The climax of Laurel Hubbard’s story would play out on a lifting platform at Tokyo International Forum on Monday. The much-debated New Zealand weightlifter, maligned by some, would contest the 87+kilogram classification.
The first transgender woman to compete in an Olympic event would perform. All the barbs and brickbats would finally give way to lifts and results.
Thousands of miles away, two strength sports athlete-activists and a reporter anxiously link via video conference to watch history in the making. Pull for Pride co-directors Breanna Diaz and JayCee Cooper lead an effort to foster greater inclusion in strength sports, including an annual scholarship program that awards grants to aid aspiring strength-sport athletes to pursue the sport.
The history of the moment is in the minds of all of them, especially Cooper. The Minnesota powerlifter has been debated and sometimes denigrated, much like Hubbard has, in her continuing legal fight against USA Powerlifting.
“To get to that platform and bounce back from injury and training and get away from a lot of biased views and stress,” Cooper recounts, “She got there in the face of all of that.”
Our hearts leap as the broadcast shows Hubbard waiting in the wings for her first lift in deep focus. She is an athlete like us all, and trans like Cooper and me. She strides toward the bar and into history.
She slips slightly on the first attempt and has to drop the bar behind her head. Breaths hold for an instant. She’s trying for 120 kilograms, or around 264.5 pounds.
“She’ll get that back,” Cooper states confidently as she provides instant color commentary. “She had that lift. It was just a positioning thing.”
She notes a slight slip has put Hubbard an awkward position. We all hope that it won’t repeat itself as New Zealander pushes for a try at 125 kilograms, or 275.5 pounds.
The second attempted starts a little like the first, but Hubbard makes her adjustment. She and the bar rise into what looks like a perfect standing position.
I think she has it. She thinks she has it.
She doesn’t. Two of the three judges rule she didn’t have enough control.
It comes down one chance. All the training and dreaming alongside hearing and reading vitriol about her. The “debate,” the endless academic discussion of her flesh and blood life for years.
All the transphobic bile in social media, on news reports, in real life.
“It’s the Olympics,” Cooper says stoically. “Go big or go home.”
She again goes for 125 kilograms. She raises up into the crouch readying to explode.
In one instant, everything seems to lock up. Sports can be cruel.
“Out the back door” is how the Olympic Broadcasting Service commentator describes it. The bar falls behind her head, and her Olympics end there.
Laurel Hubbard stands, makes a heart-shaped gesture with her hands as a thank-you sign, and flashes a terse smile as she walks off the platform hiding heavy-hearted disappointment.
“It’s rough sometimes how sports doesn’t love us back,” Cooper laments. “It’s never fun to bomb out of a meet. It is one of the worst things to have it happen on the world’s biggest stage.”
Diaz, a cisgender accomplice who has called out many a bigot out of love for the sport, looks ahead.
“She got to the Olympics and it’s incredible,” she states. “What happened here will spur on other trans athletes to try.”
Even after the end of the event there is a sense of loss. When the news breaks, the Twitter transphobes and internet trolls come fast and furious. So many hit the BBC Sport Twitter site that a disclaimer is quickly posted.
It is such responses that makes the final result sting even more.
“Trans women and trans people are dehumanized to the point where there is zero empathy for our moments of humanity,” Cooper says emphatically, with some of the disappointment showing. “Laurel’s story has been used for ammunition since 2017. They don’t see us as people. The dehumanization of trans people is violent behavior.”
Since a surprise silver-medal performance at the 2017 International Weightlifting Federation World Championships, Hubbard has been a target for the anti-trans crowd, all the way to her selection to New Zealand’s Olympic team.
Hubbard knows this journey, and those emotions come up with trans people in moments like these.
In a time where we are paying attention to issues of mental health is sports, let’s consider what Hubbard has dealt with. Let’s consider what trans youth targeted by fear mongers and those they finance are dealing with. Let’s consider how we shall address the next trans hopeful who will come onto the scene with a sporting dream. No question: There will be more to come.
Laurel Hubbard officially is listed as DNF — Did Not Finish. In reality, she finished and dared greatly by setting this goal and getting here.
She may not have successfully lifted the bar on this day, but she did uplift sports.
Laurel showed up for so many of us. Devastating result and yet still full of pride knowing that someone like me made it onto that platform - and despite so many factors working against her. Congrats on the run Laurel, you represented Team NZ and the Olympic spirit well.— JayCee Cooper (@jayceeisalive) August 2, 2021