Anna Kielbasinska in 2019 (not) ordinary girl calendar (© Aleksandra Szmigiel / Running Creatives)
It’s the question I asked myself so many times. Like in 2016, when all I should have cared about was training for the Olympics.
But back then, I just wanted to be like other girls. I’d look at them and see they all had beautiful hair and I was jealous, asking myself the same thing: why me?
Ever since the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, I had been losing my hair, and it wasn’t get better with treatment.
It made me so angry; it just felt so unfair.
For a long time, I tried to hide it from everyone but it got to a point where I couldn’t any more. I had to tell people what was happening.
I can remember the low point: I was getting ready for training one day and already very late, but I couldn’t stop crying. I told myself: I just can’t do this anymore.
And so I didn’t.
I went back home to my family in Warsaw, told them this problem is now so huge that I’m thinking of quitting, that I didn’t have the power to continue as an athlete – or to tell people about it. Here I was, on the brink of an Olympics, about to walk away from the sport.
Let me explain how it got to that point.
I was only three when I was first diagnosed with alopecia areata, an auto-immune disease that causes hair loss. Back then I was too young to know much about it, but for most of my childhood it wasn't an issue; it was in remission.
But midway through high school it returned, and you can imagine how hard that is for a teenager to deal with.
I was really ashamed, hiding the bald spots all the time. When I was 15, my mother found a doctor who was the best in my country for this disease, and with his method of treatment – applying a special liquid to the places I didn’t have hair – we saw results very fast.
For the next five years, I almost forgot I had this problem – until of course it came back.
By then I was a high-level athlete, which made it all the harder to deal with, having to put myself out there for people to see – fans, TV cameras, photographers.
After races I’d see pictures that I wasn’t happy with and get so upset, and that’s the thing about alopecia: it’s mostly psychological.
It doesn’t affect me physically other than the hair loss, but that can cause a big problem in your mind.
It got so bad that in 2016, I decided I couldn’t face it any more. But when I went home to my family that time, their reaction changed everything.
"What will you do at home?" they asked. "You think hiding in the house will help you – or destroy you?"
It was what I needed to hear. With more of my hair falling out, I decided I couldn’t keep it secret any longer so I wrote a long post on my Facebook page that explained my condition.
I hoped it would mean I avoided questions later, but those first two weeks after posting it were like a nightmare. There were journalists who started telling me I didn’t say enough and I should write this or this or this, and that made me angry.
This was my story to tell, not theirs.
Before going public, I was so afraid of what people would say. I heard so many comments when people would see something strange in someone else and laugh and all I thought was, "F***, are you going to be laughing at me too?"
But the reaction was just the opposite. I received a lot of good messages from people saying they understand, telling me not to worry. I cried then, too, because I was so surprised. I didn’t believe people before that, thinking they were not tolerant.
That’s when I started to feel relief for the first time.
But there was so much more to it than being comfortable while competing. Before, when I lost so much of my hair, I would tell myself I was done with boys – “what kind of boy would want to have a girl like this?”
But not long after I told everyone about the alopecia I met somebody who accepted me as I am and I thought, there is no barrier here. It doesn’t matter how I look, what really matters is how I am inside.
By the time I competed in Rio, I had completely dealt with it in my mind, even though I wasn’t sure if my hair would ever grow out again. I decided to race in a head wrap and stop the treatment a few months before the Olympics because it’s not the nicest thing – it makes you feel like you’re ill every week.
There was one day in particular I remember things changing. It was a few months before the Olympics and I was driving in my car with this beautiful sunrise coming up on the horizon. I just thought to myself, "wow, it’s a really lovely day and I’m happy that I’m living. I can do this, this and this, and the fact that I don’t have hair doesn’t stop me in any way."
When I got to Rio and people saw me in the headband they were acting normal, and I realised then my worries were just in my mind. Other athletes were very friendly and understanding, and I felt such relief because I could finally start thinking about what I was doing.
I could focus on athletics.
The biggest change was how I started to see myself. I really like my personality and I like what I am as a human and the values I present. This is most important, and this helps me deal with it. I can have no hair and I can still be happy in life.
These days, it’s a lot easier.
I’m feeling good with what I have up there and I recently discovered a new treatment which is helpful and natural: juice from fresh onions. It sounds disgusting and yes, the smell is not good, but I don’t care – I use it as a hair mask for an hour and then clean my hair with normal shampoo. It seems to work.
It’s much easier now to focus on athletics – and live life in general. I train like a full-time athlete at my base in Sopot, but my work as a senior private in the Polish army has me making regular trips to Poznan to my military unit.
For many years I was a 200m sprint specialist but now, as I look to Tokyo 2020, I will focus on the 400m. My best chance of an Olympic medal is in the 4x400m, as shown by our relay gold medal at the European Indoors in Glasgow, whereas in the 200m I would have to run a second faster than my PB to win a medal.
After Tokyo, I will think about starting a family. My boyfriend is a speed skater so who knows, it could be a fast child.
Life is good now, better than before, and the reason for that is one I hope other athletes embrace.
A lot of us have to deal with similar things, putting our bodies on display even if we’re embarrassed by scars, burns or other apparent physical imperfections.
But my one bit of advice to anyone struggling with it?
Like yourself as a person, your personality, and don’t waste your life being sad about what you have – your illness, your scars, whatever.
There’s a lot of very good things in this world to enjoy and no matter what the issue, it’s not your fault that you have it.
Go ahead – live.
Photography: Aleksandra Szmigiel / Running Creatives
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