Anya Alvarez is a former LPGA golfer and an advocate for victims of child sex abuse. As part of Sexual Abuse Awareness Month, she shared her story with VICE Sports.
I grew up playing golf, my first love, in the red rocks of Gallup, New Mexico.There is a sadness that looms over the town of 22,000 people, nestled in the middle of Navajo reservation, with its rampant homelessness, drug addiction, and poverty—the consequences of centuries of American policies are obvious even to an outsider. Just off old Route 66, Gallup is a stop for many people just passing through the night, nothing more and nothing less.
I spent the first seven years of my life in Gallup. This is where I learned how to tie my shoes, where I had my first crush on a boy, where I began to understand what pain is, where I learned how to play a game that would change my life, and where I would learn to protect myself.
My father was the head pro of Gallup Municipal Golf Course, a title that he held with pride. The doublewide trailer we called home was fifteen yards from the first tee box, and the pro shop was a mere minute's walk up the hill. Outside my bedroom window, I could see the entire landscape of the course. It was not the greenest of pastures. Brown spots, patches of weed, and dirt, were parts of its makeup. For me, though, that didn't matter—it was a place to play a game I loved.
My father employed me as his little helper to shag balls on the range, put candy on the shelves in the snack bar, and provide assistance when he was re-gripping or re-shafting clubs. When I wasn't busy helping my dad, I was on the range hitting golf balls as hard as I could. My father introduced me to golf as soon as I could walk. Often times I would join him during a round with his friends, and he would allow me to hit a shot on every hole. I soon reached the point where I could play with him and not slow the group down.
There was nothing, and I mean nothing, I loved as much as golf, the excitement of making contact with the golf ball and turf. Even during the winter when snow had fallen, you could find me in my puffy coat, beanie, and gloves trying to swing at old yellow range balls on the range where I had shoveled out the snow.
Ready to hit some more. Courtesy Anya Alvarez
I loved Gallup and the golf course—it was all that I needed and wanted.
Then, when I was six years old, my seemingly perfect world shifted. One day, my parents sat me down in the kitchen and shared the news as simply as one could: "Daddy and Mommy won't be married anymore. We won't all live in the same house at the same time."
Shortly after that, my mother moved with my older sister and me to Tulsa, Oklahoma. The custody arrangement was simple: dad could visit whenever he wanted, holidays would be split down the middle, and I would spend the summers with him in Gallup. But I had to leave the two things I loved most, my father and my golf course. I loved my mother, too, of course, but the bond I shared with my father on the golf course was special and hard to replicate.
The first summer back felt like everything returning to normal: I had my old room, access to unlimited candy bars in the pro shop, and a golf course as my backyard again. Going back to Oklahoma was painful, and I dreaded the end of summer every year. I begged and pleaded with my mother to let me live with my father.
She said yes, reluctantly.
A sign for Gallup along old Route 66. Photo by Staplegunther at English Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0
So at age nine, I moved back to Gallup, but the transition was a little more difficult than I anticipated. I was a shy young girl, and making new friends at school was difficult for me. My father had gotten busier with work. He would get to the golf course every morning at 6:30 and would come home just in time to make dinner at 7 PM. Because of his schedule, he often could not take me to and from school, so he asked a friend of the family, Gilbert, to take on that duty.
I really liked Gilbert. I enjoyed his company since I often felt lonely. He picked up on my sadness and saw a young girl struggling to find herself and make sense of her new surroundings. As he started to volunteer more of his time, coming out on the golf course with me and offering to listen whenever I needed someone to talk to, I felt more connected to him. I even began calling him Uncle Gilbert. Often he would take me to school and on the same day pick me up, and each time he would bring my favorite drink and snack, a 7up and a bag of Cheetos.
Because my father worked so much, I did not get as much time as I thought I would when I moved back. He would watch me play a couple holes, and then have to return to the pro shop. Whatever bond we had on the golf course felt as though it was disintegrating. To make matters worse, he had a girlfriend now, and whatever time I did spend with him also had to include her.
I talked to Gilbert about this. He knew my worries and pain, and the fifty years that separated us made him seem that much wiser. I trusted him.
And soon after that was when the touching began: light grazes over my shirt in the beginning. Then he started to place my hand on his crotch over his jeans. The touching took place in the car on the ride home from school and on the golf course while I played.
The touching turned into kissing and fondling under clothes. He started telling me what a penis was for and what a vagina was, in more explicit terms than that.
He told me this was love. He told me not to tell anyone.
And who could I tell? My father was extremely busy. My mother and sister were back in Oklahoma. I didn't have good friends or any teachers at my school that I trusted enough. Gilbert was my confidante and I did not want to jeopardize a relationship that meant so much to me.
No one had sat me down and said, "Nobody has the right to touch you. Your body is yours, not someone else's." I didn't know that what was happening was necessarily wrong. I was just nine years old.
For six months this took place on and off the golf course. I felt myself becoming agitated when I played, berating myself for hitting bad shots and unable to find enjoyment in the good ones. I began playing less—perhaps because I subconsciously understood if he came on the course with me touching would take place.
Photo by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
On warm day in September, something within me shifted. Premonition took over and said, "Anya, this is not right."
