Two-sport star Weed leads by example
Stephanie Weed is your normal honors-student-athlete teenage girl. She spends her time playing water polo and basketball, sports an impressive SAT score and grade-point average, and enjoys hanging out with her friends.
"I don't know how to describe her in just a few words," best friend and teammate Nina Vukicevic said. "She's hilarious. No matter what, she can make you laugh. She's inspiring to be around; she doesn't let anything get to her; she's hardworking, you can tell she cares about what she's doing and that she has a passion for it."
A second glance at Weed on an average day and her most noticeable feature is a bright, genuine smile. The only indication something may be different is on the court. When the 17-year-old plays basketball, she wears a bandana to cover her bald scalp.
In San Jose, Calif., where the 5-foot-10 senior plays for Archbishop Mitty, she has been asked about her gang involvement or if her motorcycle is parked outside. But Weed is a straight-laced student and doesn't drive a Harley. Instead, she has a rare autoimmune disease that affects only about two percent of the population.
Weed has alopecia universalis, the most severe form of alopecia areata. In alopecia areata, a person's immune system attacks the hair follicles and prevents growth, but otherwise doesn't affect the person. Charlie Villanueva, a 25-year-old forward with the Detroit Pistons, also has alopecia universalis, which means that those affected cannot grow hair anywhere on their bodies.
"It's definitely taught me just to be you and to deal with whatever you're dealt," Weed said. "Mostly, I try not to let it affect any of my decisions or not hold me back, because if I let it hold me back, it's beating me."
Weed first encountered the disease in middle school. In sixth grade, she lost her first patch of hair, part of an eyebrow. The doctor said it was just that spot. In eighth grade, she lost another spot, on the back of her head.
Again, her doctor said it probably wouldn't happen again, but the summer before her freshman year of high school and then into the fall, she started losing more of her hair. Over the Thanksgiving weekend that year, she bought her first wig, then a couple weeks later, made a big decision.
"It was always in the back of my mind that I would lose my hair, but it never was a reality," Weed said. "After I got the wig, I decided to shave my head. I didn't have to dread the rest of the hair falling out. It was the best decision I ever made; it was on my terms."
Shortly after she bought her first wig, she wore it during her first high-school basketball game, braiding what hair she had left in with hair from the wig to help it withstand competition. It didn't work.
"In the second quarter I took a charge and it fell off," Weed said. "That was pretty traumatic. I can remember the whole crowd gasping. I don't know if that was just my imagination, but I'm pretty sure they all did. After that is when I started wearing a bandana."
During games, Weed's bandanas are subject to the same rule as headbands for players -- they must be the color of the uniform -- white, black or gold. During practices, she sports any number of bandanas from her collection, including a tie-dyed one or, a personal favorite, her holiday bandanas, including a Christmas one currently in rotation.
For her other sport, Weed doesn't need a bandana, since water polo players wear caps over their heads during games. Her true sporting love, and what she hopes to play in college, is a comfort to Weed, one of the few times she doesn't have to think about a bandana or wig making her stand out from the masses. Her alopecia is only noticeable by a lack of eyelashes, since she doesn't wear her fake ones in the water.
Water polo and basketball, where you're judged by your play and not what you have on your head, have helped Weed not focus on what might hold other teenagers back from excelling in areas they enjoy. If anything, after a period of being a bit unsure of herself, Weed may be more outgoing than she already was during her younger days.
"I used to be really outgoing, but when I went through [losing my hair] I was kind of reserved," Weed said. "It's not like I came out of my shell, but I have a lot of fun with my team and I joke about it all the time."
The thought of starting college and blending with people who don't know about her or her condition into her life isn't a scary thought for Weed, who transferred from Leigh High School to Archbishop Mitty after her freshman year. She knew basketball coach Sue Phillips from club basketball as a younger kid and was integrated into the team quickly, playing on varsity as a sophomore. Knowing Weed was at a new school with new classmates, Phillips wanted to make sure she was OK within the team.
"When she came [to Mitty], it was more about 'what are you comfortable with,' " Phillips said. "'How would you like us to handle this among your team?' She's accepted this is who she is and she's never, ever, ever been about woe-is-me. It's refreshing."
Although she typically wears a wig every day when she leaves the house, Weed has become more comfortable with her bald head, to the point of not worrying about not wearing a wig when she tried surfing during a family vacation to Hawaii this summer. While on the islands, she decided to do one more thing that would be special to her -- getting a tattoo of four flowers, three plumeria and one hibiscus, on the right side of her scalp.
"It was definitely painful, it took two and a half hours, but it's so worth it," Weed said. "I love the tattoo. I just wanted something feminine, because it shows you don't have to have hair to be feminine. Since it's a place that's unique and when I get a job it won't be visible, my parents were supportive of it."
When she returned to practice with the basketball team, she walked up to Phillips and asked if she wanted to see Weed's new tattoo.
"I expected it to be on her ankle," Phillips said. "There's a school policy that they can't have any visible tattoos, so I'm thinking it's on her ankle by her sock line, so I'm looking down and she takes off her bandana.
"It was one of the few times she'd taken off her bandana at practice. I felt honored she was comfortable enough to share it with me and it front of the team."
While her tattoo is a celebration of her femininity on a typically masculine canvas, Weed is just another one of the girls when with her friends and approaches her lack of hair just like anything else out of her control.
She buys synthetic wigs every couple months, because the cost is lower than human hair wigs and "they almost feel more real", and goes through a pair of fake eyelashes every couple weeks. But she counters the cost by pointing out saving money on not going and getting her hair cut and colored, as well as not needing shampoo.
Her regular wig rotation includes a short blonde bob, a lighter brown wig and, her current go-to, a dark brown/reddish style.
"[Which wig I wear] depends on my outfit, what color matches, the season, too, and just on my mood," Weed said. "It's easy though, playing water polo, I can just get out of the pool and I have dry hair and am ready to go."
Alopecia areata is considered unpredictable and possibly cyclical, as the hair may grow back and fall out again, or not grow back at all. The National Alopecia Areata Foundation cosponsors a research workshop every year to learn more. Cortisone shots, a typical treatment to encourage hair regrowth, didn't add anything other than pain for Weed, and a trial run of acupuncture didn't help, so she has opted to let her body do what it wants with her hair.
"Her quality of character is second to none," Phillips said. "She really has a great perspective on life, is a winner in every sense of the word. I've just really loved seeing her confidence blossom over the years."
Mindi Rice is an ESPN HoopGurlz staff writer. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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