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Folstrom rises to many challenges

Receiving international attention recently as Tiger Woods' college sweetheart, Irene Folstrom of Bemidji has since her unsuccessful 2006 state Senate run been writing a book about her life and struggles as an American Indian role model, and is planning a 2012 campaign for a state Legislature office. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Irene Folstrom thrives on competition. From her days as a stellar athlete at Cass Lake-Bena High School, to her failed attempt at state Senate in 2006, she moves from one challenge to another.

Most recently it's been the revelation that she was Tiger Woods' college sweetheart, and that she rises to his defense as a "loyal, dedicated and self-controlled" fellow Stanford student and boyfriend.

This morning, she's scheduled to appear on the CBS Early Show for yet another media interview, all stemming from an article she wrote for Sports Illustrated to help put context to Woods' battle with infidelity.

Folstrom says she and other friends from Stanford held a conference call "and decided somebody needs to say something, because it was just ridiculous."

Woods' Thanksgiving night crash and ensuing discovery of many extramarital affairs demanded that someone who knew him step forward in his defense, Folstrom said last week in an interview.

"No one was speaking out, and I guess I became the sacrificial lamb because I probably knew him the best," she said.

It led to scores of interviews and television appearances that still continue today. "My family is very humble ... but it's just one small chapter in my life. It's not my whole life. It was very maddening for a while and overwhelming."

Folstrom, who ran for state Senate in 2006 and mayor of Bemidji in 2008, says she dealt well with being a public figure. "Being in the national media was just crazy, having my face splashed all over on national TV and national magazines."

And it will be a chapter in her book. Folstrom said she's nearing completion on a book and is in negotiation currently for publishing rights. It will detail her life, and the challenges that she faced.

She's titled it "Phoenix," to symbolize a rise from the ashes, which she said she's done in recent years after a number of downfalls.

"Through the last couple of years, I've grown a lot stronger and I think that age has helped me a lot," said Folstrom, 35. "I was 30, 31 when I ran for Senate. Even five years can give you a lot more insight and wisdom."

She's now a single mother of two boys, Victor, 7, and Max, 5, having divorced her physician husband, a member of a Southwest tribe. Folstrom is a Leech Lake Band member.

She suffered from a deep depression after losing the 2006 DFL endorsement to Mary Olson, coupled with her divorce. She won't say how deep the depression was -- "Read my book" -- but it was a time that obviously provided a crossroads.

"I had a lot of help, but that's in my book," she said. "My mom has been there, we talk two-three times a day, which was amazing to me since we had a pretty estranged relationship for a long time."

Folstrom was raised by her aunt and uncle, as her mother "had her own issues going on. I had a lot of anger and resentment, but we got over that. Now, she's my best friend."

She says she "absolutely have my imperfections and my faults. Phoenix means rising from the ashes, and it's sort of ironic in a sense, because even though I rose from the ashes, I definitely had a dark period in my life, about two years ago."

She's picked herself back up again "and I feel stronger than ever, and just really want to get message across to those who feel sometimes that they are maybe despondent and they feel like nothing is going their way, but you can always pick yourself back up again."

Folstrom calls her book both autobiographical and inspirational.

"It's hard for me, especially as an athlete, to lose," she said. "When I lost the Senate race, it was a really dark period, because I worked really hard. ... My message in my writing is just that regardless of whatever we think is a failure your life only makes you stronger in the end."

On the positive side, Folstrom has served Leech Lake as a role model, from being a Miss Cass Lake to earning a law degree from Cornell and working four years on national legislative issues for the National Congress of American Indians.

She hasn't taken the bar exam in Minnesota, so she isn't a practicing attorney, but she really doesn't want to be one. Currently she serves as a consultant grant writer.

"I probably will never practice law," she says, adding she did start studying for the bar exam but quit. "Why am I doing this, I'm a writer now."

And she's still a politician. She announced that in 2012 she will seek office -- but which office is still up in the air. Her race of choice would be the Senate 4 seat held by Democrat Olson, but Folstrom says she will not run against her.

The two have become fast friends, and a letter from Folstrom was read at last weekend's Senate 4 endorsing convention, asking delegates to support a second term for Olson.

"I truly believe that public service is one of the best things somebody can do," Folstrom said. "You don't get paid very much ... there's not really much to gain from public service personally, but I just truly believe that it's important for those of us, especially someone with my background who has pretty much seen it all -- seen poverty, seen wealth, I've lived in both worlds."

Folstrom talks about serving the public, but doesn't narrow her focus to just American Indian issues.

"I do not think that an American Indian, because they are running for a certain seat, deserves that seat," she said. "When you are elected, you have to represent all the people and all of your constituents, not only a percentage of perhaps the people that you come from."

If elected, "I will do my best to advocate for American Indian people, of course, but I believe it is not something that we are entitled to because of our race," she said. "It is something we have to earn."

Supported in the past by the national Indigenous Democratic Network, Folstrom says a number of confidants are pushing her to run for a statewide constitutional office in 2014.

"There are some offices we have talked about me seeking," Folstrom said, not disclosing which offices.

"When I came home and had to become a role model again, it was very difficult at first, but I embrace that now," Folstrom said, adding that she plans on moving to Cass Lake. "I'm just really doing my best to work on myself and garner more strength so that I can be a good role model, especially for our youth."