At first glance, you see a profile of a professional mountain bike racer. Highly focused, physically and mentally tough, has a to-the-point bluntness about it all.
UCI World Cup competitor Kate Weatherly is 100 percent that racer. She has been since her first race.
“I did my first race and came dead last,” Weatherly remembered. “That was my racing career for the first couple of years. Racing to come in not last. I had a real drive to do better and better, and I realized I have to do everything I can to beat them.”
The 23-year-old from New Zealand went from ”dead last” as a teenager, to fearlessly and fiercely building a resume as a pro racer. In her first full year competing in the elite women’s downhill field, she was consistently in the top 10, with two podium finishes, including an early-season third in Austria. Yet she felt unsatisfied because of finishes in the top ten, but not on the podium positions in top 5. “I had to realize that isn’t going to be the standard and this isn’t going to be the result I’ll get every time and it’s okay.” she told Outsports.
The season ended harshly. During practice for the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships at Mont Sainte Anne, Canada, Weatherly suffered a hard crash that broke her C1-C2 vertebrae, ending her season, and nearly ending her career. “It was the culmination of pushing myself harder and harder, and the pressure to get onto team after one year. I was trying to get an outcome that wasn’t possible.” she said.
Weatherly is just as forthcoming and direct about being a transgender athlete. Since coming out publicly and starting to compete as a woman amid controversy in 2018, she treats the subject much like she treats a tough session on the trails. She faces it head-on.
“Me being quiet about it isn’t going to make my life any easier,” she explained. “It's always been an intimate part of my racing career, and a big part, to me, to gain acceptance is to be open. I’m able to be the voice of calm reason that is needed in social change, and me sitting on my hands pretending ‘Oh I’m just another athlete,’ isn’t going to cause the radical change in people’s thinking that needs happen around trans or gay athletes.”
Much of her philosophy of her identity and her sport comes from the road she traveled to become the athlete she is now. Born in Auckland in 1997, Weatherly came into the world having to fight. She was born with bronchiectasis, a respiratory disease where there is permanent enlargement of sections of the airways in her lungs.
Despite being told her level of physical activity would be limited, she pressed on to try to keep up as best she could. In primary school, she’d compete in the school swim race each year, and finished last every time. Each race she held her breath for the entire distance to protect her fragile lungs. “I ended coming out of the pool almost every time having asthma-like symptoms,” she recalled. “I wanted to prove that I could do it and that no one was going to stop me.”
As she reached puberty, her lungs healed up and got stronger just in time for having a friend introduce her to mountain bike racing in 2013. Her early race efforts were just like the primary-school swim races. She finished in the back. Determined to move up the field, she got to work on the bike and the gym. Weatherly become a competitive amateur racer while at the same time dealing with another internal struggle — her gender identity.
At age 17, she decided to move forward with her transition, including starting hormone replacement therapy, while at the same time continuing to compete in the male division. “I was racing with people who were really fast and I was also racing at a really distinct physical disadvantage but I wouldn’t let that stop me,” Weatherly declared, “I got to the point where I finished at the top end of the amateur men’s field.”
By 2017 she was consistently in the top 10, carding 8 top-10s in 13 events including a podium finish. She was competitive in the men’s field while living as a woman in every other facet in her life. Her mind, her body chemistry, and friends on the circuit confirmed that it was time for her racing life to join the rest of her life.
“I was a woman masquerading as a man while doing my best,” she recalled. “By that point I had already met the Olympic criterion to swap over and had for quite a while. I talked to New Zealand Cycling and they said ‘sure you can swap over’. At that time I didn’t have any expectations of a career. I just wanted to be the best athlete I could be.”
The move didn’t come without struggle. A person Weatherly confided in outed her and word got into the local press. Despite this, she said a lot of reactions in the paddocks was, “So what?”
“At the time, most didn’t care and that was quite a relief,” she said. “Not caring is better than people disliking or hating.”
