SWANZEY, NH – While driving down a steep, winding road in this small town these days, it wouldn’t be surprising to see an elite hurdler jump into the bushes to avoid being hit by a car.
This hurdler, CeCe Telfer, is hoping to qualify for the United States Olympic trials starting June 18 in Eugene, Oregon. The asphalt road is their primary training facility.
In 2019, Telfer became the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA title; she was fifth year 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 in late July.
Olympic historians say no athlete publicly identified himself as transgender at the Winter or Summer Games after participating in competitions. At least two later revealed they were transgender, including Caitlyn Jenner, who won a gold medal in the decathlon in 1976.
Some athletes who publicly identify as transgender will most likely compete in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games this summer, although many are still trying to qualify. Yet while transgender athletes have opened up at college and Olympic levels, there has been a surge in state legislation in the United States to prevent transgender athletes – mostly younger girls – from competing in teams that match their gender identity.
The recent disputes over transgender athletes have made it more and more important for Telfer to seize their chance at elite competitions.
“It’s important to me to do it for these kids,” said Telfer, 26, as she sat on the back porch of her college psychologist’s house. “It is important to me to do it for my people – be they women, blacks, transgender people, LGBTQ people – for everyone who is questioned and oppressed.”
Her way to the Olympic tests was difficult. She struggled to find a trainer to assist her during the coronavirus pandemic and even flew to Mexico for a brief exercise. Telfer eventually returned to New Hampshire, where she slept in her car until the psychologist issued an invitation to her home in Swanzey, a town not far from Franklin Pierce.
Three days a week, mainly Telfer and cars train on the asphalt of Swanzey. On three more days, Telfer drives about two hours to a high school track in a Boston suburb. There she can take the hurdles and work with another athlete.
She meets International Olympic Committee admission requirements after lowering and maintaining testosterone levels for at least a year. But in order to reach the Games in Tokyo, where she wants to ride the 400 meter hurdles, Telfer first has to qualify for the national tests. To do this, she has to run the race in 56.5 seconds at a feeder meeting. It’s going to be tough – her best time in a qualifying so far was 57.5 seconds.
If Telfer gets the exams, she’ll have to finish in the top three in her event to have a chance at Tokyo.
After leaving college in the spring of 2019, Telfer tried to convince several coaches to achieve her Olympic goal. Two initially agreed to work with her.
One stopped answering when he realized she was transgender, Telfer said. The other was in Mexico. In February Telfer gave up her apartment and job in a nursing home in New Hampshire and flew away after nearly two years of self-employed training. She stayed with a friend’s family and received training for the first time since college.
But their stay was short. Telfer, who grew up primarily in Jamaica and Canada, had to return to the United States to review her application for American citizenship, which was granted on May 14.
When she returned to New Hampshire, she spent a few days surfing on the couch. When that was no longer possible, she slept in her car for two weeks. She kept herself warm by wearing two sweaters and leggings with sweatpants over them and wrapping herself in her college blanket. She parked at various truck stops and park-and-ride areas. She regularly skipped breakfast and lunch and ate mostly cooked fried chicken, which she could buy cheaply in the supermarket.
Nicole Newell, the head of counseling at Franklin Pierce, learned of Telfer’s situation and offered a place to stay. Sometimes she sees Telfer sprinting up the hill in front of her window.
“No matter what comes your way, it just keeps moving,” Newell said. “And it’s amazing.”
Even though some people have hugged her, Telfer has always felt like an outsider. She received strange looks in public and death threats on social media, she said, and feels out of place as blacks in a white-majority community.
“I was always the ‘seventh boyfriend,'” she said. “Nobody would 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 began her career in elementary school in Jamaica, where sports were not gender segregated for her age group. She continued running in men’s teams when her family moved to Lebanon, NH, the summer before their junior year of high school.
She sees herself as a sprinter, she said, but her coach directed her to the hurdles.
She joined Franklin Pierce in the fall of 2014 and began competing there in 2016 – in the men’s team, despite publicly identifying herself as a woman. Telfer stepped off the track for a while in the spring of 2017 after feeling uncomfortable with the way others perceived her, and she soon started testosterone suppression.
“They did not understand that I am a woman who competes in the sport I love,” Telfer said of the race against men. “They started seeing me as a gay athlete running with cisgender men,” she said, referring to those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
At the beginning of the 2018/19 school year, Telfer said she went to her trainer’s office with a friend and asked to compete with other women. She expected the trainer to hesitate. Instead, she remembered, he replied, “Finally.”
“Then I started crying and then my friend started crying,” said Telfer. “It’s like we don’t know what’s going on and he said, ‘You can compete as CeCe, as yourself, as a girl.'”
Her excitement, she said, was tempered by a backlash. Parents of Telfer’s competitors protested that she had an athletic advantage.
College and Olympic sports allow transgender women to compete in women’s departments as long as they meet various testosterone suppression requirements. Research on how such hormone treatment affects elite athletes is sparse.
Some research suggests that after a year of hormone therapy started after puberty, transgender women retain some muscle mass and strength benefits driven by testosterone. Other research indicates that strength benefits, but not cardiovascular benefits, diminish after two years.
Citing perceived competitive advantage but little evidence that transgender athletes dominated women’s sports, lawmakers in more than 30 states have tabled bills to prevent transgender women and girls from competing in teams that match their gender identity.
Six states – Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Montana, and West Virginia – have enacted such laws in recent legislatures. after the human rights campaign. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem signed two executive orders that would also restrict participation; Idaho passed legislation last summer, but it has since stalled by a federal judge.
“When the world hated people like me, the dream not only became a reality, it also had a bigger meaning,” said Telfer.
When Telfer phoned her mother in 2018, she was told that she would likely never see her immediate family again.
Larry Leach, who played basketball for Franklin Pierce in the early 1980s and returned to Telfer’s student as vice president of alumni affairs, became her mentor as she made her way through life as a student athlete and debated her identity. He was in the room with Telfer when she came out to see her mother.
“Listening to and hearing that a mother does not accept a child under any circumstances was sad for me – for CeCe – because I know how much she wants her mother’s support,” Leach said in a telephone interview. “She gets it from other people, but the longing to only get it from her mother means a lot more than that I support her or whoever supports her.”
When she’s on the track, Telfer puts the bigger issues aside and focuses more on the watch and her Olympic dream. She hopes to reach her qualifying time for the exams at a meeting in early June.
“I really have to believe that it will help me get to the exams,” Telfer said of her training. “If I open my eyes, I can only see Olympic tests.”
Jeré Longman contributed to the coverage.