Golf superstar Paige Spiranac is using her SI Swimsuit platform to face the haters and stand up to negativity.

By By Jahla Seppanen
February 25, 2018

Paige Spiranac went viral two years ago as a gorgeous golfer with an expert swing. And now she's one of the 36 women in the 2018 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, alongside the likes of Kate Upton and Ashley Graham. In one SI photo, Spiranac rocks a look reminiscent of Wonder Woman, exuding strength and power. What you can't tell from the photo is that her road to that empowerment was actually quite dark.

With 1.3 million followers "liking" her photos and hundreds of thousands watching her on her golf YouTube channel, Spiranac became a symbol of controversy as reporters and fellow golfers threw shade about her Spandex outfits and viciously targeted her morals, athletic talent, and even her family. Although the scale of this hate was new to her, Spiranac tells Shape, "for as long as I can remember, I've been bullied."

"Growing up, I had a hair condition where my hair would fall out easily, and I had bad asthma," she says. "The kids thought I was weird, or thought I had diseases, so they spit in my drinks and threw rocks at me, saying 'stand 10 feet away from her at all times.'"

This harassment led Spiranac's parents to homeschool their daughter through high school, and the harassment sporadically continued throughout college, she says. After graduation, her golf career started to soar and so did her presence online-leading to severe cyberbullying for the last two years.

"I push what I can wear, I dress like an athlete [before golfing she was a gymnast], and people say nasty things," she says. "I've been slut-shamed, harassed, blackmailed, and sent death threats for wearing tank tops or form-fitting skirts. No one looks at the person I am."

Cyberbullying took a dangerous toll during Spiranac's first European Tour. Invited to play in Dubai six months after the whirlwind online really blew up, she arrived at the tournament thinking her golfing dreams were coming true. She was met with a media outlets criticizing her morals, character, and upbringing-everything that makes a person a real person. Peers she had respected in the golf world joined in on the ridicule and bullying. "I felt so alone," she admits. "I was sitting in the bathroom looking through everything and I had the biggest breakdown. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't stop crying. I looked at the tub and at that time I thought the only way out was to not live anymore. My sister was there and she helped me through it, called someone for help." (Know the facts: This is your brain on bullying.)

It was then, during her lowest moments, that Spiranac made the decision to not be a victim, but instead part of the solution. She became an ambassador for the anti-bullying organization Cybersmile. "I'm lucky enough to have a support system, but when you're 12 or 13 and have that feeling, suffocated by the outside world, you think the only way out is to take your own life," she says.

One of the largest studies done on cyberbullying in middle and high school students, published last year, shows that 70 percent of students had rumors spread about them online, with girls being more likely to experience cyberbullying. Meanwhile, in a recent incident in Florida, two middle school students were charged with cyberbullying after another student committed suicide. Police reports say the cyberbullies started rumors about the victim having sexually transmitted diseases, practiced vulgar name-calling, and threatened to expose private information. (Related: This Chrome Extension Could Put a Stop to Internet Haters)

"It's a very real problem," reiterates Spiranac. Since her decision to advocate for others being bullied, she says she has found her voice, and she's proving it with her unabashed clapping back at the haters.

A former ESPN female reporter recently bullied the 2018 SI Swimsuit women, saying that posing for nude photos is not empowering for women, insinuating shame and disgust. Spiranac was quick to respond writing, "Different women feel empowered in different ways, and it's not right to tell someone what they can and cannot do."

This newfound confidence stems from the uplifting vibes of the SI shoot, says Spiranac. "I couldn't hide behind anything and that was empowering," she says. "This whole issue gives power back to the women. It's hard for women every single day; we have to be nice, but not too nice, ambitious, but not too ambitious. It puts a lot of pressure on what we should and can be."

And in Spiranac's dictionary, "empowerment" is not defined by a piece of clothing. It's a feeling.

"Almost every woman I've met has encountered bullying," she says. "The models through SI were so thankful I spoke out about it, because they're constantly bullied also-for being too thin, too full-figured, anything about their appearance. The main goal is having a woman look at herself in the mirror and feel amazing about herself. When you do feel empowered, it's emotional and amazing, and I want everyone to feel that power."