in a commercial for some golf shoes: "I couldn't tell you if they're comfortable or not. But they look hot and they'll enable you to hit bombs."

Tiger Woods has nothing on Jordan Thomas as a shoe salesman.

And given all he's accomplished without his lower legs, it would be understandable for Thomas to think what might have been had he not lost them. A major college scholarship perhaps? A PGA Tour card? A spot on the Ryder Cup team?

"I choose to look at it this way," he said a few days ago. "There is no way I'd have a USGA medal around my neck today if I hadn't lost my legs."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.