MONTAGUE – Orianna Bylsma was born in Changsha, the capital of China’s Hunan province. She was abandoned on the steps of the Lanshan Xian County welfare building.
Nobody could have imagined her fate at the time, but nearly 18 years later, she is an Americanized teenager who possesses a million-dollar smile, indiscriminating kindness, intelligence and many talents, including a picture-perfect golf swing.
Dan and Sandra Bylsma adopted Orianna when she was 14 months old. They’ve provided a loving and nurturing home for their daughter in Montague, which is all she’s ever really known.
Orianna Bylsma now is a senior at Montague High School. She’s the No. 1 player on the Wildcats’ reigning Division 4 state champion girls golf team. She’s a returning first-team all-state performer. In the coming months, she’ll be looking to leave home and begin the next chapter of her life in college.
Bylsma is destined to make a difference in the world, wherever she lands and in whatever she pursues, but Montague will always hold a special place in her heart.
“I think it’s really important to still remember where I’ve come from and to be appreciative of life here,” she said. “I would say I’m pretty Americanized now. I don’t really have any memories of China.
“Being in Montague, especially with the small community, everyone really knows everyone. It’s really amazing because no one’s ever been like, ‘Hey, Asian,’ or something or really criticized where I’ve come from or how I look and that’s really amazing because I know that sometimes people aren’t that lucky.”
Photos by Cody Ottinger and Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
‘WE WANT A FAMILY’
When Dan and Sandra Bylsma married and decided to start a family, they had some trouble conceiving and visited a fertility doctor.
It was that moment when the realization hit them.
“Dan was like, ‘You know what, are we trying to recreate ourselves or are we trying to have a family?’” Sandra Bylsma recalled. “And we were like, ‘We want a family,’ and we got up and left (the doctor’s office).”
It took two years of paperwork and a 13-hour flight from Chicago over the polar cap to Beijing, plus some other hurdles here and there, but Orianna Bylsma’s “Gotcha Day” was April 4, 2005. Her birthdate on the Gregorian calendar is Jan. 21, 2004. On the lunar calendar, it’s Dec. 21, 2003.
Her mother said that only 1 percent of children who are abandoned in China are adopted into the U.S. In Sandra Bylsma’s words, they’re considered “the lucky ones.”
When Orianna was in first grade, the Bylsmas brought in an exchange student named Xin Peng, a high school senior at the time, who just so happened to be from the same birthplace as their daughter.
Orianna Bylsma hails from the spice capital of China, located in a bowl up in a mountain, an “entirely different world,” Sandra Bylsma said.
Orianna does things with pizzazz, especially on the golf course. She’s a model student with a weighted GPA exceeding 4.0, a talented flutist who has performed nationally and internationally, and a sneaky good artist.
In China, she was considered “an old soul” from birth. She’s always smiling, proudly revealing her braces, but she admits part of the reason for that is nervous energy. For example, she still gets butterflies on the first tee of every golf event.
“I guess I’m just a giggly person. Like, when I get nervous, I start to smile or giggle,” Bylsma said. “And especially in, like, serious situations when you’re supposed to be serious, it’s kind of awkward for me not to just smile and kind of break the ice or something.”
Said senior friend and Montague golf teammate Gabby Moreau: “I love Ori. She’s a positive energy. … I think golf’s brought us a lot closer. She makes me happy. When she smiles, I smile because she has a really contagious, like, happy energy.”
‘GOD-GIVEN’ GOLF SWING
Bylsma also has a golf swing that Montague coach Phil Kerr calls “God-given.” Since her parents put a putter in her hands around the age of 3, she’s become enamored with the sport.
That is no coincidence. In 1965, her mother’s late father, Malcolm Jackson, began building Hickory Knoll Golf Course in Whitehall. Jackson was the builder, owner, designer and operator of the 36-hole course. The property is still family-owned and operated by Sandra and Dan Bylsma along with her sisters and their spouses.
Orianna works at Hickory Knoll in the summer, and of course she and her friends get plenty of opportunities to play the course.
“She’s got a beautiful swing. Her swing, just in general, is probably her biggest strength,” Kerr said. “When you put it on camera and when you go talk to like her teaching pro that she works with, I mean there’s nothing to fix. I wish I had her swing, you know what I mean?
“She’s such a good ball striker, her swing is pretty much flawless, and her length gives her a huge advantage both off the tee and then into greens. She’s streaky – she can miss a couple shots and have an off-nine, but then she can go on birdie and par runs that separate her from the field.”
Bylsma is a big hitter — she averages about 225 to 230 yards including carry off the tee – but she’s more than that. Kerr said she’s worked very hard on her short game.
Bylsma has shown great improvement since her freshman season, when she averaged 107 for 18 holes and never broke 100. As a sophomore, she averaged 93. In her junior season, she lowered that number to 87 and finished fifth individually at the state finals. This season, she’s averaging 84 with her low round a 78 she shot at the Whitehall Invitational at White Lake Golf Club.
She attributes much of her golf development to work in the weight room. Kerr laughs when he thinks back to scrawny version of Bylsma of her younger years. But now, despite standing on 5-foot-2, she’s power-packed and her coach said she can “really bomb it off the tee.”
“I’ve been in a weight-training class since sophomore year and I’ve noticed I’ve been able to lift more weight, which leads to hitting longer drives and other shots. I’ve probably gained 20 yards on every club since sophomore year,” Bylsma said. “I really enjoy working out and seeing the progress with how much weight I can lift in the weight room and how it transfers over to the course.”
BIG THINGS AHEAD
Bylsma and the Wildcats have enjoyed another big golf season, in which they’ve defended their Greater Muskegon Athletic Association title. Last week, they established a new school record of 334 on the Forest Akers West course where last year they ran away with their school’s first-ever state title for a girls sport.
On Tuesday, Montague begins defense of its state championship in a Division 4 regional at Katke Golf Course on the campus of Ferris State University. Should the Wildcats win that regional or at least qualify there for the state finals, they’ll compete Oct. 15-16 at Forest Akers East.
Bylsma said that last year everything fell into place for the Wildcats, that the whole season was a highlight. She’s confident that they can repeat the feat.
She would like to golf in college – Kerr said Division II programs are showing interest – but ultimately she wants to become a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
Sandra Bylsma said that anything her daughter’s put her mind to, she’s accomplished. Orianna does not have a curfew – her parents tell her to be home at a reasonable hour and she is. Often, she’s in bed at an early hour compared to other teens, again speaking to the “old soul” in her.
Orianna Bylsma is very conscientious and grateful for her life.
“It’s just been an amazing experience, especially being adopted. I’m just so lucky to have a family like ours. I don’t even feel like I’m adopted sometimes,” she said.
“It’s just been really amazing to just have all these great things happen, especially like with golf and my family life.”
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