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Olympics 2012: Joanna Rowsell can win gold at home—and inspire alopecia community

LONDON—There are heart-tugging stories at every Olympics. If Joanna Rowsell wins gold on Saturday at the 2012 Games, your heart may not believe your eyes.

She is bald.

The IOC doesn’t keep records on such things, but the British cyclist would probably become the first hairless woman to win a medal. (We’re not counting swimmers who shave.)

After that ceremony, Rowsell would thank her parents, her teammates and a condition most abhor—alopecia.

“It made me who I am,” she said.

She is a member of Great Britain’s women’s pursuit team. In case you’re not up on the Olympic sport of women’s pursuit, it has nothing to do with Ryan Lochte.

Three cyclists in cool aerodynamic gear team up to race around a banked track. It’s quite the event in this cycling-crazy land.

Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, then a gold medal. His sideburns are a national rage. It’s just a matter of time till the Queen joins the masses wearing fake Wiggo burns.

Wiggins was at the London Velodrome Friday. The place went crazy at his sight, then it really exploded when Britain’s women’s pursuit team set a world record in a qualifying race.

It is the heavy favorite to win the gold medal Saturday. Approximately two percent of earth’s population will probably be pulling for the Brits.

That’s the segment that suffers from alopecia. The disease occurs when a person’s immune system goes haywire and attacks the body’s hair follicles.

Hair falls out in splotches that can spread across the body. Plenty of Olympic athletes have overcome debilitating illnesses. They’ve won medals for cancer-stricken relatives.

Alopecia won’t kill you, but it can sure be an obstacle to overcome. Especially if you’re a woman.

“I was gutted,” Rowsell told the Daily Mail.

She was nine when her eyebrows started falling out. She ran sobbing into her parent’s room asking what was happening.

“They said they would find someone to fix it,” Rowsell said.

There is no fix. Some people go into remission, but nobody’s found a cure. What happens on the inside of the head is often worse than what happens on the outside.

Rowsell withdrew from the world. She would go to school, then come home and bury herself in books.

“Working hard was the only thing that stopped me from worrying about the future,” she said. “About whether I would get a boyfriend or how I would face getting a job with strangers.”

Rowsell developed an intense focus. She started riding a bike seriously when she was 15.

“I applied the same work ethic,” she said. “I worked through any worries I had about my hair, and I focused solely on that.”

She became a biking phenom. When you gain that kind of fame, people tend to be more accepting. Rowsell didn’t hide her alopecia, but she still wore wigs in public.

The semi-secret got out last year. She won a gold medal at the world cycling championship in Melbourne. She collected her medal without her wig, and instantly became a hero to thousands of little girls.

If Rowsell could find the confidence to excel in a hair-obsessed world, why couldn’t they?

Rowsell, now 23, has embraced her role. Before the Olympics, she posed in a big newspaper spread wearing a variety of wigs. She wanted to draw attention to the fact that hair is all just packaging.

It’s corny enough to qualify for an NBC Olympic vignette. But in this case, what didn’t kill somebody really did make them stronger.

“Now, I cannot imagine my life without alopecia,” Rowsell said.

She is the only woman with a bald mugshot for her official Olympic bio. She hasn’t said for sure what she’ll do on Saturday if Great Britain wins. Chances are she’ll take off her helmet and go wigless to the medal stand.

Wiggo sideburns, meet Rowsell baldness.

It’s a look that will inspire a nation.


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