Italian track and field athlete Valentina Petrillo, a transgender woman seeking to qualify for next year’s Paralympics in Tokyo, has seen her dream delayed due to the Covid pandemic, and denied because of who she is. Despite meeting all the requirements of the International Paralympic Committee and World Athletics, FISPES (Italian Federation for Paralympic and Experimental Sport) officials have consistently forced her to run in the male division.

But all that changed, just weeks before the Italian Paralympic Athletics Championships in Jesolo, Italy. Petrillo was finally allowed to compete as the woman she is last weekend, and the results were golden.

Running in the T12 category — visually impaired with a vision field less than 10 degrees diameter — she took home gold at 100, 200 and 400 meters to win her first national championships since starting her transition in 2019. “I’m not exactly sure about the mechanisms that brought about this change, but I believe that FISPES wanted to honor their mission of inclusion in sports.” Petrillo told Outsports.

Ironically, Petrillo’s official authentic debut would take place at the site of her last national championship meet. In Jesolo in 2018, she was competing in the men’s division and won gold at 200 and 400 meters.

Fast forward to 2020, she opened the weekend on September 11 with a convincing win at 100 meters in 13.24 seconds. The next day she added the 400 meter gold in 1:04:59. Both of those winning efforts were faster than the Paralympic qualifying standard.

For Petrillo, these championships meant validation as much as competition. “It feels so…normal,” she said about running against other women. “I feel at home, in the category I belong. Looking back, I’m even more aware of how hard it was for me to run with men. I felt so out of place.”

Perhaps her greatest thrill was her last race of the weekend, the 200 meters. It is her favorite event, and the race of her hero, 1980 Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder Pietro Mennea. She motored to win in 27.47 seconds, handily beating the Paralympic qualifying mark, and touching off a special celebration.

The first Italian transgender athlete to compete for and earn a national championship took the transgender flag to the top of the podium with her.

With the gold medal around her neck, Valentina Petrillo held the azure, salmon and cream-striped transgender banner over her head; It’s a flag given to her by the Bologna-based support organization, Gruppo Trans, a group she became a part of after she came out two years ago.

“I dedicated to them my victory in my favorite race,” Petrillo said. “Gruppo Trans supported me in my darkest hour, and they helped me find the answers I needed when I was questioning my identity and my life.”