Remembering Riley Grace: Woodruffs’ Faith Perseveres In Spite Of Suffering

  • Wednesday, September 27, 2023
  • Paul Payne

“You are the medicine,

The only cure for everything I feel within

Redeeming what was lost and all that could have been

Oh, this is a healing kind of love

You are the truest friend,

Staying through the night when I was at my end

Comforting my heart till it was light again

Oh, this is a faithful kind of love”

“Names” by Elevation Music & Maverick City

Two years ago, prior to making a cross country move from the Los Angeles suburbs to Chattanooga, Katie Woodruff had a certain music play list that would help pass the time of her two-and-a-half-hour daily commute.

She was traveling from her home into the heart of L.A. for her job as assistant coach with the University of Southern Cal women’s golf team, while her husband, Blaine, served in a similar role with the men’s team at Pepperdine University.

Despite the daily grind of fighting the traffic logjam, Katie used the time as a respite, a haven to meditate and listen to worship music that seemed to nurture her spirit and feed her soul. Never did she imagine how those songs would be instrumental – and essential – in helping her navigate through the unspeakable tragedy that was in her future.

When Blaine accepted his first head coaching position at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the summer of 2022, Katie resigned from her position at USC to follow her husband’s dreams. Shortly after relocating to Chattanooga, the couple discovered they were expecting their first child while on the brink of beginning fertility treatments.

After a perfectly normal pregnancy, the week arrived this March for welcoming their daughter, Riley Grace, into their family. The day after a promising check-up and two days before a scheduled C-section, Katie was rushed to the hospital in labor.

It was there, full of anticipation and excitement, that the couple was given the tragic news that no heartbeat could be detected. Only a day after receiving a clean bill of health, the miracle daughter that they had prepared for months to meet was taken from them due to an umbilical cord incident.

Riley Grace was delivered later that morning, a beautiful baby who was embraced by mourning parents. The immense sorrow was palpable as Blaine and Katie held their daughter, trying to process the events of the previous hours that had turned elation into grief.

But through their faith, they understood that a bigger narrative was unfolding. They recognized that the God they trusted to bring them this daughter would also redeem the tragic events in ways they could never imagine.

Blaine documented the events of their gut-wrenching experience a week later in a poignant recollection posted on The Golf Channel website (https://www.nbcsports.com/golf/news/one-day-well-see-joy-you-make-story-loss-heartbreak-and-hope). Amid their sorrow, they were able to find comfort through many of the worship songs from Katie’s commute time in L.A.

“Since we lost our baby in March, we have experienced a different side of God,” Katie said. “The song ‘Names’ is about the many names of God and how they all describe his nature. A lot of us have heard these powerful names and read them in the Bible but we can’t relate to some of them.

“What I’ve learned is that until we go through things, we won’t really know all the names of our Lord. There are days when my heart is so broken and hurt that I do not know if I have the strength and I just want to hide in my closet. Or the days when my mind is so anxious, worried, and lost that I can’t think straight. And there are days when depression overwhelms, the longings don’t cease, and the tears have no end. This song is a reminder of the power in his names and that he knows these emotions we all feel.”

The past six months of grieving have brought about a renewed sense of healing for Katie. The couple has been given the green light to again add to their family. While the devastation of losing their daughter has gradually subsided, Katie has been able to embrace the bigger picture.

“There’s never been one day when we’ve been angry at God, which is a blessing,” Katie said. “We’ve been devastated and incredibly sad, but never angry. It’s not as gut-wrenching as it was at first. I’m a planner and I like being in control, where everything has to be perfect. God’s opening my eyes to recognize that’s not my job. It’s really freed me up a lot, but it’s still a work in progress. And I’ve got more hope.”

Katie has seen her trust in God mature in the midst of her grieving, and she has embraced the lessons learned during her summer of suffering.

“I read a book recently that explained how we shouldn’t waste our pains,” Katie said. “Don’t waste the challenges God gives you but understand there’s a reason he allowed it. Everything has a purpose, and I’m holding to that. I don’t want to waste the pain. Every day we think of Riley. Her picture is on our mantel. We know she’s our daughter, and that’s sad. But it’s hopeful because we know we’ll see her again.”

The public outpouring from the loss of Riley Grace has helped soothe the Woodruff’s loss, and their faith is fully intact as they move forward with their lives.

“Every night Katie was pregnant with Riley we would pray that she would make an impact more than anything we ever did. She’s done that,” Blaine said. “I still run into coaches who talk about how inspired they are by our story, causing them to search deeper in their own faith. That’s all we can ask for.

“I felt like I had never suffered before, and Katie feels the same way. My idea of suffering was shooting a pair of 80s that should’ve been in the 70s. God chose us for a reason to experience this, so we wanted to be different, for people to see God in us in how we responded. That’s the redemption story right there. We’ll never know how many lives Riley changed or will continue to change.”

Both Katie and Blaine grew up in Christian homes and came to saving faith at a young age. Blaine grew up in Acworth, Ga. before playing collegiately at South Carolina. Katie was from Amelia Island, Fla. and competed for the University of Louisville in college.

They met when Blaine left an assistant coaching role at the University of Wisconsin to join the staff at Pepperdine in 2018, where Katie had been employed for a year and a half. She left for the position at USC the next year, but a friendship rooted in their common faith and love for coaching golf blossomed into their marriage in June of 2020.

The transition to Chattanooga last year for Blaine to become only the third coach in UTC’s history was a difficult decision, but the opportunity to get closer to their families was important.

“It was hard to leave,” Blaine said. “A lot of prayer and discussion went into it. Selfishly I wanted to be a head coach, but we also had a really good thing going in California. We were both assistants at Top 5 programs living in the same city, which doesn’t really exist elsewhere. Katie knew what she was giving up and I owe everything to her for taking this leap of faith with me. She put her career on hold so I could take this opportunity.”

Katie has returned to coaching on an interim basis, joining the women’s staff at Cal for the fall season while the Bears’ head coach is undergoing medical treatments. But she also resumed her competitive amateur career after taking a seven-year sabbatical when she competed in the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur last year early in her pregnancy.

She is slated to compete in the Tennessee Women’s Mid-Amateur that commences Wednesday morning at The Ooltewah Club, teeing it up after a red-eye flight from San Francisco following Cal’s completion of a tournament late on Tuesday.

After being cleared to play following her surgery, Katie won the Council Fire Golf Club women’s club championship in early August. She failed to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur this summer, but she is finding golf as a cathartic outlet for her continued physical and emotional healing.

“I want to win. That’s the only reason I play,” Katie said. “I feel like I’ve been playing well and it’s more about managing the anxiety I’ve experienced after Riley. The golf game is fine, but the anxiety part messes with your senses and confidence. That’s the part I’ve got to battle.”

Blaine will be alongside his wife serving as her caddie, and he considers it one of the easiest gigs imaginable. He also carried her bag last year during the U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier at Chattanooga Golf & Country Club.

“She’s easy to caddie for because everything she hits is dead-straight, so she doesn’t need me for yardages,” Blaine said. “She does depend on me for reading greens for sure.”

Paul Payne can be emailed at paulpayne6249@gmail.com

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