RICHMOND — When Sofie Levin realized that her athletic ability could, perhaps, land her a scholarship to an American college, the Swedish junior golf star did what one would expect of a 21st-century teenager.
She went on the Internet looking for the right school.
"I feel like everyone back home only knows of Kentucky by 'KFC,'" Levin said, referencing the fried chicken franchise. "But I remembered a couple of girls that I had played with the summer before said they were somewhere in Kentucky."
So on a golf website, she typed in "Kentucky."
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That's how the Stockholm, Sweden, product found Eastern Kentucky University. She is now the sophomore leader (team-low stroke average of 76.19) of the EKU women's golf team and an All-OVC selection.
"She's just been a wonderful player," EKU Coach Mike Whitson said. "Thank goodness for Internet technology."
Yet what makes Levin's story worth telling is not what she does on golf courses. It is what she has overcome in class rooms.
As a child, Levin was introduced to golf by an aunt and uncle who would take her to the driving range on weekends.
The harder she worked at golf, the better Sofie got. She eventually reached the highest level of Swedish junior golf.
Yet Levin's childhood was dominated by a haunting paradox.
In golf, her hard work led to consistent improvement and positive recognition. In school, however, no matter how hard Sofie worked, her academic performance was often panned.
"All through middle school and pre-school, I was always taught that I was being lazy, that I wasn't putting enough time into (studying)," Levin said. "My parents saw that I was trying, but they didn't understand (why her grades didn't show that)."
Sofie says she "was slow to read." Her spelling was never as good as her classmates. Handwriting was not her thing at all.
"Really sloppy," she says. "All the other little girls, they had these little glittery notebooks, all these fancy pens, and they would sit and practice their writing skills. I would be off with the boys playing soccer."
Eventually, the negative reviews coming home from school became self-fulfilling.
"When people just keep on telling you that you are lazy, if people just keep on telling you you are a certain way, then you are going to start acting that way," Levin said. "I've never been a 'school person.' I feel like my attitude toward school was really set because of those comments."
The moment that altered Sofie's life path came in her second year of high school.
"In Sweden, we have kind of like a mentor," she said. "Mine was my sociology professor. We were writing a paper. He kind of sat down with me one day and asked me some questions. He asked me if I'd ever thought there was a reason why I didn't like school or why I was struggling in school?
"Finally, he said 'Have you ever thought about your being dyslexic?' For me, the coin just kind of dropped. I said 'Actually, I haven't. But that would make a whole lot of sense.'"
Dyslexia is a learning disability characterized by difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how those relate to letters and words.
"In my case, I have a decoding problem," Levin said. "My brain won't register what I read. The connection between my eyes and my brain, I guess you'd say, it sort of breaks down."
Her parents, Mickie and Lotta Levin, were relieved, Sofie says, when testing at last provided a rationale for their oldest child's spotty academic record.
Sofie's reaction was more complicated.
"I was upset about it," she said. "... One night, my parents, they said 'Aren't you happy about this? Now we can finally get the help you deserve.' I was like 'Don't you understand? Now we have proof on paper, I'm dumb. I'm stupid.'"
Saying that out loud proved cathartic.
"It was the big step for me in getting over it," Sofie says. "We talked about it. I realized it was not my intelligence. There's nothing wrong with my intelligence. It's just my decoding."
The transition from high school to college is tough under any circumstance. In Sofie's case, she made that move in a foreign country while taking classes in a second language — and still mastering how to deal with a learning disability.
At Eastern, Levin had to be tested again for dyslexia. Once the results of her American test matched the one in Sweden, she was eligible for aid from EKU's Office of Services For Individuals With Disabilities.
"Now, I have extra time on tests," she said. "I have the option of typing stuff out on the computer. If there are bigger assignments, I can get extra time on them."
In lecture classes, Levin does not take notes because she does not retain information that way. Instead, she tapes lectures. If she knows that a test will include a lot of material out of a text book, she will have a tutor read that to her out loud.
"If I've heard it, that is good enough, I will remember it," she said. "But me reading it, it does me no good."
On the golf course, Levin thinks her dyslexia may impact her ability to do the math that the game requires.
She said she's never had any trouble compiling a scorecard, but used to have issues figuring up proper distances before addressing shots. Technology, in the form of laser rangefinders, has alleviated the latter problem.
When she came to EKU, Levin says, her academic goal "was to stay eligible to play golf. I'm not going to lie."
Yet the sociology major recently added a second major in globalization and international affairs.
"I have a 3.0 or 3.1 (GPA)," she said. "My goal was 2.0. So that's better than I thought."
Whitson, the EKU golf coach, says the message that dyslexia can be surmounted is what Levin wants to spread.
"I think a big reason Sofie is willing to talk about her disability is that she wants other kids who have the same issues to see that you can overcome it," he said. "We're proud of what she's accomplished with the challenges she's had. I think, maybe, she's even surprised herself a little bit."