Sports are often labeled as a proving ground, providing arenas for many to prove their grit, determination and prowess in a standardized way to interpret where any given athlete ranks. Stats are sacred. Divisions form. But sometimes, an athlete arrives with a sledgehammer, aimed squarely at the foundations of the arena, and provides a new definition of that old “proving ground” adage.
Canadian midfielder Quinn brought that sledgehammer this year. That’s why they are the Outsports 2021 Non-Binary Athlete of the Year.
Quinn made international sports history in July when they took the pitch in Sapporo to kick off Canada’s 2020 Tokyo Olympics campaign. They became the first out trans non-binary athlete to compete at the Olympics just hours before the second non-binary athlete, American skater Alana Smith.
The moment created by their 72 minutes on the field that night wasn’t lost on Quinn.
“I feel proud seeing ‘Quinn’ up on the lineup and on my accreditation. I feel sad knowing there were Olympians before me unable to live their truth because of the world,” Quinn said on Instagram after the groundbreaking match.
That landmark appearance would be taken to another level when Quinn captured the first gold medal for an out trans and non-binary Olympian. Canada defeated the U.S. Women for the first time in 20 years and topped Sweden on penalty kicks to clinch the gold.
Quinn’s beaming smile as they held their medal aloft became the defining image of the Tokyo Games for trans and gender-diverse audiences, as well as many beyond those communities.
And as Quinn is akin to do, they saw their accomplishment through a greater cultural lens, using the moment to highlight the continued push to erode the ability for trans women and girls to participate in sports in gender-affirming fashion.
“I feel optimistic for change. Change in legislatures. Changes in rules, structures and mindsets,” they said. “Mostly, I feel aware of the realities. Trans girls being banned from sports. Trans women facing discrimination and bias while trying to pursue their Olympic dreams.
“The fight isn’t close to over … and I’ll celebrate when we’re all here.”
That last line encapsulates what Quinn represents to the trans and non-binary communities. Yes, they are a role model never previously seen for any gender-diverse person that felt like athletics weren’t an option. Their very existence in the Olympic Games chips away at the longheld Olympic structures steeped so deeply in the gender binary.
But what they do isn’t solely about them. Whether they’re leading the OL Reign to the NWSL semifinals, landing on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list or standing atop an Olympic gold medal podium, Quinn doesn’t stand alone. They welcome every member of the trans and non-binary community to claim those spots alongside them, reserving the final blowout celebration for when they and those they inspire can share in the spoils together.
And Quinn is quite adamant about fighting for their trans and non-binary siblings. When they bask in the joy brought by their gender-affirming surgery, they’re raising awareness and funds for others to feel the same elation. Quinn’s place as a Nike athlete keeps their advocacy trans, non-binary and other LGBTQ voices in sports elevated and at the forefront.
Where athletic success is commonly defined by how adorned one’s trophy room is once they hang it up, Quinn is leading the efforts to build trophy rooms for anyone that sees themselves in them. A sledgehammer has multiple uses, after all.
It doesn’t hurt being the first athlete to ever win consecutive Outsports awards either.
Alana Smith: Just like Quinn, Alana Smith made Olympic history this year. Smith became the first out non-binary athlete to compete for Team USA when they dropped into the Women’s Skateboarding Street event in July.
After coming out as non-binary shortly before the Tokyo Games, they made sure the world knew who they were representing from the jump. Smith proudly displayed a deck with their pronouns etched into the grip tape during athlete introductions.
Smith’s statement transcended any athletic performance they could have imagined, and their composure despite tricks not going their way enhanced that message. Nothing, much less some bails or misgendering, could erode the pure bliss Smith found themself in as they made a proclamation on the international stage just by reaching it.
“For the first time in my entire life, I’m proud of the person I’ve worked to become,” Smith wrote in a heartfelt Instagram post after the competition.
“Going into the Olympics, I just wanted to be my authentic self. I felt that if I was holding that back, I was not being my full self. I just wanted the world to know who I was,” Smith said in an interview with ESPN. “I just felt like it was something I wanted to describe to the world, because growing up as a kid, I didn’t see a lot of people like me in whatever way that it was — whether it was how I identify my sexuality [or] also just the things that I’ve been through in life, whether it’s my past with family trauma or suicide.
“I wanted to share things that are super vulnerable and sensitive about me to the world to hopefully help the kids that needed it like I did. I wanted to be a support system, that representation of, ‘We’re out there. You’re not alone. It is OK to grow and for things to be a process and you’re going to change a million times over.’”
Smith, Quinn and Paralympians Robyn Lambird, Maz Strong and Laura Goodkind planted the flag for themselves and all trans, non-binary and gender-neutral athletes that will undoubtedly follow in their stead. And, trust me, that flag is planted deep.