CHULA VISTA, Calif. – At some point during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur, Alexis Valenzuela asked his big sister a lighthearted question: What’s your favorite ice cream?
Albane’s answer: pistachio.
The caddie and player carried on, likely smiling. As far as moments go, it was an insignificant exchange, Alexis’ keen way of diffusing pressure as Albane aimed to win the Women’s Amateur in her first attempt.
But there’s beauty in the mundane. Especially for a young man who didn’t speak the first five years of his life. Now Alexis, 15, speaks French and English fluently, and can hold his own in Spanish. His fierce battle with autism shaped everyone in the Valenzuela family, particularly Albane, who wrote about it in the essay portion of her Stanford application.
“My brother is kind of everything to me,” she said.
Alexis first planned to caddie for his sister at the Olympics last summer in Rio de Janeiro but was disappointed to learn he was too young. Albane, a Stanford sophomore, told him he could instead caddie for her in the 2017 European Amateur and U.S. Women’s Amateur. Albane, the No. 3-ranked amateur in the world, held a seven-stroke lead going into the final round of the European Amateur near her home in Switzerland last week but lost by one stroke.
“You obviously want to win,” said Albane, “but I know I’m really close to winning a big one.”
Two matches away, to be exact. She’ll face UCLA junior Lilia Vu in Saturday’s semifinal round. Vu won four times last spring, including the Pac-12 Championship. Albane’s father, Alberto, actually played college golf at UCLA. Albane was born in New York but Alberto moved the family to Geneva, Switzerland, in 2003. (He works there as a banker.)
When Alexis was 3 years old, a doctor told the Valenzuelas that their son wouldn’t ever go to school, and he might not ever talk. The couple did everything possible to prove that diagnosis wrong.
For Albane, the seriousness of her brother’s situation began to set in when her parents decided to send back the family dog because Alexis couldn’t handle it.
“I was devastated because I really wanted a dog,” said Albane.
The dog stayed, and actually became part of a pivotal moment in Alexis’ progression.
Alexis was fond of the Disney movie “Air Bud,” watching it half a dozen times a day.
There’s a scene in the movie when a young boy shares his ice cream with a dog. Dianne Valenzuela could see the light bulb go on in Alexis’ head when he watched that interaction. He then shared his yogurt with the family dog Ayrton, named after the Formula One driver.
“He would go to a zoo and look at the rugs on the floor,” said Albane, “and not the elephant.”
Ayrton opened a door for Alexis.
Dianne can’t speak highly enough of the kind-hearted nuns who let her son attend their school for 10 years. He had to repeat kindergarten, but went to regular classes all through school with an aid who sat beside him.
Alexis said if he had to rate the severity of his autism on a scale of 1 to 10, he would put it at a six.
“When I was younger I was really ashamed about it,” said Alexis. “Now I’m dealing with it. I can laugh about it.”
There wasn’t a trigger that allowed Alexis to go from a nonverbal child to one who speaks three languages. It took a team of seven people, hours of therapy each day and a million baby steps.
“We always talked about it,” said Alberto. “We confronted it.”
Alexis, who grew a foot this year and excels at the same high school Albane attended, dreams of one day hoisting a major championship trophy. He thinks about the press conference that would follow, and how he’d tell everyone about his battle with autism in the hope that it will help families who are hurting.
“I think he’s a fighter,” said Dianne. “I don’t see a limit for him.”
Albane said her brother’s battle with autism taught her to be empathetic.
She’s protective of him, and he calls her “incredible.” It’s a special relationship. One born of hardship and nurtured in love. To speak to Alexis now, one would never know of his early struggles.
“I think it’s a miracle,” said Albane.
A miracle indeed.