This article is the latest in a series exploring the conversation about the inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s sports. You can find the series here.
“I race a lot of bikes and I suck.”
Tara Seplavy is very matter-of-fact about it. No sugar-coating, no thoughts of Olympic grandeur. Having raced bikes for many years, she’s been around the sport long enough to know exactly where she stands, and it’s generally not on a medal podium.
It’s not that she hasn’t tried to break out in the sport. Since transitioning genders she’s found renewed dedication to fitness, competition and the community that surrounds bike racing.
“I had a coach for the last couple of years, and we tried really hard,” Seplavy said from her home on Long Island. “I bust my ass. I’m training many hours a week, I try to eat reasonably well and do the things athletes do. I’ve just never been a super gifted athlete in my life.”
Things were much the same when she was racing against men. She started her medical transition a little over three years ago, and she transitioned to women’s competitions shortly after. Despite reading headlines and quotes from some professional athletes about her “unfair advantage” in sports, Seplavy is like the vast majority of trans women in women’s sports: good enough to compete, but often just not fast enough or strong enough to win.
“I hit the podium in local masters races sometimes if the weather condition is right and nobody else shows up.”
Like so many other trans women in women’s sports, Seplavy has been frustrated by the growing chorus of detractors who claim her very presence in women’s sports puts the future existence of women’s sports at risk. While some trans women are finding competitive success in sports, she knows she will never be the dominant trans female athlete held up by a few loud voices as the harbinger of doom for women’s sports.
Part of Seplavy’s frustration is the first-hand knowledge she has of the rapid decline in performance trans women experience as they transition. She can quantify to some extent the change in her personal performance since transitioning. While competing against men years before her transition, she raced a local course in 2 hours, 20 minutes. Post-transition the same course took her 2:29, over a 6% drop.
Yet the gap would be greater if she were able to compare apples to apples. Racing in her pre-transition 20s and 30, Seplavy gave little care for her body, weighing around 40 pounds more then than she does now. She was, of course, also a decade-plus younger. If she had trained as hard then as she does now, that 2:20 would have been considerably lower, she asserts.
In addition, Seplavy said post-transition training is that much more difficult.
“A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is to athletically train when you’re on hormones,” she said. “As my coach said, I’m anti-doping. I’m putting chemicals in my body that actually detract from athletic performance.”
With all that, of the 100 or so women’s bike races she’s entered in the last three years, she “can’t even remember the last time I legitimately won a bike race.” She said depending on who shows up for a race she may land on a podium (top-three) in an age category.
“I went from being a mediocre dude on a bike to being a mediocre woman on a bike. It’s not like I just changed my gender and my times stayed the same. I have to work that much harder for marginal gain.”
Equal success against men and women
In Buffalo, distance runner Allayva Stier has had a similar experience.
“I only win when other people don’t show up,” Stier said.
Like Seplavy, she reports on a more difficult path to reaching what is an even slower time than her pre-transition performance. Pre-transition she was running only two or three times a week, and now she’s training five times a week.
“I’m putting in significantly more work than I was putting in beforehand,” she said. “To maintain your fitness after you transition, you have to work more diligently. You have to be more purposeful. Before I could go in and run and lift and work out a couple times a week. That doesn’t cut it anymore. I can’t maintain my fitness if I don’t put in the work consistently. It’s harder for me to drop a 7-minute mile than it was beforehand.”
This year she’s run about 35 races and won two of them. Those two victories, she said, came because other people simply decided to not race. Winning a race is, of course, ultimately relative.
“Of my group of running friends I’m literally the slowest. If any one of them would have shown up, I wouldn’t have won.”
This isn’t to say she’s not naturally talented. At her high school she was one of the fastest in the boys races, winning some middle-distance dual meets and earning a spot at state sectionals. As she continued running through her transition — competing against men and then women — she saw first-hand the rapid decrease in her speed.
“My competitiveness against the men was slowly going away. I was seeing my times drop. Nobody sees that process.”
That level of competitiveness against the men pre-transition has matched up pretty evenly with her post-transition competitiveness against other women. Racing against men, she would earn a second or third in her age bracket in local races, with an overall top-10 finish “here and there,” despite not working nearly as hard as she does now.
Earning playing time just like everyone else
Playing soccer throughout her transition, goalie Athena Del Rosario also saw first-hand the immediate impact transitioning had on her game.
