When you see Valentina Petrillo on the track, you notice a tall, strong power sprinter. You also notice a furious joy to run fast and compete well.
“Sprinting is life for me! I live to compete and I love to run,” Petrillo said through an interpreter. “I love being in the blocks and being ready to show the emotions when I explode out of those blocks. This is what gives me energy. I couldn’t give it up.”
Giving up doesn’t seem to be in the mental makeup of this sprint specialist from Bologna, Italy. Even competing at age 46 and despite having a visual field less than 10 percent due to an eye disease contracted as a teen, she’s making a push for next year’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Should she take her marks next summer, she could be the first transgender Paralympic Games qualifier ever.
“I tried to go out during the lockdown to run anyway,” she noted. “Three times I tried to go out and run and three times the police told me to go home.”
Sprinting has been Petrillo’s lifelong dream and she’s jumped a number of hurdles to realize it. As a child in Naples, her first piece of that dream came in 1980. Her eyes were glued to the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Her inspiration, 200-meter world record holder Pietro Mennea, claimed a gold medal in that event in a stirring comeback win that made Mennea a national hero.
“I play that race over and over again,” she smiled. “It gives me that same feeling of motivation and excitement.”
Since then, running fast became her passion. At age 14, she tried out at the local sports club, but was turned away. “I didn’t have the right shoes and they told me I was not fit to be in athletics,” Petrillo groaned.
Another disappointment soon followed. She was diagnosed with Stargardt disease. An eye disorder that causes retinal degeneration. It usually starts in childhood and levels off at adulthood but often renders vision at 20/200 or worse. For Petrillo, it meant having to adjust and relearn. The next step led to a move north to Bologna, and into a school that specializes in the visually impaired.
Running helped her cope as she moved forward to study computer science at a local university. In 1994, she joined a sport club and showed a lot of potential with a Paralympics in Atlanta two years away.
“My trainers told me I could get there, but I didn’t feel fit,” she remembered. “I wasn’t right in my head. I was feeling my uneasiness because I felt like I was this different person, yet I wasn’t expressing that.”
No one knew how much gender identity was struggle for her. She recalled being at her first communion wishing she was in a white dress like the other girls instead of the same clothes the boys wore.
The 1996 Paralympics came and went. Her struggle continued. Neither a career as computer programmer nor marriage and the arrival of a son in 2016 could forge a truce.
The track had been a haven through so much, but it couldn’t shield her here. Petrillo won three straight national paralympics championships in the T12 classification (visual impaired) at 200 meters and 400 meters from 2016 to 2018 while presenting and competing as the man she always knew she wasn’t.
“I used to dress up and hide in the bathroom so to not be discovered,” she said. “I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know whom I could speak with about it. I decided to hold this secret on my own.”
Her race against her secret ended in 2017. She came out to her spouse, Elena. “She said she always knew,” Petrillo commented.
In early 2018, she started attending a local support group. Her first open steps forward found a person who could explode out of the starting blocks stumbling to come into their own self. “I was worried about how I looked,” she explained about her beginnings. “I didn’t feel confident enough to go out.”
“At first she was very insecure, because she didn’t know the group,” Gruppo Trans Bologna co-founder Milena Bargiacchi stated. “Then she increasingly took part in our activities. She felt welcomed in the association.”
Bargiacchi knows about the awkwardness that comes with breaking barriers. She led the push to change Italy’s laws to allow transgender people the right change birth certificates and legal IDs without undergoing surgery. In 2015 the Italian Supreme Court recognized that right. Bargiacchi became to first in her nation to act on those changed laws.
The activist and the athlete became sisters, and the group became needed supporters when Petrillo made her plan to transition known to her sports club. “I told them that I wanted to compete as a woman,” she declared. “I lost all my friends. I had find a new coach, and a new team.”
She launched into a transition with the same intensity she launches into a race. She continued to train with new, affirming coach, adjusted to hormone replacement therapy, and dealt with a frustrating fight with governing bodies who lack knowledge of rules that had been on the books for years.
“It was a very poor deal with the Italian Paralympic Committee,” Petrillo said. “When I said wanted to compete as woman, they said I was crazy,” She also noted that the governing bodies where stating differing interpretations of the rules she was trying to navigate.
“The ignorance about trans issues, is so widespread across sport federations and governing bodies,” Bargiacchi added. “Nobody seemed to believe in Valentina’s good faith. More than once she was accused to wanting to run with women in order to have an easy time winning.”
Petrillo said that she meets the guidelines of the her sport’s world governing body, World Athletics, which states testosterone must be limited to 5 nanomoles per liter or less. The national paralympic committee still maintained, at the time, that Petrillo must compete in the men's category in their events.
But away from their events, she has found acceptance. Last summer in two other track meets, she was allowed to compete authentically. Her times and positions were secondary to the validation. “It was beautiful,” she beamed. “It was a good feeling and I felt at home.”
Looking ahead, she moving forward to ramping up her training with eye toward competitions restarting if the threat of COVID recedes, and with the knowledge the paralympic committee will allow her to compete as a woman. Her journey is also the subject of a documentary currently in production. “This is a very important subject because this is an issue of a person reclaiming her rights to be accepted and recognized in the world she wants to belong to,” filmmaker Luisa Moreghetti said.
For Valentina Petrillo, the effort ahead bonds her family growing in acceptance, new friends forged in support, and the goal that is a year away. Her hope is that she may inspire others, especially transgender Italians, the way she was inspired 40 years ago.
“I’m dreaming about this,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “The determination that Mennea showed was something he taught all of us. That is how I feel when I am running. That same determination and that same drive.”
This week, Valentina Petrillo joined the crew of the Trans Sporter Room podcast to talk about her path to the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo. 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.
And this week, you can watch as well as listen to the podcast, by clicking here. The password is: 6j@yC52%