There are layers to everybody that no one knows about. They are the little elements about us that are locked away until they are uncovered.
Athletes are no different — often hiding details about themselves, never to let out what they kept away. It’s often used to protect them from the perceptions of a grueling, competitive world — a place with little remorse.
Sometimes these secrets reveal something more, something incredible about a person. But once the person reveals it, there’s no going back.
This is where Sumner High senior Rachel Stowell comes in.
Stowell has had an outstanding athletic career, accomplishing a lot while playing for the Sumner soccer, basketball and track teams. Early last month, she signed her letter of intent to play soccer for Dominican U. in San Francisco next fall while beginning her doctorial path in sports medicine. That signing day signified many years of hard work.
"I want to be a doctor, so when I found a really good pre-med program in the sports sciences — and I got to play soccer there — it was definitely a fit," Stowell said.
All the sports Stowell has played — especially soccer — has been a gift.
When Stowell was five years old, she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA), a condition often caused from an autoimmune disorder where the body can attack and destroy healthy tissue — something no one outside her family circle knew about.
"When I was younger, my knees would hurt all the time. So not being active — even with long car rides, just standing up after, it hurt more than it should of," Stowell said. "And so getting into sports and doing athletics, even though it was supposed to be helpful, it was painful while doing it."
Stowell never told anyone of this condition. Not her coaches, not her teammates and never her closest friends. No one knew why she dressed back into her coat and pants at halftime during soccer games, bouncing around to keep the blood flowing to her joints. It was out of necessity.
"I had to stay active during halftime because if I sat down, I might have not been able to stand back up and go out and continue playing in the game," she said.
It was her secret to bear.
JRA is more than just a burden, it’s a life-altering condition that dictates people’s lives. Many people like Stowell never fully recover from this ailment.
This was the message doctors told Stowell and her parents, Jennifer and Brendan, that this condition was going to weigh on her life. From age five and on, it was about being cautious when it came to sports.
"They kind of told us to be cautious with her," Jennifer said. "They wanted her to continue to be active, but they talked about sports like swimming — low-impact or no impact sports because it was in her joints."
Sports had left Rachel with her knees, fingers and toes swollen after — even at times affected her vision.
Out of concern for their daughter’s health, her parents put a halt to her athletic career. It was a tough decision to make at the time.
"I just always had a really fun time playing sports. Just at a young age, it was something that I loved doing," Rachel said. "I didn’t want to stop just because it hurt."
"When she was first diagnosed, we didn’t want her to do anything," Jennifer said. "Doctors told us to make her be active — just nothing like what she’s done."
Many children have a sense of stubborn pride to them that allows them to accomplish what they put their mind to. Stowell was a child like that.
"She’s always had this quality to her in taking on more and more challenges," Brendan said. "She was undeterred as a child … it wasn’t long before she was coming to us wanting to play soccer again. She wanted to get back out there and just be a kid again."
"She always been sure of what she wants and really just does it," Jennifer added. "From day one, it’s ‘I’m going to be a college soccer player,’ since the fifth grade."
Determined is an understatement as nothing was to stop her from going out playing soccer again. If she had to deal with the pain afterward, it was a small price to pay.
"It was easier to deal with the pain that way, just getting out there and moving," Rachel said.
The world has always been simpler to the senior while she’s on the pitch.
"It’s just an amazing feeling to be out there with your team, playing a game you love," she said.
Past meets future
Dealing with JRA has inspired Stowell to become a doctor that treat sports related injuries. It’s remarkable how a person can go through something life-altering such as this, and then turn it around to a positive.
Sure, Stowell was able to play competitive sports and create an identity through that realm, but dealing with JRA is what’s going to define who Rachel will be as a person.
"A lot of it is because of what I have gone through … and just watching people recover (through injuries), I was always just interested in that," she said. "I wanted to help people go out and pursue the dreams of what they love to do. Me being able to do that with my life, it’s just really inspired me to go out and help people — and I love being around sports, too."
Stowell’s secret is about a life’s incredible journey of perseverance. And all along the way, never deterred, Stowell found who she is and where she’ll go in life, undeterred on what lies ahead.
"I’ve found a where I want to be and where I feel like I’ll fit in," she said. "I’m excited about the challenges ahead."
Doctors at Seattle Children’s on Friday diagnosed Stowell with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
“We thought something was wrong when she started to show pain in her fingers elbows, ankles and knees, so doctors wanted to take some blood,” said Brendan Stowell, her father, wrote Monday in an email.
Stowell is in good spirits but still disappointed from the harsh news. Patients never fully recover from either JRA or RA; it’s about overcoming and striving through the condition.
The reason Rachel came out with her story was to bring awareness of JRA and RA, and to let people know it can be conquered.
“It is important for everyone to know and how you can fight your way through this,” Brendan said.