As she began to self-medicate with estrogen and androgen blockers as a teenager, she transferred high schools to get a fresh start on life. When she tried out for her new school’s soccer team, she quickly noticed her strength and speed had already diminished. One of the fastest kids on her boys soccer team at her first school, by the end of her senior year at her new school she was one of the slowest.
When she competed against her old high school team later that season, she said her former teammates — who didn’t know she was transitioning and on hormones — noticed her decline in ability and asked her what was going on.
“I noticed it the first day reporting to my new school,” Del Rosario said. “It was pretty obvious.”
By the time she transferred from her community college to UC-Santa Cruz several years later, she had to battle for playing time. She was out of shape, having gained 30 pounds after the death of her mother. She sat on the bench for much of her first season at UCSC, getting a shot when an injury befell the team’s starting goalkeeper.
“I had to put a lot of work in between seasons, and what set me apart from the other goalkeeper was that I got into better shape and I worked harder. I didn’t just walk in there and have it handed to me. I had to earn it.”
Still with all the hard work, Del Rosario still struggled at times to pass the team’s fitness test. Her speed and strength had dropped to lower than a lot of the other women.
“I was passing fitness tests, but I wasn’t the fastest. And I was in shape. But we had girls running six-and-a-half-minute miles, and I was around seven minutes, barely passing the mile test.”
With Del Rosario as a full-time starter her senior season, the Banana Slugs compiled a record of 6-11-1, earning a spot in the NCAA tournament where they lost in the first round.
She was good. She was competitive. But her unfair advantage claimed by some was a figment of critics’ imagination.
Since graduating, she has taken her goalkeeping skills to handball. There she’s found she’s again competitive, and again in the mix for some playing time, but she’s still not a physically intimidating figure dominating other women.
“Out of the pool of goalkeepers for my team, I’m not the strongest. I’m not the tallest. It’s all very competitive and we’re having a goalkeeper competition that’s very competitive.”
Just a woman hoping for another shot on the ice
Jessica Platt is just looking for another shot at some ice time.
Having played a couple seasons in the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League, Platt considers herself a “middle-of-the-pack player, maybe on the lower end of that.”
Now with the league having folded and playing exhibition games for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, as well as getting some ice time with a Senior A team, she’s hoping someone gives her another chance in women’s pro hockey.
“As hard as I work out and as much as I train and as much as I try, the women I play against are incredible and they work equally hard. I’m fairly average in the league.”
Her self-described “average” standing among the other women in professional hockey isn’t for lack of effort. Since transitioning she too has dramatically increased how hard she works off the ice, saying she was “probably up there in the amount of time working out in the league.”
Platt, now 30, also doesn’t suffer from lack of experience. She’s been ice skating since she was 3 and playing ice hockey — starting with the kids in the neighborhood — since she was 4. From age 8 or so she was part of a boys traveling hockey team until she was in her late teens.
Even with the hockey success she was desperately unhappy, burdened with her true identity. By the time she began her transition in 2012 she had left hockey behind completely.
Yet once happiness found her well into her gender-affirming transition, Platt started looking back at her time in hockey with a blissful recollection that left her wanting more.
Just as a teenage Platt was successful in boys hockey, she has found a place in women’s professional hockey because of her natural instincts in the rink.
“My dad always said I somehow just knew where everyone was on the ice. I had a great hockey sense.”
Today she focuses on improving the things that are holding her back from being considered one of the best in her sport. For starters, she hasn’t been playing women’s hockey for very long and the systems are different. There’s a learning curve to that, and she’s behind the puck on it compared to other women in pro hockey.
Plus, she said her puck control isn’t the best. Given that she’s always been a defenseman and now she’s playing forward, that’s gotten in the way a bit too.
In other words, she’s experiencing the same struggles as any other athlete would, finding the same modicum of elite-level success as a woman that she found in boys hockey.
“If you’re mediocre as a man, it makes sense that you’d be mediocre as a woman,” Platt said. “If you’re dominating as a man, it makes sense that you would dominate as a woman.”
While critics point to a handful who have won titles of late, no trans athlete is currently dominating women’s sports. To be sure, some trans women have found various levels of success. Yet the majority find themselves — like these four athletes — hitting the gym and running laps in hopes of setting a P.R. or simply making a team’s roster.
“We’re just like all the other athletes,” Platt said. “Some of us have certain skills, certain talents. But we all work hard to get where we’re at.”