Anyone who’s played a sport knows that hair isn’t just an accessory ― the way you wear it can either help or hinder your performance, give you the confidence you need to do your best or even spark controversy.
Just think about the impact made by Venus and Serena Williams in the beginning of their careers, when they wore beaded braids. Or remember the challenges presented to Gabby Douglas, whose 2012 Olympic performance triggered debates over the gymnast’s hair. Then there’s Megan Rapinoe, the 2019 World Cup soccer star whose purple hair won her legions of fans.
We talked to four professional athletes about their look, how they deal with their hair when competing and how their hair intersects with their identity.
Four-time Senior World wrestling champion, two-time Senior World wrestling bronze medalist, Team USA 2016 and 2021
Gray’s father taught her to wrestle when she was 6 years old, and she’s been participating in the sport ever since. When it comes to her hair, the biggest challenge is making sure that none of it is easily available to pull during a competition.
“My teammates and I can spend up to an hour and a half before a match braiding our hair,” Gray told HuffPost. She utilizes braids, small ponytails or cornrows to keep her hair as close to her head as possible. “Another thing to consider is that you can’t use any kind of product in your hair because whatever’s in there is going to end up in your eyes when you wrestle.”
Gray gets quite a bit of hair breakage because of her sport ― most of the women she knows do. “I don’t get upset about it. I just try to keep it as clean and healthy as possible.”
Gray recently cut her long hair and is looking forward to less time spent getting it ready for a match. “The other thing about long, thick hair is that it takes forever to dry, especially in a humid place. I often wash my hair twice a day, so it seemed as if it was never fully dry.”
Gray donated her hair, just as she’s always done after getting it cut.
Two-time gold medalist, USA Track & Field Paralympian, Team USA 2021
Young was an active child who fell in love with track and field in high school, realizing it was something she wanted to actually go to school for. Her preferred racing hairstyle for the track has always been “one that doesn’t get in my face,” she told HuffPost.
Until a couple of years ago, she wore her hair in a bun or braids. Then she decided to cut off all her processed hair and go completely natural.
“I had just moved to a new state without any friends or family, and I was going through kind of a bad breakup. I felt like I had reached my breaking point and needed a change,” Young said.
“I’m not saying that you have to find your true beauty by shaving your head, but I believe a woman should go through it at least once to explore a different side of herself.””
Her mom, according to Young, “always preached to me that hair is hair and it will always grow back. It doesn’t define who you are.” So it’s no surprise that her mom is the one who suggested she shave her head. At first Young resisted ― and it took four tries to get the cut exactly how she wanted.
“When I opened up in my first big meet with short hair, a lot of people didn’t recognize me, and it was weird,” Young said. “I got a lot of compliments on how bold the look was and how different it made me look. I walked and talked with confidence, and people began to catch on because, even in interviews, I was continuously being told that I was shining and that I looked different, in a good way.”
“Before I cut my hair, I used to think that I wasn’t pretty without the right hairstyle or that I needed to make sure it was bone straight,” she said. “Now I’m going into year two of my big chop. My hair isn’t part of my identity. I would quite frankly shave my head again. I found that I am truly beautiful without my hair. I found that I have really nice cheekbones and beautiful eyes. I used to hide behind my hair, but now I feel freer than ever. “I’m not saying that you have to find your true beauty by shaving your head, but I believe a woman should go through it at least once to explore a different side of herself.”
Houchin participated in her first bicycle race in 2013 after completing a six-hour bicycle courier shift and hitching a two-hour car ride to Milwaukee for a 7 p.m. start of a 24-hour race. Around noon (with seven hours to go in the race), a friend told her she was in sixth place.
“I had no idea that I was really competing,” she said. “I kicked it into high and managed to podium with a second-place finish behind a woman on a geared bike.” (Houchin was on a fixed-gear bike.)
Houchin doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about her hair. She most often wears it in two French braids with a bandanna on under her helmet.
“I am so privileged!” Houchin said. “I like my hair and never really clung to it in a serious way. I buzzed my hair short when I dated women exclusively. I dyed my hair a lot as a teenager and, in a recent breakup, I dyed some of it blond to change the way it looked. It’s been long, short and in-between a few times. I’d be sad if I didn’t have my hair because it’s always crazy and fun and knotting up in the wind.”
Houchin doesn’t cut her hair that often anymore.
“I was told by an elder that our hairs are strands of ideas, extensions of our brain, so every time we think something, it grows out into the strands we wear on our head, said Houchin, whose mother is Ojibwe. “I think about that a lot, and I don’t cut my hair anymore. I leave my frizzy split ends because I think those are my ideas unraveling. I was also told that we only cut our hair in times of mourning. So, if I have long hair, all my core people are healthy and happy.”
Ultra-endurance bicycle racer, first woman to win (against both men and women) the Trans Am Bike Race 2016, women’s record holder on the Tour Divide and the Baja Divide, second place overall in the 2019 Silk Road Mountain Race
Wilcox’s first race was the Holyland Challenge, an 850-mile race in Israel in 2015. Wilcox had been bike-packing the world since 2008, riding many of the race routes, and found herself in Israel at the time the race was held. She decided to enter.
Before going to the Middle East, she’d been in Poland, where she saw a lot of women with one side of their head shaved.
“They looked so tough and confident to me that I decided to shave one side of my head also to get ready for the race,” Wilcox said. After this, people started sending her photos of themselves ― or their girlfriends, daughters or wives ― with one side of their head shaved.
“It was so cool,” Lael told HuffPost. “I got a picture of a 50-year-old grandma in Israel, also 7- and 5-year-olds.” She got some jokes, too. “The best was when my grandma asked who my barber was,” Wilcox said, “so she could make sure she didn’t go to him.”
Endurance cycling races often involve not showering for days on end. At the end of the Tour Divide, which Wilcox did in about 17 days, her hair was completely dreadlocked.
“My hair isn’t essential to my identity. I can change it, play with it or not, worry about it or not.” Currently she’s growing out her hair from a super-short 2016 cut.
“It looks terrible,” she said, laughing. “I mean it’s long enough now that I can stick it behind my ears, but it doesn’t look that good. I suppose I could style it but …”