All month long, Outsports is revisiting key moments in gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer sports history as part of LGBTQ history month. It’s also NCAA Inclusion Week. So today, we revisit the story of CeCé Telfer, the first transgender track and field NCAA champion.
Telfer is also our guest on the latest episode of The Trans Sporter Room podcast, where she revealed to Karleigh Webb and me exclusively that she is in training to qualify for the 2020 Olympic games. If she makes it, she would be the first out transgender athlete to do so in the history of the Olympics. Scroll to the end of this story for details on how to listen!
Picture the scene: the outdoor track at Javelina Stadium on the campus of Texas A&M University in Kingsville, Tex. It was 79 degrees, just before 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 25, 2019.
To the athletes competing in that night’s NCAA Division II National Championships, it was sweltering, and strong breezes didn’t cool them, they provided an additional hindrance to the fierce competition on this Southeast Texas night.
As he stood among his athletes, Franklin Pierce University track coach Zach Emerson watched senior CeCé Telfer prepare for the two events she was scheduled to run, the 100 and 400 meter hurdles.
Before the night was done, Telfer would beat her closest competitor by a second and a half, and then heft a trophy high above her head, to begin her reign as 2019 Division II national champion in the 400m. As far as we know, she is the first publicly out trans woman to win an NCAA track & field title.
However, at that moment, Emerson said he expected her to lose.
“And there are people who say I have the benefit of testosterone. But no: I have no benefit. I’m on hormone suppression, it doesn’t help.”
“Best case scenario, she was the third best,” Emerson told Outsports. As it turns out, third would have been an improvement in the 100.
“I placed fifth,” adds Telfer, in her first interview since coming out publicly as a transgender woman athlete in 2018. “Which means four other ‘biological females’ — I mean, cisgender women — crossed the finish line before me.”
“You know, she’s not the fastest person alive, obviously,” said Emerson, who nevertheless believes in Telfer’s abilities and has worked hard to help her hone her natural gifts. “She’s always been very technical over the hurdles, going all the way back to high school. She has a gymnast background, which is built for for jumping, not just running.”
Advantages vs. Disadvantages
“But there are all these disadvantages of competing in the 100 hurdles, you know?” explained Telfer, and she enumerated them.
“First of all, my height, how tall I am, is a disadvantage, because the wind is hitting us so hard and the taller you are, the harder you fall, basically,” she said. “There’s wind resistance.” Telfer is over six-feet tall, but if you attend a WNBA game you’ll find she is hardly the only woman of that height.
Another disadvantage: “The fact that the hurdles are so close,” Telfer noted. The distance between the hurdles is smaller in women’s competition. They are six inches shorter than in the men’s races, but more than half a meter closer together.
“And there are people who say I have the benefit of testosterone,” Telfer said, her voice calm but insistent.
“But no: I have no benefit. I’m on hormone suppression, it doesn’t help. It’s another disadvantage. Cis women are producing more testosterone than the average trans female.
“So it’s crazy! I’m the crazy one, to be the weakest female, the weakest link in the chain, to be competing against the top ones. I should be fingered as the stupid one, for wanting to do that in the first place.”
Telfer is hardly that. She told Outsports that now that she’s graduated with her degree in psychology, she’s hoping to go on to nursing school to become a pediatric nurse.
The Impact of Suppressing Testosterone
Emerson notes he’s seen the difference testosterone suppression has had on Telfer’s performance as an athlete, in the nearly two years since she’s been on hormones.
“She has lost muscle, she lost some weight,” he said. “She is not as explosive or as fast. A lot of her lifting numbers have gone down, so strength-wise, that has gone down quite a bit. Last year, her time slowed down considerably over the previous year’s, as her muscle mass decreased.” Telfer’s old records can be viewed here and compared to her current record.
“I wish people would understand what testosterone is, and what it can do for your body, and how when you’re suppressing that, how hard it is to to go through certain challenges,” like trying to compete on that hot Texas night after losing the 100m.
Getting into the groove
Telfer said she didn’t hear the boos some spectators hurled at her, as she steeled herself for the 400.
“When I’m in the block, and I’m on the track, I don’t listen for anything else but positive vibes and people yelling ‘Go CeCé!’” said Telfer. “Pretty much anything that is is attached to me finishing strong in a race.”
