By Mike Watkins//Correspondent | Tuesday, September 8, 2015Growing up with Alopecia, Staciana Stitts Winfield found solace in the water.
Figuratively and literally.
When things got tough – name-calling, weird looks, whispers at the school lockers – and the prospect of growing up without the beautiful, luxurious hair she saw on the other girls around her was too hard to handle, Winfield said she always knew she could “come home” to the pool.
“As a child in middle school, when I was less confident and new to the disease, I really struggled,” said Winfield, who was often mistaken for a child with cancer and still is sometimes due to her completely bald head. “I didn't know anyone else that had it, and I was scared and angry.
“Swimming saved me because I knew I didn't want to stop swimming and wearing a wig would be silly in the pool. Swim practice was the first place I felt free and happy once I told my friends what Alopecia was because their reaction was, ‘Cool! You are going to swim faster!’”
Winfield said she embraced that idea and used her anger at practice every day to swim faster.
“Underwater is the best place to scream and cry, and I did a lot of that the first year with this disease,” she said. “I was also an emotional teenager so maybe those tears would have still happened, but for a different reason, if I didn't have Alopecia.”
These days, mixed in with the stares, Winfield said she gets – and gives – a lot of hugs for “rocking a bald head.”
Winfield lives and works in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., with her husband, Brett, daughter, Kyla, and dog, Nike. They returned to the area after living overseas in Morocco (2011-2013) and Malaysia (2013-2015) for Brett’s job in the shipping industry.
While living overseas, she taught yoga, running and swimming clinics and raised her daughter.
Now that they’re back in Southern California, she’s working at St. Margaret's Episcopal School and concurrently is going to school for her teaching credentials. She also started her own clinic business, Swim it Forward, LLC, over the last year with friends Aaron Peirsol and Dave Denniston.
“We combine swimming clinics with service, learning to encourage swimming's youth to serve their community and help others,” said Winfield, who retired in 2006. “We have enjoyed sharing our secrets of fast swimming, overcoming adversity and empowering swimmers to serve others and reduce their imprint on our environment.”
Winfield was indoctrinated with the water herself when her parents put her and her siblings in the water as babies.
And while she doesn’t remember learning to swim, she was still swimming before she could walk.
It wasn’t long before she was hooked and swimming regularly on her way to becoming an NCAA and Olympic champion.
“I started swimming on the YMCA team in Encinitas, Calif., when I was 6,” she said. “My love for the water kept me in the sport. The moment you go underwater and all goes silent. That moment is priceless.
“I still get in the water as often as I can to feel this peace. It washes away all anxiety, fear, anger, sadness. I feel pure joy when I'm in water, and I soak it up as much as possible in order to radiate it out to others.”
One of America’s top breaststrokers in the late 90s and early 2000s, Winfield is best known for being a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team – swimming the breaststroke leg in preliminaries of the 400 medley relay to win gold in Sydney.
But she was more than a relay swimmer, winning a pair of titles in the 100 breaststroke at the 1999 and 2003 Pan Am Games and swam on gold medal-winning 400m medley relays as well. She’s also a 2002 FINA World Championships finalist (100m breast) and earned multiple All-American honors as a four-year star at California-Berkeley for Coach Teri McKeever.
Watching this year’s Rio Olympics brought back a lot of good memories and emotions of her own Olympic experience 16 years earlier.
She said she felt both the happiness for those who performed well and the sadness for those who didn’t – but overall, it was just a great opportunity to see great athletic performances in and out of the pool.
“I love watching all of the Olympics, including swimming,” she said. “The highlight for me was watching Anthony Ervin and Nathan Adrian finishing 1st and 3rd in the 50 free – as well as seeing the Cal Golden Bears rock it, of course! Anthony and I made the team together in 2000, and I still remember the moment he tied with Gary Hall Jr. to win the 50 in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It was such a great moment to watch him crush that event again.”
As a breaststroker, Winfield said the feud between American gold medalist Lilly King and Russia’s Yulia Efimova was a sad moment for her, especially when the fans booed the Russian, who was originally disqualified from participating because of failed drug tests but then allowed just days before competition started.
To Winfield, the Olympics are about optimism and inclusion, and this was a display that went against both of those.
“(The Olympics) should be about the athletic events and highlighting the efforts of the athletes; it should not be about politics or ostracizing others for circumstances we may not know all of the details about,” said Winfield, who retired in 2004 but returned after 5 months.
“The Olympics in Ancient Greece were created to stop all war and admire the athletic achievements of everyone. I wish we could still embrace this promise of inclusion and empathy to each other. We will all be judged one day by the Creator, it's not our place to judge. It's just our duty to love one another.”
Calling daughter Kyla “a true fish,” Winfield said she will support her if she chooses to swim but won’t put any pressure on her to follow in her mom’s footsteps.
Regardless, just as she does with the swimmers in her program, she wants to continue to pass down the life lessons she learned from swimming to the next generations of young people.
“Swimming taught me that you can achieve anything you believe you can do, with realistic long-term goals and daily short-term sacrifices,” said Winfield, who participates every year at Alopeciapalooza, a free camp for kids with Alopecia where there is a symbiotic relationship of inspiration between adults and kids. “Also, you better love what you are doing because life is too short to waste time doing something you don’t like doing. Find your passion and choose it every day.
“The frequent failures and sporadic but continuous success helped me realize what it takes to reach your dreams. Optimism and determination are two characteristics that will help anyone in this life. I am so grateful for the relationships I made and the self-confidence I gained from swimming. I will always give back to the sport that gave me so much.”
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