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Over the moon after taking the win at National Champs today! Had an amazing run which was about as fast as I could have gone, can't wait to see what this year brings. Great to see a great woman's field out there today and I hope everyone who crashed out gets better soon! @devincinewzealand @cyclesdevinci photo by @peterbethell #downhill #dh #downhillmtb #downhillmountainbiking #devinci #devinciwilson #mountainbiking #mtb #cardrona #nznationalchamps
What changed some of the tenor was the result of the women’s downhill race in the New Zealand national championships in February 2018. Kate Weatherly was at the top of the podium in a convincing victory.
With the spoils came what has become expected when transgender women win, she faced salvos of clickbaiters and anti-trans comments sections. “It didn’t really become a problem until I started winning races,” she said sardonically.
A rival competitor, in whom Weatherly also confided in, blasted both Weatherly and New Zealand Cycling, citing the alleged “suddenness” of Weatherly’s transition, and the lack of a “buffer period” prior to her first race in the women’s division. The contention sent out a false perception that Weatherly hadn’t started her transition until she was allowed to race at the end of 2017. Such flies in the face of reality and UCI regulations.
Weatherly was annoyed, but unfazed. “I had been racing physically as a woman by the Olympic standard of what a woman is for three years,” she responded. “Her spreading that was really about her being upset that I was beating her and less about the actual situation.”
She added a second national title in 2019 and contested the UCI circuit in full after solid performances in selected events the previous year. Through the success, she has stayed even-keeled, but certain thoughts regarding her success and her identity drew her ire. Negative reports in national and international news media, along with fan perception that mirrors those commonly held in the United States and Britain regarding trans athletes.
“There are many things that don’t make me flinch like people making up lies about me or ignorance,” she answered, “but the one thing that gets me grumpy is the claim that my transition is about me winning races.”
If she does flinch, it rarely shows. Chalk it up to a great deal of mental toughness which has been useful in dealing with comment-section transphobes and in dealing with a broken neck. Remember that crash in Canada? It didn’t end her career. It strengthened her resolve. Some titanium screws and good fortune, combined with hard work as the calendar turned from spring to summer in the southern hemisphere, came in handy at the start of the domestic racing season in New Zealand.
By January 2020, her road work and gym work during New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown, got her back in the trails. In February, during an event, she crashed hard, but got up, unhurt and kept riding. It was the confirmation the competitor inside needed.
“It was an important part of the healing process to have the confidence to know that you aren’t this china doll that’s going to break everytime its dropped,” she answered. “Mountain biking is so much about commitment and confidence and for me to have a crash like that and be okay really helped me get back into thing properly.”
Commitment and confidence are driving her toward some goals on and off the circuit. In 2021, she’ll switch from the speed and daring of the downhill event, to Enduro World Series racing which involves more and longer sessions on the bike and a greater test of fitness over more days, including going up hill. “It not just about riding hard but also being more effective at riding fatigued,” Weatherly said. “And you only get one practice run before you compete on the course. That definitely will be a challenge for me.”
Off the track, she balances being a world-class athlete with being a scholar. She’s currently studying for a master’s degree in product design and medical device development at the Auckland University of Technology. The ambition come from a young life that has spent considerable time in hospitals. “It comes from being in and out of hospitals from birth to seven years old, to my many visits since deciding to start mountain biking,” she smiled. “And I’ve always been sort of tinkerer as a kid, taking things apart. Much of product design is vanity based. I think with my experience, I desire to use my education to help people.”
She also sees her platform as a high-level athlete as a chance to change and enhance the conversation about transgender people as a whole. Weatherly is involved in Auckland’s trans community, and it's a family affair. Her mother runs a local support group for parents of transgender youth. Quite a few of those youths, and the not-so-young, have become fans of a kid who once finished last in every race, but refused to quit, and grew into a competitor who fights to win.
“When I get messages of encouragement, it's cool, but it means more when they come from other trans people,” she said. “It's cool to know that what I do is helping people and it’s motivating people.”
This week, Kate Weatherly beamed up to The Trans Sporter Room podcast. You can download, listen and subscribe on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, Spotify and wherever you find Outsports podcasts.