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.
“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
Testosterone suppression is a topic that’s been in the news lately because of a disputed rule by the IAAF that will force a woman athlete, Caster Semenya of South Africa, to suppress her naturally high levels to be allowed to compete — unless she overturns that decision on appeal.
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.”
“The race is already over”
“I think there’s some valid things to be said, but I hate when it gets too superficial. You know the picture that’s circulating of [CeCé], a big, strong, powerful black woman, standing next to shorter blonde white females, and then the context is the race is already over. Nevermind that those two girls beat her! This is a 60 meter dash and they beat her by over a quarter second. But that’s just the narrative, that just because she looks this way, the race is so unfair. That is every ringing bell of anti civil rights attitudes, between racism and transphobia and everything. It’s not only that, but that women should look some other way, as if black women should be weak.”
“Couldn’t cut it as a male athlete. That man should not be running women’s races”
That’s what the assistant coach at the College of Staten Island tweeted after Telfer’s victory in the 400m. Emerson took exception, called his remarks “unacceptable,” and tweeted a promise to follow up with the coach’s administration. Emerson vigorously refutes the claim Telfer was a mediocre male athlete.
“She finished third in our conference in her sophomore year [prior to her transition], which is a very, very competitive division II conference. She was less than a half second behind somebody who made the Division 2 final in the hurdles.
“Freshmen, sophomores, at this level in college, they’re not supposed to be competing at the national level. But [CeCé] in freshman and sophomore year was someone who we knew could compete at a national level within four or five years. There was no doubt about it. Just very technically sound in the hurdle, explosive, love to race. Could do the work but didn’t want to do the work.”
“In hindsight, all the signals are as clear as day. She didn’t need to tell us anything. I should have been able to see the struggles that she was having, that track was putting putting her through.”
Her gender dysphoria manifested itself at every meet in which she competed against men, Telfer told Outsports.
“It was so hard, it was really rough. I was so uncomfortable in my skin, my body was so uncomfortable. When I heard the call for the men to line-up for the 110 meter hurdles, I wanted to be the last person when we were in line to get our numbers and our bibs, so like nobody could see me. When I was leaning up on the lane with the male athletes, I was just like ‘This is just not it. This is not ‘me’ but I have to put it aside right now because I’m about to perform and I’m going to give it my all and give it my best.’”
Early in 2018, Telfer decided she was done with track. She informed Emerson, who is also the assistant athletic director at Franklin Pierce, that she had begun her transition from male to female. “She had decided she no longer wanted to be a male athlete,” he recalled, and admits he didn’t recognize the mental anguish she was going through, and only focused on what Telfer was walking away from.
“It took awhile for us to completely grasp why she’d step away from the team which was the only place in the entire world that she was a male. At that point, socially, everybody was using the proper pronouns, ‘she’ and ‘her.’ And you know, it made a lot more sense, but we can’t imagine what sort of torture she was feeling on the inside when she already had made this transition for years. Maybe not physically or medically, but mentally. She felt like she was living a lie competing with men.”
“I felt like that was a bad move for her because she was going to lose a lot of accountability and social time,” he said. “I had no idea that there were NCAA rules put in place that would allow her to participate on the women’s side. I would have suggested that immediately.”
By September 2018, Telfer returned, and promised Emerson that she would not quit. He promised in return that the coaches and teammates would support her every step of the way.
“I thought she might be a little naive to what sort of negative attention might be lurking around the corner when she does start performing,” said Emerson.
“I was in a really dark place”
Telfer said her coaches and teammates have acted as online bodyguards, blocking haters and keeping her social media on lockdown after the first wave of hate earlier this year.
“When I saw all of it, it was rough, and I was in a really dark place,” Telfer said, Fortunately her thoughts have never drifted toward self-harm, but she admits, “It’s part of a constant struggle.”
The haters who use news of her achievements as a catapult to launch attacks upon other transgender athletes and trans youth are of special concern to Telfer, especially those whose families have abandoned them. Three hours after graduation, Telfer came out to her mother.
“I’m basically shunned,” she revealed. “I don’t really have family members or anybody to be there for me.”
Her mother and those other relatives were not there for Telfer on May 25, when she won her national championship title. She led the pack across the finish line by more than a second, in a personal collegiate-best time of 57.53 seconds, according to the university website. Her finish was two seconds shy of the NCAA Division II record. And even without family there to cheer her on, she said her track family made it special, and winning that trophy was still a thrill. “So that was pretty, pretty awesome,” she said.
“Don’t you kinda wish you could do this again?” Emerson recalled asking her. He said she told him, “‘I don’t really feel much different.’ But she was happy. She just was not disappointed for the first time in quite a while.” Which is what Telfer has become accustomed to, given her family’s rejection.
“I’ve prepared for this my whole life, basically because I knew that my my family was never accepting and I knew that I had to do what I had to do.”
And what she does now, she said, is reach out to trans youth through social media, to offer them the support she wished she had when she was younger.
“I am by myself, and there other kids and people out there like me that’s by themselves. But I just want to let them know that they’re not alone. ‘No, you’re not by yourself. I’m here with you and I’m doing it with you. And you know I’ll be your voice. I’ll leave it on the track for you. I’ll run for you.”
Emerson concedes that he set his expectations too low for his national champion. “I didn’t give her the respect her strength deserved,” he said. “She was so much stronger through this entire last year than I was ever possible of giving her credit for. She deserves all the freaking credit in the world.”
This Friday, June 7, CeCé Telfer will join transgender women athletes Andraya Yearwood, Chloe Psyche Anderson and Athena Del Rosario in Los Angeles for a panel moderated by Outsports managing editor Dawn Ennis at Outsports Pride.
Click here to register and for more details.
And look for Telfer on the cover of next month’s Champion magazine, published by the NCAA.