You bring your life to work with you – your successes, your failures, your fears and your history. At some point they all come back. That goes for the awful experiences, too, the things you’d like to forget; the things you wish had never happened; the things you’ve pushed down so deep that you sometimes believe they have no impact. In reality, with the dispassionate eye of distance, you come to know that the terrible things have molded almost all that has followed.
LPGA Tour player Madelene Sagström was sexually abused as a young girl. Like so many survivors, that moment shaped her for many years after.
In an emotional video and first-person piece released today on LPGA.com as part of its Drive On campaign, Sagström details how she suppressed the episode, how the trauma and stigma of being a sexual-abuse survivor affected her for years thereafter.
Growing up in Enköping, Sweden, about an hour’s drive from Stockholm, the defending champion at this week’s Gainbridge LPGA rode her bike and ran around her neighborhood, assuming, as many kids do, that every person was a friend. One afternoon she went inside a man’s home, someone she knew, without a second thought. That man assaulted her.
She was 7 years old.
“For years, I immersed myself in golf,” Sagström wrote. “Golf became my savior. I could lose myself in the game. And when I played well, I was OK.
“That became a pattern. If I could just play a little better, I thought I’d be happier. Then I carried it a step further. If I could just be a little skinnier, a little nicer, a little more likable …
“What I didn’t realize is that I simply did not like who I was. I felt insecure – never thinking that I was worthy enough or good enough. I didn’t like who I saw in the mirror. I couldn’t even put body lotion on my legs because of how much I hated my body, hated myself, all because of what someone else did to me.”
She responded as many survivors do: She pushed the experience away. “It was one of those things that I kept trying to shovel under the rug and say, ‘No, no, that probably didn’t happen,’ ” Sagström said. “I went home and I didn’t say anything for 16 years. I think the biggest reason I didn’t tell anybody was, mostly, shame. I was like, ‘I should have known better.’ ”
The cycle continued throughout her successful junior and amateur career. A Swedish junior champion and an All-America at Louisiana State University, Sagström used golf as a salve on an emotional wound.
“I was searching for perfection,” Sagström said in an interview just before the story went public on LPGA.com. “I was searching to become the best player I could be. Now, afterwards, when I look back at it, I was missing the person, Madelene. I was just focusing on the golfer.
“So (golf) did save me in a sense because it was all I put my focus and energy on. And I became really, really good at it. It was hard because I didn’t identify myself with anything else. I didn’t like who I was as a person when I was growing up. But I liked myself as a golfer. So, I knew that if I spent more and more time on (golf), I was going to be fine.”
(Sagström) told Karlsson what had happened to her. It was the first time she had verbalized the abuse to anyone. Freeing sobs followed.
She wasn’t fine. Her emotional swings on the golf course held her back. Then, in 2016, while working with PGA Tour player and former European Ryder Cup team member, Robert Karlsson, Sagström had a breakthrough. The two were together in a hotel room in Greenwood, South Carolina, during a Symetra Tour stop when Karlsson helped get to the heart of the matter.
“He was really pushing me, saying, ‘Dig deeper. Why do you think you react this way on the golf course?’ ” Sagström said.
She told Karlsson what had happened to her. It was the first time she had verbalized the abuse to anyone. Freeing sobs followed.
“It was a strong, emotional thing for me that she trusted me enough to tell me,” Karlsson wrote on LPGA.com. “But I could also see that it was a relief for her to talk about it.
“After that, I think she relaxed a lot more in herself and became a lot more comfortable in her own skin. She became less sensitive to what happened around her, especially when she played poorly.”
“This was something I was never going to tell anybody,” Sagström said before making the story public. “It was a story and an experience that was deeply hidden within me. I was never going to share that with anybody. And I just realized when I started working with Robert, this has changed me. This has made me who I am today. I just wanted to become a better … first of all, a better person and also, I wanted to become a better athlete.
“I really started to dig deep inside myself and figure out what affects me. What am I holding back? What can I do to grow? This (episode of abuse) was one of the things that has really played a huge part in my life. It has really affected me in every way. So, I started digging in. When I started talking about my story and the abuse that I experienced, I’ve blossomed even more on a personal level. It was just an amazing freedom to let it out, to just say it and be, OK, it’s out there now.”
It is out there now in a bigger way than she might have imagined. People who have never followed the LPGA Tour and might not know Sagström’s name will know her story. But she says she is ready.
“Absolutely,” she said when asked if she was prepared for the recognition that will come from going public in such a big way. “I just want to share this with people to say that you’re not alone. All I want to do is to catch that one person and help one person.
“I just want to help somebody else who is out there.”
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