Leah Hayes reflects on world swimming champs success, journey with alopecia

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High school junior Leah Hayes exudes the confidence, maturity and wisdom of someone far beyond her 17 years. Hayes is USA Swimming’s Breakout Performer of the Year, thanks in part to her 200m individual medley at June’s world championships. She was also diagnosed with alopecia universalis — an autoimmune disease that causes complete hair loss — at age 7. Hayes spoke with NBC Sports about her journey with alopecia, her growth in the sport and how she’s learned to confidently embrace her true self.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OlympicTalk: How did you get your start in swimming? Do you have a memory of when you first fell in love with the sport? 

Leah Hayes: I started swimming when I was 7. My friend started doing it and invited me to take lessons with them. My current swim coach saw me when I was 8 and recruited me to the team. I always loved the feeling of being in the water.

Did you grow up watching the Olympics? Are there any swimmers or other Olympic athletes that you looked up to? 

Hayes: I did not. But I watched my first Olympics in 2016, and that’s when I started dreaming of becoming an Olympian. I watched Katie Ledecky swim the 800m, and she just crushed it, and I remember thinking, “Wow, I want to do something like that.” Now that I’m teammates with her, it’s a dream come true.

Take me back to U.S. team trials for the Tokyo Olympics (finishing 10th and 11th in the IMs at age 15). What was that experience like for you, and what did you learn about yourself? 

Hayes: I learned some different things about what I need to do race-wise, but also learned that as long as I believe in myself anything is possible.

Did you watch any of the Tokyo Olympics? 

Hayes: Yes, I did! I didn’t know many of the American swimmers at the time — now I know them better — but I was rooting for them from home, and it was so exciting to see them swim out there.

Walk me through your experience at the 2022 World Championships.

Hayes: It was incredible. I was able to go to that pool in Budapest a year earlier for a junior team trip, so I was familiar with it, which was nice. But it was incredible to be around the world’s best swimmers. To even compete against some of them, I was starstruck.

Who in particular were you starstruck by?

Hayes: Pretty much everybody, honestly. To race against Katinka Hosszu, who is one of the world’s best in the 200m IM, was amazing.

You were dealing with a stress fracture in the lead-up to worlds. Take me back to the day you found out about it.

Hayes: I had severe pain in my foot for about two weeks before I went to the doctor. I thought it was from a strain. A week before the U.S. International Team Trials, I was sitting in the doctor’s office, and when she told me it was a stress fracture I immediately had tears in my eyes. I remember thinking, “Is my season over? Will I not even get to compete at the meet I’ve been training for this entire season?” But then [the doctor] told me I could continue swimming, and I remember feeling a huge wave of relief come over me. I continued with my training but went a little bit lighter with weights and conditioning because I didn’t want to do anything outside of the pool. I just kept pushing forward and didn’t let it affect my race.

How special is that 200m IM bronze medal, knowing all that you had to overcome to get there?

Hayes: There are not enough words to describe it, but I’m just so grateful. At U.S. Olympic Trials, I swam a 2:12.89 and didn’t even make it to the finals, and a year later, I make it to the international team trials and then actually win a medal at world championships (in 2:08.91). I’m still in disbelief. I was disappointed in my performance at (Olympic) Trials, but I knew that if I trusted God and just continued to work hard that my time would come. Little did I know that it would come a year later.

I want to talk about your alopecia. There’s obviously so much more to who you are, but it is a significant part of your story. Can you tell me about your journey with this autoimmune disease?

Hayes: I was diagnosed at a pretty young age, so I’ve learned to deal with it. It is a part of me, and I live confidently with it. When I swim, I don’t wear a cap because I want to bring more awareness to alopecia, but I also hope to inspire other girls who may have the disease or other people with physical differences that anything is possible. Your differences don’t limit you.

I know you were pretty young, but can you take me back to the day you got your diagnosis?

Hayes: I remember sitting in the doctor’s office and hearing the words “alopecia universalis.” I was 7 years old and really had no idea what it was. I didn’t fully understand what happened to me or the impact of the disease on my life at the time, but looking back, it’s brought me so many different opportunities and has led me to so many new people. I’m actually really grateful for alopecia.

As a fourth-grader you decided to tell the entire grade about your alopecia during a school assembly. What led to that decision, and why did you decide to make that announcement so publicly?

Hayes: I was always an active kid, swinging on the monkey bars and running around outside at recess, and my wig had actually fallen off a few times, and people had gotten glimpses of it. There were rumors spreading, and I just decided I wanted to take hold of the matter and let everyone know the truth.

I was so happy with the way my parents and school helped me with that. My classmates were all so supportive when I made the announcement, and I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction.

You’ve noted the anniversary of your decision to be “wig-free” on social media. Why is that important to you, both in and out of the pool?  

Hayes: My decision to go wig-free has led me to be a true version of myself and really embrace who I am and also let people see the true me. Being wig-free is definitely a big decision that can only be made on your own timeline, but I think it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

What has alopecia taught you about yourself?

Hayes: It has taught me to be kind to everyone and to be more understanding. Many people don’t show the things that they’re going through. There’s a lot going on the inside that you don’t see, so it’s just a matter of being caring and cautious toward others.

What advice would you give to anyone struggling with alopecia?

Hayes: I’m always available to contact. There’s also a group called the National Alopecia Areata Foundation that has conferences and lets people know where to find them locally. That’s a good way to meet up with people that have alopecia and find those support groups. I attended a few support meetings growing up, and that really helped me.

I would also tell people to embrace who they are and know that alopecia is nothing to be ashamed of. It can lead to new opportunities and connect you with many people. 