Gilbert had dropped me off at home from school. I was still home alone later when he walked into my house unannounced with a 7up and Cheetos in hand. As I lay on my stomach watching TV, he sat on top of me and started to grind his body against me. I kicked him off, ran out of the house, turned the key into the ignition of a nearby golf cart.
It's hard to articulate what happens when your gut tells you that something is wrong, when you don't understand why it is. The only place I had learned to listen to my instinct was on the golf course. My father taught me, "Anya, always go with the first club that you feel you should hit. It's better to hit a shot committed even if it's the wrong shot, rather than hitting the right shot with uncertainty."
I knew my father was giving a playing lesson, and sped down the hill in a golf cart to hole four, screaming, "Gilbert touched me!" Minutes later Gilbert arrived in another cart, exclaiming that I was a liar. I'll never forget that moment as I clung on to my father because the look in Gilbert's eye—that I had betrayed him—haunted me.
My father demanded that Gilbert leave. Finally, with some hesitation, he did.
My father sat me in the cart so he could finish giving the lesson, consoling me while his student, equally shocked, walked to the green. The memory of riding in the golf cart after being traumatized, only added to the love-hate relationship I had started to develop with golf. (Years later, I asked my father why he continued his playing lesson. He told me that he was so angry he could have killed Gilbert on the spot if given the choice.)
My father pressed charges the following day. I sat in the police office, recounting details of just that day—I was not asked if the molestation had taken place before or if this was just an isolated incident, and I never knew that I needed to report all the other times he preyed upon me.
Gilbert begged my dad to drop the charges, but my father refused. A few days passed, and Gilbert came to our house, to my sacred grounds of the golf course, and tried to kill my father with a shotgun he had purchased at Kmart that day. My father was returning from a board meeting and had just reached the gates of the house, where I was inside with a babysitter. The gun miraculously misfired three times. I remember my father walked into the house, bloody—Gilbert had attempted to beat him with the gun after its intended purpose failed.
It's in that moment that I felt immediate guilt for reporting Gilbert since it almost cost my father's life.
Gilbert fled the scene and was arrested one week later. He and his lawyer struck a plea deal with the judge: he pleaded guilty to attempted homicide in exchange for having the other charges, including criminal sexual contact of a minor, dropped. He was sentenced to ten years in prison.
After the trial, I finished out my school year in Gallup and soon after moved back to Oklahoma. Any counseling my parents sought out for me was quickly rejected—I held on to the guilt and trauma because in my mind it was my fault. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to someone I did not know.
My relationship with golf was never same. For an interlude, it lost its pureness and became a place where I vented my anger rather than expressing my joy. Throughout my junior and then my college career at the University of Washington, I would often cry on the course, and was known for my temper. I never understood the source of my anger because deep down I knew I loved golf and often felt guilt for treating the game as my enemy. After I graduated college, I turned pro. However, even when I qualified for the LPGA, I felt that I could never love the game the way that I once did as a child. My father did his best to help me see that it was not golf that had betrayed me, but it wouldn't be until I stopped playing for a living that I would realize he was right.
Anya and her father. Courtesy Anya Alvarez
Golf is a beautiful sport, and one that has given me so much. It provided me a college education and the opportunity to travel the world. Golf also gave me a platform to take the pain that I endured and turn it into being a voice for other survivors who have at times felt voiceless. In 2012, I partnered with KidSafe Foundation to bring awareness to child sexual abuse and found a strength in me that I did not know existed.
Earlier this year, I made a road trip from Oklahoma to Arizona in February. On my way down Route 66, I decided to stop in Gallup. It had been ten years since I had last visited. The course was closed for the season, but I snuck on with a golf club and balls and walked to the fourth hole. I did not go to that hole with the purpose of reliving the pain, but rather to face it and to remind myself how far I have come. Once I got there, though, I fell to my knees and began to cry. The golf course was not the course I remembered as a child. A place that had once been beautiful to was now just a dirt patch, with weeds serving as grass. Here I was, accomplished, someone who had overcome so many obstacles, finally blossoming into the person I have always wanted to become. The golf course served a stark contrast: ugly, deteriorating, with no life.
But as I stood there I realized how courageous I had been at this spot 18 years ago, standing up for myself without even being fully aware of what I was protecting in that moment.
Despite those painful memories, the course reminded me of so many great moments, too. This was where I broke 40 from the men's tees when I was 11 years old. It was the course where I would play with two golf balls, and where I would compete against an imaginary Jack Nicklaus—I would always win by one stroke because I didn't want to beat him too badly. It's the course where my father took pride in me excelling, and where we shared so many happy hours playing together, and where I cherished the moments we did have on the course. It's the course where I learned to be brave and where I learned resilience.
I took my two golf balls and placed them on the ground. I inhaled, and reminded myself that what happened no longer had control over me. The club dangled in my hand, I set up, and hit the two golf balls, watching them soar in the air. Those two swings reminded me of what it meant to be free from pain, to find acceptance, and brought me back to the moment I fell in love with golf.
One in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. Preventing abuse is just as important as dealing with it after it happens. For more information, visit www.kidsafefoundation.org.