Emerson said the heckling has actually lessened since the very first meet in which she competed as a woman, the UMass Boston Indoor Open at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, MA., on December 1, 2018.
At that point, it had been more than a year since Telfer began her medical transition; she had been undergoing prescribed hormone therapy since the start of her junior year, in the fall of 2017.
“That first meet she ran, there were some audible gasps, and boos,” Emerson recalled. “I remember my legs going numb. It just felt like a dream. But it has gotten a whole lot better.”
At Telfer’s first meet as CeCé, she placed first in the 60m hurdles, both in the preliminaries and the final, finishing with a time of 8.40. She came in 6th in the high jump.
Telfer cleaned up at the Elm City Challenge in Southern Connecticut, winning 1st place in both the 55m hurdles and the Pentathlon. A 2nd place finish at Middlebury in January was the last time she’d lose a race that month.
And it wasn’t long before all those victories caught the eye of the news media, starting with her hometown paper, The Keene Sentinel: “Senior Cecé Telfer ranks first in the country in the 60-meter hurdles (personal-best 8.33 seconds), second in the pentathlon (3735 points), sixth in the 60-meter dash (7.57) and is tied for 17th in the high jump (1.65 meters).“
Telfer’s scores helped propel the FPU Ravens women’s track and field team to earn its first-ever ranking in the national top 25 by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. She also won individual titles in the 60M, 200M and 60M hurdles at the Northeast-10 Championships.
But as she racked up wins, the buzz surrounding Telfer spread to conservative right-wing and anti-LGBTQ fundamentalist Christian sites, with nasty headlines screaming about Telfer being “born a man” who “switched to female,” and is “destroying women’s sports.”
She did so well, in fact, that Donald Trump, Jr., took notice.
The negative press spawned a wave of hate and transphobia across social media that has continued unabated for months. Much of it is misgendering, memes that deny Telfer’s authentic gender identity and accuse her of being a mediocre athlete who only competes as a girl to win.
“There is no other word for it other than ‘complete bullshit,’” said an exasperated Coach Emerson, who said he “turns into a mama grizzly bear” if he hears someone at a meet refer to Telfer by the wrong pronouns. He also takes the time to respond to the false claims that have spread across the internet.
“It’s unfair to ‘real girls’”
Emerson gets this argument most often from parents of cisgender girls, who argue transgender girls cost their daughters college scholarships and other opportunities. As a straight, cisgender father of daughters himself, he concedes he struggles with the question of how he would feel and what he would tell his girls if they lost to a transgender athlete. Ultimately, though, it comes down to a life lesson, he said
“I would tell them, ‘Nothing that anyone else is doing can take away from the tools that you were learning by you personally getting better. And that’s why you should be doing this sport, as opposed to if you’re doing this just for trophies.“
A 16-year-old cis girl who lost to two transgender girls in a state competition in Connecticut posted a video to YouTube about their “unfair advantage,” and calling on Congress to reject the Equality Act, which would allow trans students nationwide to compete according to their gender identity. Her mother organized a petition to change the rules allowing trans athletes to compete, after those two transgender girls — Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller — came in first and second place in state races.
“The reason why parents can be very difficult sometimes dealing with their two most important things in their entire life is usually their kids and their money,” Emerson said. “Sports overlap both of them. And so you know I would never say that what she feels is wrong. It’s your child, the most important thing in the world to you. And, money, whether it’s how much money you spent on that child to become a better athlete, or opportunities for college, emotions are going to run high. And I don’t think she’s wrong for having those emotions. But at the same time, as a college coach, I think if you asked any college coach about that argument they would laugh at that. We look at paper, we don’t look at finishes; we don’t look at who’s a state champ, we look at what their time was.”
Also, you can hear Telfer talk about her prior challenges and her future plans — including her dream to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But for which country will she compete, given she is a Jamaican from Canada who lives in New Hampshire? Listen to our exclusive interview with this inspiring athlete in an emotional, inspiring episode of the Outsports podcast, The Trans Sporter Room.
You’ll find the link to Apple podcasts by clicking here. You can also find all of our Outsports podcasts on Spotify, Spreaker, Castbox and Player FM.
Tomorrow — and every day in October — we’ll look back at another moment in LGBTQ sports history.