Competing To Lose: The Game of a Trans Competitive Athlete

I’m staring at the barbell on the floor, loaded up. 405 pounds. It is my third personal record attempt of the day, and all eyes are on me. I’m standing now, pacing back and forth in front of  the platform. Nobody comes close, except for my manager, close friend, and strongwoman, Julia. She’s holding the bottle of ammonia that lit me up before my previous make of 396 pounds. My coach, Vinny, sits quietly next to the deadlift platform, letting me stew in my pacing, and the greatest of all time, Ed Coan, stands expectantly near him. 

I was angry, angry at everyone and everything, breathing hard through my teeth. I was angry with the barbell, angry with the temperature, angry with the platform. I was angry that my sumo pulls were scratching up my thigh, that my loose shorts weren’t staying up where I wanted them, that the bow in my hair was slightly offset. I found any little reason to send myself to that dark place that most strength athletes go to. However, I was most angry with myself: I was doubting, doubting myself, doubting the people around me, doubting the world when they see me attempt this. The question: What is it going to mean when I put my hands on this barbell?

I’ve been an athlete since I was six, and a pretty good one since I was 12. I excelled in football; I wasn’t good enough to take it to college, but good enough for people to know my name. My junior year of high school, I dropped sixty pounds in six months so I could be even better. It became my primary love. I was in the gym, day in, day out. Five A.M., before school, and 4 P.M., after the bell. I saw my shoulders and chest fill out with muscle, my core define, and my legs grow.  I went to college as a bored, single, ADHD riddled boy at UT Austin. There I would be, six to eight in the morning, pulling, pushing, sweating. I saw the veins in my arms pop, my skin get thinner, my shirts hang off me as I brought my body fat to under 11%. Then I joined the University Olympic Weightlifting team on campus. I snatched 95 kilograms, I cleaned 125 and jerked 132. Nothing huge for a boy in the sport, but I was pretty proud of those numbers. Soon after, however, I kissed the numbers and the body goodbye. 

I am a transgender woman. When I was six, I wanted to wear a big sleep shirt over my underwear, “just like mom.” I wore skinny jeans in a middle school where all the boys were wearing their pants halfway down their thigh, and sometimes my jacket would fall off my shoulder ‘just right.’ I was enamoured with sapphic relationships on the screen, and I spent all of my time as a teenager convinced I was gay, despite barely even kissing a boy. For reasons I generally couldn’t explain, I had a streak of seeing queer women, a couple of which exclusively dated girls. In college, I tweeted, and then deleted, “I wish they made sports bras for men, I would rock that sh*t.” Yeah, I know. 

Despite having the body and the skills I did, I was extremely insecure: I was never hot enough, never satisfied. Looking back, this feeling was something I had been feeling since I was very little. I replaced the insecurity with girls, parties, and endless hours under a barbell. This body was simply not enough, and I definitely kick myself for taking twenty years to ask the question “Am I transgender?” It was a drive down to San Antonio, listening to a podcast during which one of the hosts fully came out as trans herself. The more she spoke, the more things stuck: not feeling right in my body, replacing insecurity, and realizing that my idolization of female athletes wasn’t out of desire to date one, but to be one. The first time I put on a sports bra and tiny shorts (Austin Pride, August 2019), I smiled so much that my face hurt. 

I’m still pacing, staring at the barbell. I ponder, lost in my head: Should I even go for it? If I make this lift, some would say that it’s the residual male characteristics in my body, that my connective tissue, bone density, and muscle mass are not affected by hormone replacement therapy (HRT), that those things will give me an advantage for the rest of my life. Never mind that everyone around me had watched me literally shrink over the last six months, or that I could now feel how taxing every heavy lift was on my body. Maybe I could turn to Julia and tell her that my hamstrings felt tweaked. Maybe I could walk away from this barbell and never look back. Hell, maybe I could miss it on purpose, skirting by without controversy. But is that worth knowing that I quit like that?

I started hormone replacement therapy in July of 2020, at 21 years old. Very quickly, my senses began to change, become more intense. My first day, I got so stuck staring at bright orange flowers, I was almost late for work. I made it a point to wait 24 hours to train, to see what would immediately change. My second day, I couldn’t power clean 100 kg, when my max power clean was 115 kg. That is 33 pounds off my max, my second day on HRT. And I was happy, because I knew that it was working. By October, an 80 kg snatch felt like 94 did, and my clean and jerk max came down by 18 kg. And I was still smiling, because this was what I wanted. That December, however, the feelings had changed. 

If you’re a competitive athlete, you probably understand what it’s like to train aimlessly, with no competition in mind, no goals set. USA Weightlifting rules mandate a two year wait before I could compete as a woman, and the only way I could enter any meet until then was by declaring myself a man. This is one of the solutions put forward by athletic organizations, including the International Olympic Committee: wait a set period of time for the body to completely transition to be completely estrogen based. With how HRT had reduced my numbers significantly, why would I even bother competing as a man when my numbers had dropped so much? Not to mention the dysphoria that would come along with being considered a man. I started to burn out, I dreaded going to the gym every day to train. 

