Elin Nordegren to Rollins grads: ‘We walked the talk’

Tiger Woods' ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, never mentioned her famous former spouse during a speech today at Rollins College, where she was honored as the class of 2014's Outstanding Graduating Senior, but she quipped about her life as a celebrity.

Without uttering his name, she drew laughter from family, fellow graduates and college faculty with references to her association with the golfing great whom she divorced in 2010 after six years of marriage.

"It was right after I had taken Communication and the Media that I was unexpectedly thrust into the media limelight," she said, referring to the news firestorm that erupted after Woods, accused of cheating on her, crashed his Cadillac Escalade outside the couple's Isleworth home in November 2009. "I probably should have taken more notes in that class."

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A former model in her native Sweden, Nordegren first enrolled at Rollins in the fall of 2005.

"I was 25 years old. I had just recently moved to America. I was married without children. Today, nine years later, I'm a proud American, and I have two beautiful children," she said, pausing as applause and cheers filled Warden Arena on campus.

"But I am no longer married," she added — and the applause grew louder.

Her father, her children and her new billionaire boyfriend, Chris Cline, were among the audience watching Nordegren, 34, and the other 268 students graduating from Rollins College's Hamilton Holt School. She was chosen by faculty for the honor of "Outstanding Graduating Senior" — akin to a valedictorian in high school — partly because of her 3.96 cumulative grade-point average.

Her 4-year-old son with Woods, Charlie Axel Woods, snoozed on a folding chair during her 10-minute speech — which she acknowledged from the podium.

Nordegren, who graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, began her speech with a quote from Carl Jung, a Swiss psychotherapist credited with founding analytical psychology: "You are what you do, not what you say you'll do."

As a reluctant celebrity, Nordegren recalled her initial reaction to the honor of addressing her fellow graduates.

"I've been called a 'woman with no words' in the media and criticized for not talking very much," she said. "A commencement speech is meant to inspire. When I started to think what I should say to you all today, I got a little scared. What words can I use to inspire us all after a long journey in college?"

She credited her Rollins experience with providing her insight and information to cope with personal challenges.

"When I was taking developmental psychology, my daughter, Sam Alexis, was born. I learned so much about America through classes in U.S. history, history of American film and Visions of Florida," she said. "My psychology and law class helped me through some of the most challenging times of my life that involved legal matters. The information not only helped me understand the complexity of the legal system, but it also offered me a place of peace in the wild storm of my personal life."

She described a recent encounter with a flight attendant as she hurriedly exited an American Airlines plane.

The attendant handed Nordegren a note, which she did not read until she was waiting on her baggage. It included the message, "Thank you for being an inspiration — from another single mom." Nordegren said she was touched by "the beautiful words from a complete stranger."

"Since I have done little public speaking, how exactly had I inspired her? Whatever the answer, I felt a connection with her that day — mother to mother," Nordegren said. "I was inspired by her actions to make a connection with me. And I also feel a connection with all of you today, my educational community here at Rollins College. We have all dreamed of earning our college degree."

"We didn't just talk about getting a diploma," she said. "We walked the talk."

Dean David C.S. Richard introduced Nordegren, praising her extraordinary academic success while mastering a new language and balancing the roles of single mother to two children and community fundraiser for "Place of Hope," a child-welfare organization in West Palm Beach.

He said she helped organized an event that raised $500,000 in one night for the not-for-profit group.

shudak@tribune.com or 407-650-6361

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