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Originally published | Page modified April 29, 2009 at 3:39 AM

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Kennedy catcher Lindsy Dugan: Bald, bold and brave

Kennedy High School softball catcher Lindsy Dugan was 9 years old when she began losing her long, blonde hair. Rather than fight it, she embraced it as part of her personality.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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KENT — Each prick of the needle was excruciating.

Lindsy Dugan endured 25 to 50 of them in her scalp and eyebrows once every month. For a 12-year-old, those shots of cortisone to stimulate hair growth were more agonizing than the frightening fact she was going bald.

"Stick, stick, stick," Dugan said. "You feel every one of them."

It is her most vivid memory of that traumatic stage of her life. Lindsy was an athletic 9-year-old when her once-long blonde hair began thinning so badly the family hair stylist recommended she see a doctor. She was diagnosed with Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune condition that affects 1 to 2 percent of the population. Of the three types of the disease, Lindsy suffers from the rarest form, Universalis, which causes loss of all body hair.

Today she is bald. She is brave. She is bold. And those who know the Kennedy High School softball star say she is beautiful.

"She is the most amazing person," said childhood friend Jessie Genger, a standout athlete at Kentwood, the school Dugan attended as a freshman and sophomore. "She is so nice. She's just like any other girl. She just doesn't have hair."

And she's happy to tell you it has its perks, like quick showers and no shaving.

"I'm a little jealous," Kennedy teammate Jamie Yellam said with a laugh, adding that Lindsy is the most confident person she knows. Dugan, a senior, even drew a special greeting from Jay Buhner, the bald former Mariner who called her "mini-me."

Dugan, a talented catcher for two-time defending Class 3A state champion Kennedy, isn't shy about comparing her bald head with an umpire's.

"I kid around about it as much as I can," she said. "The more comfortable I am with it, the more comfortable everyone else is."

She once told Jessica Lewis, Kennedy's pitcher this season, "I used to be blonde, but then I got smart and lost my hair."

"She just takes everything in stride," Lewis said.

Dugan's parents, Kristi and Jim, and her 14-year-old brother, James, marvel at Lindsy's strength.

"She handled it way better than I handled it," Kristi said. "I was always worried about her."

Worried what kids and even adults might say to or about her. And they've heard it all. Most are sympathetic and many assume she is undergoing chemotherapy.

"I've met a lot of cancer survivors," Lindsy said with a smile.

There are awkward moments. Young kids tend to stare, she admits, while their embarrassed moms drag them off by the hand. Occasionally she hears a rude comment that she's a skinhead who shaves her head for kicks.

"It's frustrating sometimes, but I usually just shrug it off," Dugan said. "People just don't know. I can't expect everyone to know who I am."

Even the person who went on to become her best friend, Rachelle Wilson, admits she wasn't sure she wanted to get to know Lindsy when they first met through club softball six years ago. She was so different. But Lindsy soon won over Wilson and the rest of her teammates and became an inspiration.

"She has the most courage of anyone I know," said Wilson, who attends Cascade Christian in Puyallup. "She is so strong through it all and makes other people stronger."

It wasn't always easy to be strong. Local doctors knew very little about Alopecia at the time.

"They basically told us, 'Strap in for the rollercoaster ride,' " Dugan said.

They couldn't tell her if she was going to lose patches of her hair, or all of it. There's even a chance it could grow back. The family found support through the Alopecia Areata Foundation and attended a national convention when Dugan was 12.

"There were so many little bald kids running around, it was a great weekend," said Lindsy, who tries to raise awareness of the disease whenever possible.

Lindsy wore a $3,100 wig to school in eighth and ninth grades, hating every minute of it. Partly because it was hot, but mostly because it wasn't how she saw herself. She never wore one playing sports and abandoned it completely after the last day of school her freshman year at Kentwood, even though her mom pleaded with her not to.

"I finally decided, 'What the heck, I'd rather be me all the time, be the same, look the same,' " Lindsy said. "I see myself as bald all the time, so everybody else should, too."

But it was an awkward sophomore year at Kentwood. Some students who had never seen her without her wig didn't know how to react. Sports continued to be an outlet — she played golf, basketball and softball for the Conquerors — but weren't enough.

"I felt I needed a fresh start," she said.

That fall, Lindsy transferred to Kennedy, a smaller, private school in Burien, where she said students and staff were warm and welcoming. She played junior-varsity basketball, while the varsity reached the Class 3A state championship game before losing to Auburn Riverside. But her biggest impact came in softball, where she batted .494 and caught all-state pitcher Karli Merlich as the Lancers successfully defended their title. As a joke, she wore her wig to the postseason banquet. Her teammates made her take it.

Kennedy coach Dino Josie was immediately impressed with Dugan.

"When you meet Lindsy Dugan, the quality of her character speaks more about her than her appearance ever could," he said. "She's such a big personality. Her personality is bigger than the fact that she has no hair."

And her abilities on the softball field don't hurt either. As Dugan puts it, "If you can play, nobody cares what you look like."

And Dugan can play. She is batting .676 for the unbeaten Lancers with 13 extra-base hits and a 1.382 slugging percentage. She threw out the only runner attempting to steal and calls every pitch.

"She's the best high-school catcher I've seen," Josie said.

Dugan, an honors student who will play at Florida Community College next season, also is a natural working with younger players and aspires to become a college coach some day. Mark Lewis, her club coach and Jessica Lewis' dad, has watched her mature on and off the field. He has seen the transformation from a 12-year-old who at times struggled with her condition to the confident teenager who walked into Kennedy High School without a wig.

"She just went in there and was like, 'This is who I am, I'm bald ... ' "

Dugan still has moments when she wonders, "Why me?" But not for long.

"Hey, this is me and this is who I'm going to be," she said, "so why not embrace it and make the best of it?"

Sandy Ringer: 206-718-1512 or sringer@seattletimes.com

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