‘For my people’: transgender woman pursues Olympic dream

SWANZEY, NH – While driving down a steep, winding road in this small town, it wouldn’t be surprising to see an elite these days jumping through the bushes to avoid being hit by a car.

This hurdle, CeCe Telfer, hopes to qualify for the US Olympic Trials, which begin June 18 in Eugene, Oregon. The paved road is its main training center.

In 2019, Telfer became the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA title; she was a fifth year senior at Franklin Pierce University, a Division II school in Rindge, NH Now she is one of a handful of transgender women looking to reach the Tokyo Games, which begin at the end of July.

Olympic historians claim that no athlete at the Winter or Summer Games has publicly identified as transgender in their competitions. At least two announced they were transgender some time later, including Caitlyn Jenner, who won a gold medal in the decathlon in 1976.

Some athletes who publicly identify as trans are likely to compete this summer in Tokyo at the Olympics and Paralympics, however. many competitors are still trying to qualify. Yet even as opportunities for trans athletes have opened up at the college and Olympic levels, there has been a spike in state law in the United States to prohibit trans athletes – mostly younger girls – from competing in. teams corresponding to their gender identity.

Recent clashes over transgender athletes have made it more important for Telfer to capitalize on its chance to compete in elite competitions.

“It’s important for me to do this for these kids,” said Telfer, 26, as she sat on the back porch of her college psychologist’s house. “It’s important for me to do this for my people – be it women, black, transgender, LGBTQ – anyone who is scrutinized and oppressed.

His path to the Olympic events was difficult. She struggled during the coronavirus pandemic to find a trainer to support her, and even flew to Mexico to train briefly. Telfer eventually returned to New Hampshire, where she was sleeping in her car until the psychologist sent her an invitation to stay at her home in Swanzey, a town not far from Franklin Pierce.

Three days a week, the training sessions mainly concern Telfer and cars on the asphalt of Swanzey. For three more days, Telfer drove about two hours to a high school track in a suburb of Boston. There she can use the obstacles and work with another athlete.

She meets the International Olympic Committee’s eligibility criteria after removing her testosterone levels and maintaining them for at least a year. But to reach the Tokyo Games, where she hopes to run the 400-meter hurdles, Telfer must first qualify for national trials. To do this, she must run the race in 56.5 seconds during a feeding meeting. It will be tough – his best time in a qualifying game so far has been 57.5 seconds.

If Telfer makes it through the trials, she will need to finish in the top three in her event to have a chance to go to Tokyo.

After leaving college in the spring of 2019, Telfer attempted to persuade several coaches to help him reach his Olympic goal. Two initially agreed to work with her.

One of them stopped responding when he realized she was transgender, Telfer said. The other was in Mexico. In February, after nearly two years of training on her own, Telfer gave up her apartment and job at a New Hampshire nursing home and flew away. She stayed with a friend’s family and was trained for the first time since college.

But his stay was brief. Telfer, who grew up mainly in Jamaica and Canada, was due to return to the United States to have her application for U.S. citizenship, which was granted on May 14.

She spent a few days surfing on her couch when she returned to New Hampshire. When that was no longer an option, she spent two weeks sleeping in her car. She kept warm by wearing two sweaters, plus leggings with sweatpants over them, and wrapping herself in her college blanket. She parked at various truck stops and parking lots. She regularly skipped breakfast and lunch and ate mostly cooked roast chicken which she could buy cheaply at the supermarket.

Nicole Newell, the director of counseling at Franklin Pierce, learned of Telfer’s situation and offered accommodation. Sometimes she can see Telfer sprinting up the hill outside her window.

“No matter what happens to her, she keeps moving,” Newell said. “And it’s amazing.”

Although some people hugged her, Telfer always felt like a stranger. She receives strange looks in public and death threats on social media, she said, and feels out of place as a black person in a predominantly white community.

“I have always been the ‘seventh friend’,” she said. “No one wanted to invite me first. I would be the last one or I would invite myself.

Telfer was raised by a single mother and hid her gender dysphoria for fear of persecution. She started running in elementary school in Jamaica, where sports for her age group were not separated by gender. She continued to run in men’s teams when her family moved to Lebanon, NH, the summer before her freshman year of high school.

She saw herself as a sprinter, she said, but her trainer steered her into obstacle course.

She entered Franklin Pierce in the fall of 2014 and started competing there in 2016 – on the men’s team, although she publicly identified as a woman. Telfer strayed from the track for a while in the spring of 2017 after feeling uncomfortable with the way others viewed her, and she quickly began suppressing testosterone.

“They didn’t understand that I was a woman playing the sport I love,” Telfer said of running against men. “They were starting to see me as a gay athlete running with cisgender men,” she said, referring to those who identify with their sex assigned at birth.

At the start of the 2018-19 school year, Telfer said, she walked into her trainer’s office with a friend and asked to compete with other women. She expected the coach to balk. Instead, she recalls, he replied, “Finally”.

“Then I started to cry and then my friend started to cry,” Telfer said. “It’s like we don’t know what’s going on, and he said, ‘You can compete as CeCe, as yourself, as a girl.’”

His excitement, she said, was tempered by a backlash. Parents of Telfer’s competitors objected, saying she had an athletic advantage.

College and Olympic sports allow transgender women to compete in women’s divisions as long as they meet various testosterone suppression requirements. Research on how such hormone therapy affects elite athletes is scarce.

Some research indicates that after a year of hormone therapy started after puberty, transgender women retain muscle mass and strength benefits fueled by testosterone. Other research indicates that the strength benefits, but not the cardiovascular benefits, are diminished after two years.

Citing supposed competitive advantages, but little evidence that trans athletes dominated women’s sport, lawmakers in more than 30 states have introduced bills aimed at preventing transgender women and girls from competing on teams that match their identities. gender.

Six states – Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Montana, and West Virginia – have passed such laws in recent legislative sessions, according to Human rights campaign. Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota signed two executive orders that would similarly limit participation; Idaho enacted a law last summer, but it has since been blocked by a federal judge.

“Seeing how much the world hated people like me, the dream not only came true, it had greater meaning,” Telfer said.

When Telfer spoke to her mother on the phone in 2018, she was told she would likely never see her immediate family again.

Larry Leach, who played basketball at Franklin Pierce in the early 1980s and returned as vice president of alumni affairs while Telfer was a student, became a mentor to her as she navigated her life student-athlete and struggling with her identity. He was standing in the room with Telfer when she came to see his mother.

“Listening and hearing that a mother, under any circumstance, will not accept a child, was sad for me – for CeCe – because I know how much she wants her mother’s support,” Leach said at the conference. ‘a telephone interview. “She gets it from other people, but the desire to just have it from her mother means a lot more than me supporting her or anyone supporting her.”

When on the track, Telfer puts the bigger issues aside and focuses more on the clock and her Olympic dream. She hopes to reach her qualifying time for practice at a competition in early June.

“I really have to believe this is going to help me get to practice,” Telfer said of his training. “When I open my eyes, all I can see are the Olympic events.”

Jeré Longman contribution to reports.

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