Then one day, Vinny texts me: USA Powerlifting (USAPL) just opened a new category for trans people, a space where we can compete in any stage of transition. And he wants to coach me through it. To be clear, I hesitated. USAPL had a pretty bad history with trans people. This is another solution put forward: a completely separate category, separating us from cisgender people completely regardless of time spent on HRT. They cite three traits that might linger in trans women: bone density, connective tissue strength, and overall muscle mass. These are the big three of the debate over trans women in sports: Do these traits stay forever? Either way, if the rules don’t change, I will never compete against cisgender women in powerlifting. Despite my hesitation, I knew the facts: trans individuals will never make strides in sports unless we actively take them. And if I didn’t do this, if I didn’t take up and make space for people like me, when is the next time somebody would? If I don’t make waves on that platform, and use that platform to speak out and demystify the transgender experience, when is the next time someone will be offered the opportunities I have been?

Vinny adjusts in his seat, as Julia begins unscrewing the cap on the ammonia. Time feels like it is slowing down. With every second that passes, I sink further into my doubts. I sink into a squat, my head down and my eyes closed. Am I praying? Wishing? Hoping? Which pair of eyes around me is stigmatizing me? Which one is upset because I am as strong and technically sound as I am? Which one hates the fact that I call myself an athlete? 

Existing as a trans woman is very much like competing to lose: I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. The argument over the advantage that transgender women may or may not have is nuanced, like all things. Like mentioned before, some claim that the essential parts of my strength, such as my connective tissue, my muscle mass, and my bone density, will stay at male levels forever. Some claim that simply being exposed to male levels of testosterone gives one an advantage. The trans athlete community denies these claims, as even just a short time exposed to estrogen brings about massive change in the body. What needs to happen is a comprehensive, unbiased, and peer-reviewed study on transgender athletes specifically. This means studying the physical characteristics that change in HRT, how athletic training affects it, and how the mental stresses of being transgender round out athletic performance in competition. 

There have been no widely accepted and verified studies on how things like strength and conditioning training affect gender transition. Every sport federation seems to use their own chosen study to justify their rulings, and on top of that, many of their justifications seem to have us tacked on, or use over simplified measures, as if we don’t deserve their time and dedication. For example, one recent study focused on whether trans women could perform more pushups and situps than a cis woman after two years, a laughable measurement that disregards actual athletic performance. The study also seemed to not consider things like anthropometrics, training style, goals, and other athletic training considerations that I as a coach would need to take into account. And on top of that, many studies referenced now in athletics simply have the topic tacked on, as if we don’t deserve to have our own studies dedicated to us.

All I can go off of is what I feel, see, and know. I feel my body getting smaller, weaker. I see my hands have shrunk when I compare them to my partner’s. I know that my numbers have decreased by a significant amount in six months, and honestly might keep moving down. I feel, see, and know that my muscle and body fat have completely redistributed: I’m an athlete who still hasn’t understood that her center of gravity is much lower. And while I may be a bit heavier now, it’s because my body fat percentage went from 12% to 22%. Most notably, my overall strength has decreased, and my upper body strength is nowhere near where it used to be. I am going to have to work hard to catch all of the cisgender women who are pound for pound stronger than I am.

And even with all of the public debate and speculation, nobody has addressed the mental game of a trans athlete. A person can have all the natural talent in the world, but if their mental game is lacking their performance will suffer. Declaring that trans women have an advantage is denying the actual nature and struggle of being transgender. Imagine seeing the news every day, seeing legislators, commentators, and celebrities calling you dangerous, unnatural, and predatory. Imagine living with depression and anxiety caused by gender dysphoria, and then having those things brushed away by friends and family. Imagine wanting to do what you love, to exist in a space that has made you the happiest, and being told that you don’t belong. Imagine feeling all of the doubts, fear, and anxiety that I feel before I take a lift. Especially right now, where we are the center of debate over the Equality Act. Imagine being hated so loudly and actively by complete strangers. Now tell me I have an advantage, that these things don’t affect me. Could you? Could you look at me and tell me that I am not competing to lose?

“I just want to exist.” 

I told my coach that in one of our first conversations. That one short sentence had him choked up, because he hadn’t thought about my story, and the story of many transgender people, like that. He sensed the emotion behind my words, that all I wanted to do is what I loved. Even as I write this, I can feel the emotion in my stomach, the desire to grip a barbell without a doubt in my mind. I may not get that in my lifetime. I may always doubt myself when I walk up onto the platform. But my hope is that some day, a young trans girl will walk up there with confidence and security and every single person in the crowd cheering her on. If I can be a part of that, if I can make space for girls like me in strength sports, I will know that it was all worth it. 

Vinny leans forward onto his knees, and Ed walks up to the platform for his signature spotting move. Bama is watching now too, calm, collected. Not like me. Julia asks “You ready?” I nod. She holds the bottle up, and the ammonia stings. It stings all the way up my sinuses, and just like that, every doubt, every insecurity, every worry, is channeled inward. I growl, and then let out a loud bark as I walk towards the barbell, closing the lever on my belt. I’m angry. Angry at the world. Angry at existence. Angry at the 405 sitting motionless on the platform. I set my feet, and Ed comes close and tells me that this is all I’ve got. This is it today. I wrap a grip on the metal, and take my first deep breath. Inhale anger, exhale doubt. I take a second. Inhale confidence, exhale insecurity. I take a long sip of air, into my stomach, feeling the belt get tighter as I push against it. With one last shout, I lock in my breath, I drop my hips.

And I pull. 

Follow Angel at @arkangel_lifts on Instagram