Bald and bold: British cyclist looks to inspire

07:34, Aug 05 2012
Joanna Rowsell
INSPIRATION: Britain's Dani King (L), Laura Trott (C) and Joanna Rowsell pose with their gold medals during the victory ceremony after the track cycling women's team pursuit.

When Joanna Rowsell's right eyebrow disappeared 14 years ago, an event that only marked the beginning of hair loss all over her then nine-year-old body, she could never have imagined feeling good about the experience that completely threw her self-esteem and caused her to hide under hats and wigs.

On Saturday night in London, the same person stood before the world as she was crowned an Olympic world champion.At age 23, bald and bold, Rowsell had helped make history by being part of the first female team pursuit outfit to race at a Games - and in world record time to boot. She could not have been more proud of her sporting achievement. But she was equally proud to have realised it exactly the way she is.

When she was diagnosed with alopecia areata in 1998, Rowsell had never ridden a bike competitively. As her hair fell out - first her eyebrows, then chunks from her now almost completely naked scalp, then her eyelashes - her instinct was to burrow in. Rowsell studied like a woman possessed for the boost that A+ marks at school gave her. But she also wept as she asked her parents why this was happening to her, and whether they could help fix an immune system disorder that was later diagnosed as incurable.

Her alopecia had completely set in by the time she was 11, but at 15 Rowsell was identified by scouts who visited her high school in Sutton, Surrey. They encouraged her to update the old treadley gathering dust in her parents' garage. She had a new focus. It was good for her and she was good at it.

"Cycling was another thing for me to focus on. It suddenly didn't matter what I looked like, it was about performing on the bike and that's what I was judged on," Rowsell said after her team's victory at the Olympic velodrome.

"That was great and when I started winning. That was the best feeling ever."


When, at age 16, her hair started growing back, Rowsell believed the happiness she was deriving from training was the trigger. Six months later however, her hair was gone again and familiar challenges with her self-esteem re-emerged.

Three years ago, Rowsell experienced a third period of re-growth, but it lasted just four weeks. That coincided soon after she had met her first boyfriend. She was petrified, initially, that this superficial change would cause him to reassess, but he didn't mind a bit.

Not instantly comfortable with the idea of being a poster girl for alopecia sufferers - "I didn't want to be known as the girl with alopecia. I didn't want that to be what defines me," she said on Saturday - Rowsell now sees it as a privilege.

"I've realised now that I've got maybe a responsibility," she said.

"And it's always going to be a part of me, so I may as well embrace it and hopefully inspire other girls."

After the gold medal ride, Rowsell also reflected on how she considers her condition, and her ability to overcome the challenges it threw up, as a reason she has achieved so highly. That doesn't mean she doesn't like to mix up her look by dipping into her collection of wigs - sometimes for victory ceremonies at cycling meets if she has the time and the inclination.

Perhaps Rowsell didn't have the time to pull out a head dress before the most memorable presentation of her life, but as she beamingly recounted the winning experience it seemed much more likely she hadn't given it a second thought.

-Sydney Morning Herald