LONDON, England (VN) — Underneath the red aerodynamic helmet of Great Britain’s gold-medal-winning team pursuiter Joanna Rowsell lies the source of both past pain and present power — a starkly bald scalp, due to alopecia.
Like many affected by alopecia, a condition where one’s immune system attacks hair follicles, Rowsell suffered through adolescence as she struggled with looking different than her peers. She lost her hair at age 10, and spent her childhood rotating through wearing hats and wigs.
When she was 16 Rowsell picked up cycling — and that, she said, has made all the difference.
“When I was younger I would focus on my school work. I wasn’t really confident on going out and doing the usual teenage things. I didn’t have much confidence in my appearance and I became very, very focused on my studies,” Rowsell said Saturday at the Olympic velodrome.
“But when cycling came along that was another thing for me to focus on and suddenly it didn’t matter what I looked like, it was about how I performed on the bike and that’s what I was judged on. That was great.”
Rowsell’s hair grew back at age 16, something she attributed to her happiness from cycling, but six months later it fell out again.
“When I started winning that was the best feeling ever,” she said. “I wasn’t going to stop; I wasn’t going to let it hold me back. You only live once, so go for it.”
Rowsell has, in the past, worn a wig for her podium appearances, but Saturday in London she chose to go au naturel.
The significance that Rowsell won her gold medal on International Alopecia Day wasn’t lost on her.
“That’s a bit spooky, that International Alopecia Day was the same day as my Olympic final,” she said. “I had never seen myself as an inspiration or anything like that, but I had quite a few messages from people with alopecia after the (London) World Cup in February.
“It was a bit overwhelming at first and I was a bit shocked, because I don’t want to be known as the girl with alopecia; I don’t want that to be what defines me. But I’ve realized now that I’ve got a responsibility as such. It’s always going to be a part of me, so I may as well embrace it and hopefully inspire other girls.”