Paige Spiranac still feels the pain from that night in Dubai. She was 22, fresh out of college and playing in The Dubai Ladies Masters, her first pro tournament. She was there on a sponsor’s exemption, meaning she was invited by the tournament's organizers to bring awareness to the event. Though she had reservations about participating under those conditions, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. But she did not expect the criticism — both the amount received and the viciousness in which it was delivered. She hadn’t earned a legitimate spot in the tournament. Her presence was sexualizing women’s golf. What she hoped would be a positive first step in her career had become a nightmare. So there she was, the night before her first major tournament, bawled up on the floor of a hotel room, crying hysterically.
“It really affected me,” Paige says of the experience. “I was sitting in the bathroom just balling and was like ‘I don’t want to go through this pain, this feel of helplessness. Being alone. Scared. And I said I never wanted anyone to feel the way I felt in that moment. How scared I was. How helpless I felt in that I was bullied so bad to the point that I didn’t want to live anymore.'”
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Paige Spiranac is now 24 and making her debut in the SI Swimsuit Issue. She’s hoping to use this platform and role as an influencer to bring awareness to the problem of cyberbullying. She works with Cybersmile, a nonprofit devoted to ending cyberbullying, and is a constant presence on Twitter, offering support and inspiration when she can.
“People of all walks of life are cyberbullied every single day and that’s not okay,” she said. “It’s time we start supporting the victims instead of telling them to delete social media or ignore the hate. It’s time we made a difference, so I’ve dedicated a significant portion of my time to helping others.”
And though Paige doesn’t look like the stereotypical bullying victim — she has been called the "hottest golfer on the planet” — it wasn’t always this way. As a youngster, Paige had a condition that caused her hair to fall out and was teased for looking like a boy.
“I had a lot of health issues growing up,” Paige recalls. “On top of the hair condition, I had asthma and bad social anxiety. I was one weird little kid. So I know how it feels to be an outsider, how it feels to be bullied, to have no friends, to be that person no one wanted around.”
As for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, that’s something she never thought possible.
“I’ve been a fan for such a long time and I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would get the opportunity to be a part of the SI Swimsuit family. I get chills every time I think about it. So yes, it’s still that hard to believe and I’m still in disbelief!”
And while she knows there will be the inevitable backlash to her photos, she's no longer as concerned what others think of her.
"Even though being in the SI Swimsuit Issue has always been a dream of mine it would be a lie to say that I didn’t think about what the response might be," she said. "I mean I wear leggings and people say that the way I’m dressed is inappropriate! But in the end, it’s not the opinions of other people that matter - it’s if you’re doing things that make you feel happy, fulfilled, and empowered. You can’t let negativity hold you back from living your life!"
And despite being a part of this year's SI Swimsuit issue, she'll never forget how much bullying shaped her life.
“People say these things,” she said. “And they think that it’s funny or that it has no affect on that person and that words don’t mean anything but words cut deep. They really do.”
See some of Paige Spiranac's best Instagram photos: