‘Never a victim’: What OSU guard Rylee Langerman believes she gained after losing her hair

‘Never a victim’: What OSU guard Rylee Langerman believes she gained after losing her hair

Alopecia took the Oklahoma native’s hair, but she believes her platform as a basketball player has given her an opportunity to help others.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Mar 8, 2024, 6:00am CST

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Mar 8, 2024, 6:00am CST

STILLWATER — Rylee Langerman has considered what her life might be like had she not lost her hair.

What if she hadn’t developed alopecia, the autoimmune disease that attacks hair follicles? 

What if she still had long hair and brown eyebrows like she did until middle school?

What if?

When the Oklahoma State guard asks those questions and ponders those possibilities, she doesn’t think about all she could gain. She instead considers everything that she would lose if she had hair.

“I just think about all the opportunities that God gave me because of it,” she said as we sat courtside at Gallagher-Iba Arena before a recent Cowgirl practice, “and I could not picture my life any other way.

“I can’t really imagine what my life would be like if it wasn’t like this.”

Rylee Langerman may not be the biggest or the fastest or the most talented player on the court, but you won’t find anyone tougher.

On the day the Cowgirls open play in the Big 12 Women’s Basketball Tournament, Langerman’s strength will be on full display. OSU has been beset by injuries, and she hasn’t been immune. Langerman injured her left knee on Jan. 31 at Iowa State, and even though she has worn a massive brace since to stabilize it, pain and swelling remain.

That hasn’t kept Langerman off the court; she is the first player off the bench for the Cowgirls and averages more than 19 minutes a game.

This hasn’t been the season Langerman had hoped for when she transferred from Arkansas last spring. OSU is 14-15 and unlikely to make any postseason tournament without an unexpected run through the conference tournament.

But Langerman, who plans to return to OSU next season, hasn’t given up. Hasn’t pouted. Hasn’t said, “Woe is me.”

That isn’t her way.

‘You’re not supposed to hide what you truly are’

Rylee Langerman was in second grade when she first lost her hair.

Patches of it came out, and while it was unexpected and a bit alarming, Langerman didn’t worry about it too much. She had an idea of why it was happening — both of her grandfathers died within a year of each other, “So it was stress-induced” — and she could treat the patches with medicine.

“So no one really knew I had it because you can hide it,” she said.

But in seventh grade, her hair loss got worse. It wasn’t coming out in patches. All of it started falling out.

Langerman doesn’t remember when she realized her alopecia areata (hair loss in patches) was becoming alopecia universalis (hair loss across the entire body).

“I honestly think I kind of blocked it out,” she said. “I think I blocked out a couple months there.”

She laughed.

“Trauma blocking.”

She was in middle school. She was going through puberty. At a time when self-confidence can be sparse and self-doubt can be abundant, Langerman found herself dealing with the loss of something lots of girls and women see as a symbol of strength and beauty.

There’s a quote from the TV series “Fleabag” that sums up how many women feel about hair.

Hair is everything. We wish it wasn’t so we could actually think about something else occasionally. But it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day.

As Langerman lost more and more hair, her parents went looking for solutions. Her dad, RJ, is an orthopedic surgeon.

“His first mindset is to fix it,” Langerman’s mom, Melissa, said. 

He scoured through research. He consulted with friends in medicine. He even talked to people in charge of clinical trials for alopecia treatments, which were still largely in the developmental stages a decade or so ago. The meds seemed promising but lacked information about any long-term side effects.

“We kind of decided early on this wasn’t the road we were gonna take,” Melissa said, “because there was just too much unknown.”

Rylee said, “I’m a very healthy person. This is literally just hindering my appearance, so I didn’t want to do anything that could risk health complications.”

Around the time Langerman was going into high school, she lost the last of her hair. Her parents suggested she wear a wig. She figured she’d give it a try, and she hated it immediately.

Not because it was itchy or sweaty.

“As soon as I tried it out, I was like, ‘I feel like I’m covering up who I’m supposed to be,’” she said.

“For some reason, the Lord just put in my head that you’re not supposed to hide what you truly are.”

Dec 30, 2023; Stillwater, Okla, USA ; Oklahoma State Cowgirls head coach Jacie Hoyt talks with guard Rylee Langerman (11) on the baseline in the first half of an NCAA womenÕs basketball game against the Iowa State Cyclones at Gallagher Iba arena. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Alcala-The Oklahoman

Rylee Langerman (11) and OSU coach Jacie Hoyt. (Mitch Alcala/The Oklahoman)

‘It gave me some comfort and confidence’

Rylee Langerman found herself not only going through one of the most profound physical changes at one of the most profound times in a young person’s life, but also doing it on a very public stage.

The basketball court.

Langerman attended Christian Heritage Academy in Del City, and as a freshman, she was a starter on a state championship team. She became one of the faces of the program at the same time she was adjusting to the loss of all of her hair.

There was no anonymity.

The thing is, Langerman didn’t want to hide. She enjoyed being in the arena for big games. Standing in the spotlight of basketball didn’t make her self-conscious. 

Quite the opposite.

“Just being able to do something that I know I’m good at and that I can do well and just finding that escape … it gave me some comfort and confidence,” she said.

She wore a black headband and used makeup to add eyebrows, but otherwise, she had nothing on her head. People would sometimes ask about her hair. Had she shaved it off for some reason? Did she have cancer? Was her hair going to grow back?

She heard all of those questions and more.

But she refused to trade everything basketball made her feel in order to avoid the prying eyes and uncomfortable questions.

“My favorite thing about the way that I play basketball is it really just depends on hard work and effort,” Langerman said. “Some nights, your shot’s not going to fall, or some nights, things aren’t gonna go your way. But you can always control how hard you work. 

“So I think having things that are up to me and just allowing me to take that control was good for me.”

Her mom said, “She could control basketball. She knew that there was something in her control. Her hair loss was out of her control. … People weren’t just looking at her because she didn’t have hair. They were looking at her because you know, ‘You just scored 25 points. Doesn’t matter if you have hair or not, right?’”

Langerman, who was The Oklahoman’s Little All-City Player of the Year as a senior, led CHA to the state tournament four times, winning two state titles and having a chance at a third title squashed by COVID.

But basketball wasn’t just her happy place.

Basketball was her platform to help others, too.

‘I could have chosen to look at this as a hardship’

Rylee Langerman will never forget the little Arkansas fan who approached her after a game carrying an American Girl-style doll.

The little fan was bald.

So was the doll.

“I think that God gave me alopecia so that I could inspire the younger generation of kids with alopecia,” Langerman said. “I didn’t have anyone like that when I was that age. “

But it’s not just little kids with alopecia who have approached Langerman for autographs or pictures over these past few years, first at Arkansas, now at OSU. There are older adults. There are young adults like her.

All of them touch her heart.

“I remember every single one,” she said.

She believes all of them are a big part of the reason why she developed alopecia universalis.

“It was obviously a very pivotal point in my life, where I could have chosen to look at this as a hardship,” she said.

“But I think having my family push me to the Lord and help me lean on Him, that became a really defining moment for my faith in God and just trusting that He had a purpose for me.”

That’s a big reason why Langerman has not sought treatment options. Now, many of the meds that were in a trial stage when she first started losing all of her hair have been more thoroughly researched. The side effects are known. The risks are documented.

She could likely take something that might regrow her hair without jeopardizing her health.

Rylee Langerman isn’t interested.

“For her right now, this is just how God has intended for her to look and to reach people and let them know that you’re not defined by your hair,” her mom said.

“She was never a victim.”

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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