The fans cheered as he entered. Bright eyes steeled for the task ahead. A wiry man from Kenai, Alaska named Mitch Harrison with probing, intense eyes entered an athletic cauldron with the eyes of the nation on him.
On Monday night, that man took his place on NBC’s “The Titan Games,” and into a place of history. He’s the first out transgender athlete to have this type of chance.
“I was on the stage to be Mitch and present Mitch to the world,” Harrison told Outsports in a far-ranging interview. “That by far is the most rewarding thing of this whole experience.”
That personal first launched just has he flung himself on a rope across the stage/playing field in a challenge called “Launch Pad”. Each attempt to use momentum to knocks down some heavy pillars while airborne was declaration of truth.
Each attempt toward the goal was part of that reward at the end of a winding road that began in childhood.
Growing up with sports as a refuge
Harrison was born in 1988 in Sandy, Utah to a what he described as a “conservative” Mormon family. Assigned female at birth, the expectations of family didn’t exactly mesh with what was inside the child’s mind.
The mediator between worlds was basketball. It started with an older sister who played and took the younger sibling under her wing.
“My older sister was my hero growing up and she decided to teach me the fundamentals of basketball ” Harrison said. “She, from the get-go, was a great coach and a great mentor. I owe a lot to her instilling a lot of that discipline and it carry throughout my entire career.”
“Basketball was that safe space for me,” he remembered. “Sports was the place for the masculine energy come out and you wouldn’t be judged for it.”
Even as basketball helped him blend in, the results of the hard work made him stand out. Harrison ended up as Utah’s all-time high school leader in career blocked shots. He averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds per game in a successful senior season. Awards such as Utah’s Ms. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American selection filled the mantel. Along with the awards came a full scholarship to perennial women’s basketball powerhouse Stanford.
Along with the accomplishments came the paradox. The star player and team leader was the one that little girls in Utah looked up to and sought to emulate. Utah’s girls high school athlete of the year was cast as a shining example beyond the court, even with inner conflict brewing.
“Being a fairly recognized face within my church and now I was seen as being this certain role model,” he said. “Part of that meant being the female role model as a very Christian, orthodox, LDS church member. There was a pressure cooker that was building up.”
The pressure intensified through three years in Palo Alto. Harrison, in a reserve role, played in two national championship games for Stanford and hall-of-fame coach Tara VanDerveer. The final year of eligibility led to a transfer back home to the University of Utah. Harrison took the opportunity to shine in leading the Utes to a Mountain West conference tournament title.
The pressure followed Harrison overseas for two years while playing professionally in Switzerland and Greece. Injuries forced him to retire and to consider finally facing the pressure that continued to build inside.
“A lot of turmoil started to surface within my family and as member of my church,” he stated. “I could consider transitioning. I was excited could finally pursue this, but I knew that most of my immediate family wouldn’t support me and making that decision meant I was not going to have them in my life.”
On the stage, he fought gamely in the first challenge, falling short to his opponent Exodus Rogers in a close competition. It was the first loss in the best-of-three challenge, yet Mitch Harrison wasn’t fazed.
He’s seen loss.
Unfortunately, he was right about much of his immediate family. To this day, there hasn’t been much contact between himself and with most of his family since beginning his transition in 2016.
Some key people in his life do support him. Harrison pointed out the older sister who handed him the ball and taught him the game. He also cites VanDerveer, the coach who recruited him to Stanford, who leveled with him about his future prospects with the team, and helped him transfer, as another key supporter.
In 2015 he met his greatest supporter and confidant. Her name is Krista, and she became his wife.
“We were both in positions where we were hesitant about a relationship. On our first date, we both pretty much put all our cards out to each other,” Harrison recalls. “At that point I still wasn’t one-hundred percent sure that I was going to transition. I just knew she was someone I needed in my life. She was that corner piece I needed.”
From that first date, Krista knew the fact that perhaps Mitch wasn’t sure he could safely reveal that he is trans. “She had told me from that first date, ‘I knew you were Mitch,’” Harrison said with delight. “From day one she had said that I needed to do this.“
The two married and Harrison started hormone replacement therapy. Along the way, he finished the course work towards earning a master’s degree in exercise science and became a personal trainer. He also applied the dedication fostered in basketball and returned to the gym himself. One of the results of that return was the well-chiseled body seen on The Titan Games last Monday night.
A night that began with a query from one of the producers of the show and a nudge to apply. Being a fan of the show’s creator, wrestling megastar-turned-hollywood draw Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, he applied and was selected for the tryout combine in January.
What followed was a chance to come out and compete proudly. “It was out of the blue, but such as amazing opportunity,” he pointed out. “I used it as a way to gauge to see people’s reactions and navigate that. Fortunately, as I started to come out and people realized it and they were really supportive and thought it was so cool.”
He also relayed a story of how producers reacted as they were building a feature for the pre-competition portion of the show about Harrison’s journey. He said the producer told him many tears were shed as they were building it.
The long road led to the bright lights and a climax that Harrison said was “even bigger than any Final Four.”
“The last time I was on a stage like this was in the NCAA championship game, but that wasn’t Mitch back then. This is the first opportunity for Mitch to come out as a trans athlete to be the champion that he didn’t get to be back then, so it's time to make things right.” — Mitch Harrison
Two athletes holding on. Two men unwilling to let go.
Mitch Harrison was digging in. The contest came down to an epic remix of a tug-of-war called “Over The Edge”. His opponent, Exodus Rogers, coaches in a youth detention facility. Using sports to help reclaim lives in the balance.
Both men have a story, grit, and heart. You wished neither could lose, but one had to.
“Mitch, you are breaking barriers and showing people how to live their truth.” —Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
He dug down with gritted teeth and sinews straining. His wife imploring him forward to turn the tide, but this would not be his night. Rogers tugged the brick across the line to win. Harrison tumbled to the mat below in exhaustion.
Mitch Harrison lost. Exodus Rogers won. However, there we no “losers” here. The two men who had fought in the arena embraced in mutual respect.
“The Rock” himself, who has dealt with falling short on the field of play, locked eyes with Harrison. He said he was proud of him.
“Even though I had lost, it was such a winning moment,” Harrison reflected proudly.
An NBC executive later told him that Johnson had recounted that same moment. “He said that it was much like when he didn’t make it to the NFL, and that he was crushed, but he said it was the best thing that never happen to him, and I really think this will be one of those kinds of moments for Mitch.” Harrison continued, “I’m sitting there hearing what Dwayne Johnson said about me. It made me feel uplifted to see that he could see beyond it as well.”
For Mitch Harrison, the “beyond” has plans. He seeks to open his own gym and get back into personal training. He and Krista are also looking at starting a family.
With his effort coming amid the recent debates on transgender athletes and trans rights in media, legal, and legislative forums, Harrison wants to raise his voice in the conversation. He made that intention clear in one of the last thing he said at end of the televised event: “Trans athletes are athletes. We belong.”
“I believe in that statement,” Harrison said. “I don’t want any trans athlete to believe that we don’t belong there because we do, and not just in sports but on every big stage we can think of. We deserve that recognition and we deserve to be celebrated.”
Mitch Harrison also joined us on The Trans Sporter Room podcast this week where he gave a detailed look inside his Titan Games experience. Click here for the full interview in this week’s episode. You can also download, listen and subscribe on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, Spotify and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.