Is there something you wish more people knew about alopecia?  

Hayes: I wish people wouldn’t associate the disease with cancer and chemotherapy and in general had a better understanding of what it is.

I have some rapid-fire questions for you. Are you ready for this?

Hayes: Yes!

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Hayes: Cheerios. I bring Cheerios to every single meet.

Plain? Honey Nut?

Hayes: Honey Nut Cheerios. It’s my go-to snack at meets.

Race day hype song? 

Hayes: Oh. I have a playlist, but I’d probably go with “Believer” by Imagine Dragons.

You have to sing karaoke for your life. What song are you picking?

Hayes: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.

Post-workout meal?

Hayes: Chipotle. It’s my go-to. I have one right next to my pool, and I keep asking my relatives for gift cards there for my birthday because I go there almost two times a week.

Are you a burrito bowl kind of girl or burritos?

Hayes: I’m gluten-free, so I had to switch from burritos to bowls. I start with white rice. I love the lime flavor. Then chicken, fajita veggies, pico de gallo, corn salsa, black beans and then sour cream.

No guac?

Hayes: I pay for my own food, so no.

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Isabeau Levito, Bradie Tennell, Amber Glenn named to U.S. team for World Championships

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SAN JOSE, Calif. – With a calm command belying her age, Isabeau Levito has taken control of U.S. women’s skating at age 15.

Levito came here as the solid favorite to take her first national title, and she did it with a seemingly effortless grace, her balletic style producing solid winning performances in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate.

She was the last of 18 skaters in the free skate, following rivals who made mistakes big and small. Levito did not need perfection, but her skating approached it, even if the execution of some jumps could have been better.

Levito left no doubt of her superiority and burst into a wide smile even before the scores were announced. After a narrow win over Bradie Tennell (.02 points) in the short program, Levito (223.33) wound up 10.21 points ahead of the runner-up Tennell (213.12) in the final standings.

Amber Glenn was third at 207.44. She, Levito and Tennell will fill the three women’s places on the U.S. team for the March World Championships in Japan.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Two of the three U.S. women’s skaters on the 2022 Olympic team have announced their retirements (Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell; Karen Chen is a student at Cornell and might not return). Given that and Tennell’s recurrent problems with injuries, Levito’s stature as the leading U.S. woman seemed assured. Whatever pressure she felt holding that position was not evident.

“My entire goal truly for both programs was to stay composed and to really try to suppress my nerves as much as possible and to really not let little minor silly mistakes happen,” Levito said. “I feel as though I did just that today and I’m very proud of myself for it.”

“I’ve gotten very good at suppressing nerves,” she had said after the short program. “I still feel the effects of the competition. But I find my own way mentally to handle it.”

For both Tennell and Glenn, there was a redemptive quality to their skating.

Neither had a result at last year’s nationals. Glenn had to withdraw after the short program when she tested positive for COVID. Tennell never made it to the event because of the foot injury that kept her out of competition for all last season.

“Honestly, it was terrifying being back here after the conclusion of my season last year,” Glenn said. “That was a big mental hurdle for me, but I was happy I was actually able to enjoy myself again and enjoy competing.”

Glenn made her 10th career attempt at a triple axel, stepping out of the landing after getting full rotational credit. Her persistence in trying that jump, which she never has landed cleanly, is one reason she was holding her hip after finishing the free skate. Glenn insisted it was just soreness.

“An unfortunate side effect of being 23 and doing these ultra (difficult) elements is my body can’t always keep up very well,” Glenn said.

Tennell, who turns 25 Tuesday, has been battling an injury in her right foot for more than a year, then an injury in her left foot since October. She fought past all that to make the podium for the fifth time in her last five nationals – twice first, twice second and once third.

“This one probably means the most, because I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this again,” Tennell said. “To be here and to have achieved it, especially after the (poor) start of my season and the bumps that I had to overcome, I’m very proud of what I accomplished.”

Levito, the reigning world junior champion, reeled off seven triple jumps, two in combination with other triple jumps. She glided from element to element seamlessly.

“I finally skated the free the way I’ve been training to do it,” she said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Scotty James wins fifth X Games snowboard halfpipe title

Scotty James
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Scotty James doesn’t have Olympic gold, but he remains king of the X Games halfpipe.

James, the Australian snowboarder who took bronze and silver at the last two Olympics, earned his fifth Aspen gold, repeating as champ of the biggest annual contest under falling snow in the Colorado Rockies. Only the retired Shaun White has more X Games men’s snowboard halfpipe titles with eight.

Nobody on Friday night attempted a triple cork, which was first done in competition by Japan’s Ayumu Hirano last season en route to the Olympic title. Hirano placed sixth Friday.

“It was a tough night, pretty interesting conditions,” James said. “Had to adjust the game plan. The show goes on.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression over the course of a three-run jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

Earlier, Olympic gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand repeated as women’s snowboard slopestyle champion, passing Olympic bronze medalist Tess Coady of Australia on the final run of the competition. Sadowski-Synnott, the only snowboarder or skier to win Olympic, world and X Games slopestyle titles, capped her finale with back-to-back 900s.

The competition lacked 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Jamie Anderson, who announced her pregnancy last month.

Canada’s Megan Oldham landed the first triple cork in women’s ski big air competition history to beat Olympic silver medalist Tess Ledeux of France, according to commentators. Oldham, a 21-year-old ex-gymnast, was fourth at the Olympics.

Eileen Gu, the Olympic champion from China, did not compete but is entered in halfpipe and slopestyle later this weekend.

ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin on grief, loss, finding motivation

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