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Outsports Female Heroes of the Year: Caster Semenya and JayCee Cooper

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It’s a tie! Caster Semenya and JayCee Cooper faced adversity in their respective sports in 2019, but never quit pursuing their dreams.

From left, South Africa’s Caster Semenya crosses the final line to win the women’s 800-meter final during the Diamond League in Doha, Qatar, Friday, May 3, 2019, and JayCee Cooper, transgender powerlifter from Minnesota.
AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili and JayCee Cooper

For this award, Female Hero of the Year, a person identifying as female has to be more than an achiever, or someone who makes a name for themselves. Outsports decided that two women genuinely demonstrated heroism in 2019, both in competition and when they were told they could not compete.

They were also told they weren’t even considered women.

Olympic champion Caster Semenya of South Africa and powerlifter JayCee Cooper of Minnesota share this award for 2019.

Caster Semenya addresses women’s conference in South Africa
South African athlete Caster Semenya at the Standard Bank Top Women Conference on August 14, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Photo by Veli Nhlapo/Sowetan/Gallo Images via Getty Images

Caster Semenya has been challenged for more than a decade about her gender, something she has never wavered on, changed, or considered anything other than female. She’s been tested, poked, prodded, drugged and dragged into court because she excels at running faster than other women.

In May, the Court for Arbitration in Sport ruled against Semenya‚ arguing that new rules mandating medical intervention to lower testosterone levels in women like Semenya were “discriminatory but necessary.”

As Outsports reported in June, Semenya is not transgender; she was legally identified as female at birth and has identified as female her entire life. She calls her ability a result of her “natural gifts.”

The organization that instituted these new rules on testosterone levels, the IAAF aka World Athletics, claims Semenya is one of a number of female runners who have “differences of sex development” or DSD, and who were born with the typical male XY chromosome pattern. Someone with DSD would have some male biological characteristics, male testosterone levels after puberty, and according to the IAAF, an unfair advantage over female athletes whose chromosomes are XX. She has never confirmed this publicly.

Who is the Outsports Person of the Decade? Click here to see “The Outsports 20” list

In her career so far, Semenya has won three 800m world titles and two Olympic gold medals since 2009, and has shattered every domestic record in the 400m, 800m and the 1 500m over the last decade.

Semenya turns 29 on January 7 and begins 2020 with her appeal still pending before the Swiss Court of Appeal in Switzerland.

Last week, a South African newspaper compared her to freedom fighter and legend Winnie Mandela:

“Semenya’s standing in society has changed from being just a track and field athlete to being a modern-day freedom fighter.

“She has become the equivalent of what the likes of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela stood for in their fight for the social and political emancipation of women.”

JayCee Cooper

Like Semenya, JayCee Cooper said she’s known she was female as long as she’s been alive. However, unlike the South African runner, Cooper is transgender, and her battle for acceptance in her sport started one year ago and occupied all of 2019. She is a powerlifter, and currently has a claim of discrimination against a powerlifting federation before Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights.

Despite efforts by USA Powerlifting to silence her and her supporters, Cooper has won the support of soccer superstars Megan Rapinoe and Lori Lindsey among others, including cisgender powerlifters who staged protests during competition to protest USAPL’s trans ban.

Cooper told Outsports she was surprised but grateful to share this award with Semenya.

“Wow, I’m shocked!” Cooper wrote in an email, in which we asked her about her advocacy. “It’s built into a love for sport and the TGNCNBI community. It’s less about my advocacy efforts and more about being a moment in a larger painting of futures. No one should have to fight for decency, but since we are, let’s make it count.”

Among the runners-up for 2019 Female Hero of the Year: 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers, bisexual BYU runner Emma Gee, AEW trans wrestler Nyla Rose and Indian runner Dutee Chand, who won India’s first gold medal at the World University Games in July.

Prior Female Hero honorees:

2018: Sam Rapoport

2017: San Francisco 49ers coach Katie Sowers

2016: Basketball player Elena Delle Donne

2015: Basketball player Layshia Clarendon

2014: NCAA administrator Karen Morrison

Outsports has divided year-end Athlete and Hero awards to highlight accomplishments of people across genders. We understand that not everyone fits into the binary gender world currently established in sports, and we will honor that with additional awards when appropriate.

Read more about Caster Semenya’s fight by clicking here. We have an in-depth report on the dispute between USA Powerlifting and JayCee Cooper here. Also, our exclusive interview with Cooper can be heard on the Outsports podcast, The Trans Sporter Room, and find excerpts of that interview by clicking here.