Olympics hopeful suffers with Alopecia Areata aged 12


Staciana Stitts soon found herself cleaning out her hairbrush over and over again — and staring in the trash can, where all her hair had suddenly accumulated.

I discovered this article in an online archive, and found the story to be quite profound, especially given recent media coverage of Olympic athlete Joanna Rowsells battle with Alopecia. Although the article has been around for a while, its value remains the same.

For the original article please see SFGate.com.

Something was wrong. As she anxiously waited for her mother, Judy, to come home, all sorts of scary thoughts bounced around Staciana’s head.

“I was really frightened,” she said. “I always connected not having hair with cancer. I was worried that I was dying.”

Stitts, a soon-to-be sophomore at Cal, turns 19 today. She does not have cancer; she has alopecia areata, a condition that causes complete hair loss. There is no known cure, only an unsettling choice — wear a wig or endure long, hard stares from strangers.

One other thing you should know about Stitts: She will swim in the Olympics, starting Saturday in Sydney.

Her story is one of poise and independence, of learning to cope with being different in an often-judgmental society. Her story also flows with high sporting drama, where the slimmest of margins — say, the length of a fingernail — can bring Olympic dreams to life.

Stitts made the Olympic team at the U.S. trials Aug. 11 in Indianapolis. She finished second in the 100- meter breaststroke, edging 1998 world champion Kristy Kowal by precisely 1/100th of a second.

That’s all, one microscopic fraction of time — the difference between representing your country in Australia and staying home to watch on television.

Stitts goes to Sydney confident, personable and gregarious. Friends occasionally ask Judy Stitts about the possibility of doctors finding a cure for alopecia, about how much her daughter must yearn to grow a full head of hair.

Judy Stitts usually dismisses the question with little contemplation. By now, that’s not the point. Here is Staciana — strong, smart and very fast in the pool.

Oh, and bald.

“If I’m positive and up front about it, people have no choice but to accept it,” she said. “That’s cool. I finally figured it out.”

So she finds joy in meeting a little girl with alopecia, a girl who looks at Stitts with wide-eyed reverence. And she finds satisfaction in the e-mail she received from an older woman with alopecia; the woman praised Stitts for walking around so publicly and so proudly.

This was not always the case. Stitts wore hats for nearly a year after she learned of her condition. Once, when she went hat-less at a swim meet, a woman approached her and exclaimed, “You don’t have any hair!” Stitts appreciated the news flash.

Or consider trips to the mall. Judy Stitts was alarmed when she walked a couple of steps behind her daughter — and saw the way people reacted once Staciana passed them. Even now, Cal coach Teri McKeever marvels at the rudeness of kids and adults alike when they see Stitts.

Back then, as a 12-year-old girl suddenly confronted with this strange new life, Stitts did not really know how to act.

“I was totally hiding from it,” she said. “I learned how to block it all out, where I didn’t see any of it. I was almost in denial.”

Doctors assured Stitts that she had no health problems — alopecia is purely a cosmetic condition. According to the San Rafael-based National Alopecia areata Foundation, two percent of the U.S. population have the condition.

Doctors are unsure of the cause, Judy Stitts said, other than to suspect it stems from an immune-system disorder.

At any rate, doctors told the Stitts family about cortisone shots and steroid creams as ways of possibly stimulating hair growth. Staciana’s father, Dane Stitts, dived into research on the condition. As he discovered, there are few reliable medical solutions.

Staciana quickly rejected the idea of a shot in the head and later decided against depending on creams. She ultimately needed to lean on her own resolve, which had been tested before.

She and her older sister, Alisha, both have severe asthma. Staciana also has serious food allergies. Once, when she was 6, she had an especially bad reaction and her heart briefly stopped beating. Her parents rushed her to the hospital, where she was revived.

“We called her Granny Staci and Wise Staci when she was a little kid,” Dane Stitts said. “She had an air about her that was different. She always had this sort of self-composure about her.”

That composure blossomed around the pool. Stitts began swimming as a young child, soon after her family moved from Ohio to northern San Diego County. Then, after the alopecia was diagnosed, the pool became her sanctuary.

There, people respected Stitts for her athletic ability. They initially wondered if she shaved her head to swim faster — a common habit of male swimmers — but they did not dwell on the curious sight of a teenage girl with no hair, the way other people did (and still do). Stitts came to find her self-confidence through swimming.

This confidence was apparent when McKeever met Stitts during her junior year at Carlsbad High School. Stitts peppered McKeever with 15 to 20 questions about Cal, the same questions she posed to every coach recruiting her. Their first conversation lasted two hours.

“Staciana knew what she wanted and she found it,” McKeever said. “She told me in the recruiting process that she wanted to make the Olympic team — and she found a way. Some people just say those things. Staciana lives it.”

Stitts chose Cal for many reasons, not the least of which was the tolerant environment in Berkeley. She strolls down Telegraph Avenue as if she’s just another bald kid expressing her independence. Stitts said she probably gets more respect along Telegraph because of her appearance.

Then, in the pool, speed breeds respect. Stitts made an immediate impact as a freshman, finishing third at the NCAAs in the 200-meter breaststroke and second (behind Kowal) in the 100-meter race. She also was part of the title-winning medley relay team that helped Cal finish fourth overall.

All along, she worked with McKeever on increasing her strength and improving her starts and turns. The work paid dividends at the Olympic trials, an event in which Stitts was a decided underdog to American record-holder Megan Quann and Kowal.

Stitts, known for fast starts and fading finishes, knew she had a chance as the swimmers raced for home in the finals. The breaststroke requires straight-ahead motion, so Stitts could not see where she stood in relation to her competitors.

She kept her head down and her ears open.

“I could hear the announcer freaking out,” Stitts said. “I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew it was cool.”

Then, when Stitts touched the wall, she looked at the scoreboard. She saw the big, sweet “2” next to her name, signifying that she finished second. She was going to the Olympics.

“It was total disbelief, complete ecstasy, just shock,” Stitts said. “Normally, with swimming, I would expect to make things. I didn’t with this.”

Only later did Stitts digest the details. She swam a personal-best 1:07.79, barely enough to nudge aside Kowal (1:07.80). Quann won the race in 1:07.66.

The results sent Stitts spinning into a sea of delightful chaos. She bounced from hug to hug, barely able to contain her excitement. Later that night, at the hotel, she stayed awake until 3 a.m., pondering her newfound status as an Olympic swimmer.

Given her journey — all those long, hard stares from strangers and the psychological trauma of being a young girl without hair — Stitts deserved to savor the moment.

“I don’t know if I could deal with it as well as she has,” Judy Stitts said. “Staciana is a really tough kid, one of those survivors. She doesn’t allow herself to have a bad day.”

The days are all good right now. Very good.


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