When Sophia Popov won the AIG Women’s Open last month, the victory did not just change her life on the golf course. It provided her with a platform to speak out on the devastating effects of Lyme disease.
In February 2015, when Popov began to fall ill, the reason for her symptoms was completely unknown to the young German golfer, who was starting out as a professional.
“I started feeling a couple of the symptoms at the end of 2014,” Popov said, “but it really hit me in 2015. I remember when I was in Australia, and I think it was in February where it was kind of the worst. That’s where I was also in a lot of pain, I had a lot of stomach issues and couldn’t really figure out what was going on because previously I just hadn’t had anything like it.”
What Popov did not realise was that she had contracted Lyme disease. Unfortunately for Popov, particularly with a disease that responds well to fast diagnosis, she did not find out for another two years.
“It took until the end of 2017 to diagnose it,” she said. “So almost three years, I would say, before they could actually pinpoint what it was.”
Those three years proved unbelievably tough for Popov. The lack of a diagnosis meant an adverse effect not only on her golf game, but dangerous effects on her health and well-being too.
“I lost a lot of weight during those years, I lost close to 20-25 pounds, which I honestly didn’t really have to lose. I was very tiny, very skinny, and still trying to hit it just as hard and just as far as I did before, but I wasn’t quite getting there,” she explained.
“It was very frustrating because my stomach issues were very bad and I had a hard time keeping down any food. So I had to find a way to get enough food into my system, but I would go four or five days in a row where I’d just feel like: ‘I can’t keep anything down, I’m not hungry, nothing seems appetising.’
“The only things that was halfway appetising were unhealthier things. Obviously it’s the way they smell, the salt in them. But anything I was used to eating, which was very healthy, I just looked at it and thought: ‘Ugh, I just don’t want to.’
“So that made me lose a lot of weight, and I had a lot of other symptoms like fatigue. I would just be very sleepy, and it was very hard because I reduced my practice. I’d be like, ‘alright, you’re going out for an hour or two hours and you have to be really focused, and then when you get back you can take a nap’, and I would take three- or four-hour naps, have dinner, and then go to bed at nine, and just sleep for the rest of the night. So it was pretty brutal, especially in 2015 and 2016.”
Before Popov discovered exactly what was causing her illness, she began to take matters into her own hands. In a bid to reinvigorate her body and try to conquer her sluggish fatigue, the then-24-year-old adopted a radical lifestyle change.
“In 2017 I started, without even knowing what was going on, just completely changing my diet, and switching to a lot of liquids, so juices and smoothies, just to make sure that I was gaining enough weight and was able to basically have the energy to compete out there,” she said.
“I could feel like it was a little bit of a detox I was going through, and I started feeling better and my stomach started getting better, so I think that that helped initially, and then when I got the diagnosis at the end of 2017, I went on a really, really strict diet.
“I did all this research, and I bought a bunch of books of how to naturally heal Lyme disease, because I had been through a lot of medication at that point, and I just didn’t think that my body was even reacting to any of it anymore.
"So, I wanted to find an alternative way, and I’ve always been a big believer in food being the greatest medicine that we have, so I changed my diet to be extreme for about four weeks, and from then on I switched to basically a vegan diet, and that was honestly a 180-degree change for me.
“I had way more energy, I woke up by myself in the morning, I didn’t have to set all my alarms. I was way more alert during all my workouts and practice, and it was very cool. I hadn’t felt it in three years, I can’t even remember how my life was before it got changed so drastically, so just feeling that was really incredible. It was awesome!”
Popov’s improving health slowly but surely led to improved golf, and after deciding to stick with the game when on the verge of quitting in 2019, she has never looked back, eventually claiming the 2020 AIG Women’s Open in incredible style.
The German still keeps to a strict diet, even if it perhaps not quite as strict as it used to be.
“In 2017 I was super, super strict, but now I’d say I’m 90% vegan still, but here and there I have my cheat meals once a week or something. I’ll eat a little bit of shrimp, it’s usually in the seafood direction because I love seafood," she said.
"The biggest thing for me is no sugar, I try to completely stay away from sugar, because I’ve come to realise over time that’s the thing that affects it the most. It makes my symptoms the worst.
“When I’m celebrating something, I’m going to have alcohol, but then I go four or five weeks without any, because even just two or three days in a row of having alcohol I always wake up in the morning a lot more groggy. And not in the way that everyone is like ‘yeah, of course, you’re hungover’, it’s a different feeling.
“I’ll have one glass of wine, and I can feel my stomach doing weird things, it’s just not quite right. It’s unfortunate because I do love a glass of wine here and there, but I have to pick the right moments. Last month was absolutely a right moment, I definitely had a couple of drinks out of that trophy!”
While Popov’s recovery, from her dark days of suffering to buoyant jubilance in recent months, is inspiring to all, it is the platform she now can stand upon to tell of her struggles that is the greatest gift of all for the recently minted AIG Women’s Open champion, as evidenced by her recent Open Letter to her LPGA ‘sisters’.
“The win has changed my life in ways I couldn’t have probably imagined before, but in a great way. There were a lot of things that I wanted to do, and advocate for in my life, and I think one big one was going to be Lyme disease, and I just never had the platform to do that. It was like, where am I really coming from, I’m an average tour player, and I just don’t have that voice.
“I think now, the greatest part about this is having that voice to speak out, especially about Lyme disease because it’s way bigger than people think it is. It’s out there a lot, there’s a lot of people that probably have it that don’t know they have it, and it’s just something that doesn’t get enough attention, so it’s really nice because now I can actually use my voice to speak out about it.
“And I think that’s probably the biggest thing for me, to know that I have a platform, whether it’s on social media or just in general, to actually make a change and just give people hope that are struggling with health issues, because I’m not the only one.”