My Sportsman: Lorena Ochoa
It could not have been easy leaving her native Mexico, saying goodbye to her family to attend college at Arizona, staying awake deep into the night with a dictionary. Lorena Ochoa wanted to be the best golfer in the world and she wanted to learn English, so she left home as a teenager to accomplish those things.
All the while, her heart remained in Jalisco, whose capital city is Guadalajara and whose western border reaches the calm waters of the Pacific.
"Sometimes I would have $10," Ochoa once said of her college years, "and I would think, 'Should I go to the movies or should I buy a calling card?' I kept in touch with the people I know, parents and my friends, and that was good."
In 2010, Ochoa returned home to Mexico, retiring from the LPGA at the age of 28 and leaving a remarkable legacy of golf and charity. These are the reasons she is my SI sportsman of the year.
Ochoa's list of golfing accomplishments is long. After turning pro in 2002, she won 27 tour events, including major titles at the Women's British Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews and the Kraft Nabisco Championship. She won four consecutive player of the year awards from 2006-09. She retired from golf as the top player in the world.
But it was her citizenship that set her apart. At tournaments, she famously visited the golf course greenskeepers, many of them Spanish speakers, and helped cook them breakfast. In Guadalajara, she built a school for children called "La Barranca," which she continues to fund. Her warm "Hello" at the beginning of press conferences charmed the entire room.
"I can't say enough good things about her -- first of all, being the absolute nicest person on the face of the earth," competitor Cristie Kerr once said.
Her sweet disposition belied a fierce competitiveness and an athlete's zest for a challenge.
At 5 years old, she climbed a tree in Guadalajara, pulling herself some 20 feet above the ground before falling to the ground and breaking both wrists. (She wore casts for three months.) She has competed in triathlons, taken daylong motorcycle rides across Mexico and skied all over the world.
"I always like to do different sports, risky, challenging sports," Ochoa once said, though it would be golf where she made her biggest mark.
After her three-win season in 2009, Ochoa's career began to take a new path when she married Andres Conesa, an executive at Aeromexico, that December. Suddenly with a husband and three stepchildren, Ochoa's focus turned toward family life and away from the grind of the road.
At tournaments, she began smiling less and showing frustration at errant tee shots and missed putts. Home life was calling.
Then, this April, just as the LPGA major-championship season was heating up, Ochoa scheduled a news conference at the tour stop in Morelia, Mexico, about 40 miles from where she grew up. She was saying goodbye.
"I wanted to achieve my goals and be the No. 1 player in the world," she said then. "Second, I always wanted to finish here, in Mexico, to play my last tournament in front of my crowd. Third, I'm just ready to start a new life. I just want to be back with my family [for] all the time that we lost in the last few years."
When Ochoa retired, a writing colleague wondered if she had missed out on the bigness of golf at its highest level.
I reminded him that she had won the Kraft in shorts and St. Andrews in long sleeves.
Ochoa felt the grandeur of it all.