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


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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Faith Kipyegon breaks second world record in eight days; three WRs fall in Paris


Kenyan Faith Kipyegon broke her second world record in as many Fridays as three world records fell at a Diamond League meet in Paris.

Kipyegon, a 29-year-old mom, followed her 1500m record from last week by running the fastest 5000m in history.

She clocked 14 minutes, 5.20 seconds, pulling away from now former world record holder Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia, who ran 14:07.94 for the third-fastest time in history. Gidey’s world record was 14:06.62.

“When I saw that it was a world record, I was so surprised,” Kipyegon said, according to meet organizers. “The world record was not my plan. I just ran after Gidey.”

Kipyegon, a two-time Olympic 1500m champion, ran her first 5000m in eight years. In the 1500m, her primary event, she broke an eight-year-old world record at the last Diamond League meet in Italy last Friday.

Kipyegon said she will have to talk with her team to decide if she will add the 5000m to her slate for August’s world championships in Budapest.

Next year in the 1500m, she can bid to become the second person to win the same individual Olympic track and field event three times (joining Usain Bolt). After that, she has said she may move up to the 5000m full-time en route to the marathon.

Kipyegon is the first woman to break world records in both the 1500m and the 5000m since Italian Paola Pigni, who reset them in the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m over a nine-month stretch in 1969 and 1970.

Full Paris meet results are here. The Diamond League moves to Oslo next Thursday, live on Peacock.

Also Friday, Ethiopian Lamecha Girma broke the men’s 3000m steeplechase world record by 1.52 seconds, running 7:52.11. Qatar’s Saif Saaeed Shaheen set the previous record in 2004. Girma is the Olympic and world silver medalist.

Olympic 1500m champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway ran the fastest two-mile race in history, clocking 7:54.10. Kenyan Daniel Komen previously had the fastest time of 7:58.61 from 1997 in an event that’s not on the Olympic program and is rarely contested at top meets. Ingebrigtsen, 22, is sixth-fastest in history in the mile and eighth-fastest in the 1500m.

Olympic and world silver medalist Marileidy Paulino of the Dominican Republic won the 400m in 49.12 seconds, chasing down Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who ran her first serious flat 400m in four years. McLaughlin-Levrone clocked a personal best 49.71 seconds, a time that would have earned bronze at last year’s world championships.

“I’m really happy with the season opener, PR, obviously things to clean up,” said McLaughlin-Levrone, who went out faster than world record pace through 150 meters. “My coach wanted me to take it out and see how I felt. I can’t complain with that first 200m.”

And the end of the race?

“Not enough racing,” she said. “Obviously, after a few races, you kind of get the feel for that lactic acid. So, first race, I knew it was to be expected.”

McLaughlin-Levrone is expected to race the flat 400m at July’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, where the top three are in line to make the world team in the individual 400m. She also has a bye into August’s worlds in the 400m hurdles and is expected to announce after USATF Outdoors which race she will contest at worlds.

Noah Lyles, the world 200m champion, won the 100m in 9.97 seconds into a headwind. Olympic champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy was seventh in 10.21 in his first 100m since August after struggling through health issues since the Tokyo Games.

Lyles wants to race both the 100m and the 200m at August’s worlds. He has a bye into the 200m. The top three at USATF Outdoors join reigning world champion Fred Kerley on the world championships team. Lyles is the fifth-fastest American in the 100m this year, not counting Kerley, who is undefeated in three meets at 100m in 2023.

Olympic and world silver medalist Keely Hodgkinson won the 800m in 1:55.77, a British record. American Athing Mu, the Olympic and world champion with a personal best of 1:55.04, is expected to make her season debut later this month.

World champion Grant Holloway won the 110m hurdles in 12.98 seconds, becoming the first man to break 13 seconds this year. Holloway has the world’s four best times in 2023.

American Valarie Allman won the discus over Czech Sandra Perkovic in a meeting of the last two Olympic champions. Allman threw 69.04 meters and has the world’s 12 best throws this year.

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Iga Swiatek sweeps into French Open final, where she faces a surprise


Iga Swiatek marched into the French Open final without dropping a set in six matches. All that stands between her and a third Roland Garros title is an unseeded foe.

Swiatek plays 43rd-ranked Czech Karolina Muchova in the women’s singles final, live Saturday at 9 a.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

Swiatek, the top-ranked Pole, swept 14th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil 6-2, 7-6 (7) in Thursday’s semifinal in her toughest test all tournament. Haddad Maia squandered three break points at 4-all in the second set.

Swiatek dropped just 23 games thus far, matching her total en route to her first French Open final in 2020 (which she won for her first WTA Tour title of any kind). After her semifinal, she signed a courtside camera with the hashtag #stepbystep.

“For sure I feel like I’m a better player,” than in 2020, she said. “Mentally, tactically, physically, just having the experience, everything. So, yeah, my whole life basically.”

Swiatek can become the third woman since 2000 to win three French Opens after Serena Williams and Justine Henin and, at 22, the youngest woman to win four total majors since Williams in 2002.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Muchova upset No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus to reach her first major final.

Muchova, a 26-year-old into the second week of the French Open for the first time, became the first player to take a set off the powerful Belarusian all tournament, then rallied from down 5-2 in the third set to prevail 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 7-5.

Sabalenka, who overcame previous erratic serving to win the Australian Open in January, had back-to-back double faults in her last service game.

“Lost my rhythm,” she said. “I wasn’t there.”

Muchova broke up what many expected would be a Sabalenka-Swiatek final, which would have been the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 match at the French Open since Williams beat Maria Sharapova in the 2013 final.

Muchova is unseeded, but was considered dangerous going into the tournament.

In 2021, she beat then-No. 1 Ash Barty to make the Australian Open semifinals, then reached a career-high ranking of 19. She dropped out of the top 200 last year while struggling through injuries.

“Some doctors told me maybe you’ll not do sport anymore,” Muchova said. “It’s up and downs in life all the time. Now I’m enjoying that I’m on the upper part now.”

Muchova has won all five of her matches against players ranked in the top three. She also beat Swiatek in their lone head-to-head, but that was back in 2019 when both players were unaccomplished young pros. They have since practiced together many times.

“I really like her game, honestly,” Swiatek said. “I really respect her, and she’s I feel like a player who can do anything. She has great touch. She can also speed up the game. She plays with that kind of freedom in her movements. And she has a great technique. So I watched her matches, and I feel like I know her game pretty well.”

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