1. Louisiana Homecoming: Alvarez Returns To Pelican State
LILI ALVAREZ remembers having a conversation with her mother on the telephone in 2005, as Hurricane Katrina headed toward New Orleans. Alvarez was a college student in the Crescent City at Tulane University, where she was on the women’s golf team. On that day, the college student suddenly found herself heading for higher ground.
“I called my mom and said, ‘They’re telling me this is a really bad storm, so I found a plane ticket for $150,” said Alvarez. “I’m going to Chicago.”
The player from Durango, Mexico, didn’t know how prophetic that statement was at the time. She grabbed her golf clubs, her passport, her laptop and a few clothes. In her quick exit, she found the last parking spot on the second floor of a Tulane parking garage.
Two weeks after the storm, Alvarez was still in Chicago while school officials at Tulane tried to put its campus back together in the aftermath of the devastating hurricane. And two months later, wearing a mask and gloves, she returned home to New Orleans to gather what was salvageable.
“There was nothing to go back to,” said Alvarez, 24, a rookie on the Duramed FUTURES Tour this season. “The city was shut down and there were no in and outs. When I got to my house, a FEMA guy was there and I had to prove that the things inside were mine.”
Alvarez shared a house with Tulane teammate Alison Walshe, now a senior at the University of Arizona. Floodwaters rose to six feet in their basement and left behind a curtain of mold throughout the bottom floor. When they were allowed to return, the players grabbed what they could and left their home for the last time. And because of her fortuitous parking spot on the second level of the parking deck, Alvarez found her car intact.
But with the 2005 fall golf season came more change. With no place to compete, Tulane’s athletic teams split up and left town. The football team and tennis team went to Texas A&M. The golf teams went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where students enrolled in classes and practiced. The Tulane women played in three college tournaments that fall. They clung together like family.
But then the day came when the Tulane women’s golf team was summoned to attend a meeting.
“Our coach said, ‘Girls, the athletic director wants to meet with us and he says there is not going to be a golf team any more,’” said Alvarez, who was the senior captain of the squad. “We were in shock. The school did the best it could do, but we all were facing some pretty big changes.”
Tulane’s team split up and scattered at programs around the country. Because the NCAA allowed players at the school to regain their “lost season,” Alvarez still had one year of college eligibility remaining. She completed her undergraduate degree at Tulane in the summer of 2006, and enrolled in graduate school at Northwestern University in Chicago that fall for her final collegiate golf season while she studied public policy and administration.
Alone in Chicago and now living in a tiny “shoebox” apartment in Evanston, Ill., Alvarez remembers something her mother told her as she struggled with yet another new environment.
“My mom said, ‘Lili, stop punching the air because you’re not hitting anything,’” said Alvarez. “That’s when I finally realized things are going to go wrong, but you can still control the way you feel. I looked around and saw that a lot of people had helped me. It gave me faith in people.”
Even when it snowed in Chicago and Alvarez didn’t have the proper clothes for cold weather, her new Northwestern teammates would sneak her gifts of wool socks and gloves. And even when it snowed in April and she found herself hitting practice balls into a snow bank with the team in front of heaters, the Mexican had learned to find the blessing in the moment.
“I consider myself very, very blessed,” she said. “If I could do my life over, I’d still go to Tulane and I’d still go to Northwestern.”
Alvarez and fellow Durango native Tanya Dergal are both rookies on the Duramed FUTURES Tour this season. The two have known each other since grade school and junior golf. Both played on the boys’ soccer team in high school, where the spirited Alvarez received a “red card” [ejection from the game] in her first game for smashing into a boy on the other team while running at full throttle.
Dergal smiles when asked about her friend. She calls Alvarez a “very aggressive golfer.” When Alvarez let out a loud whoop on the 18th green at a recent Tour event after she rolled in a birdie putt, Dergal said only, “Yep, definitely, that’s Lili.”
And when her friend was displaced after the hurricane from the university and city that she loved, Dergal recalls that Alvarez was “anxious, disappointed, sad and angry,” yet always resilient.
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