“In matches, you really have to mentally rely on yourself,” she said. “Going through things in life actually was benefit for me in tennis. When you’ve gone through so much adversity in life, you realize there’s a lot worse than what can happen on a tennis court.”
At 27, Ross is preparing for one more season of collegiate tennis while pursuing a graduate degree at NCAA Division II Lewis University in Illinois. Her record has been competitive through two other stops in her college career, with stints at Metropolitan State University in Denver and University of Texas-Tyler.
She’s previously been named a rookie of the year, and a team leader.
She’s also managed one of the hardest feats in sports today: Brooklyn Ross is a transgender woman competing successfully in a college sport and not drawing the harsh light of those seeking a debate.
“Nobody was going to the press or exposing me,” Ross said of her experiences playing college tennis. “I was just able to be accepted as another player. I was able to just compete as anybody else and just focus on the sport.”
That changed a little bit in August. While on summer break and coaching at a tennis club in her native Colorado, Ross entered the Governor’s Cup tournament in Cheyenne, Wyo.
She saw the tournament as a chance for a road trip and some tune-up matches before returning to college play.
“I signed up for the tournament pretty far in advance, and there weren’t very many players signed up in the women’s draw,” she recalled. “I wanted to at least sign up for it so then maybe someone could see that someone signed up. I wasn’t sure the tournament was going to happen for the division I was playing in.”
Enough women signed up to have an open women’s draw and Ross was excited. As she prepared to make the trip and compete, discussions brewed in Cheyenne over whether Ross was eligible to compete.
Tournament officials, noting that Ross was eligible by NCAA regulation, decided to allow her to play. In response, the president of the board of the Cheyenne Tennis Association resigned in protest, and Wyoming state legislators who had supported anti-trans legislation vowed to publicly protest the tournament if Ross took the court.
“It was kind of shocking, but I figured something like this may happen sooner or later,” she said with a shrug. “The first time I ever played a tournament years back, I was scared that something like this was going to happen, but it didn’t happen.”
Even with the new-found attention given to her story, the athlete was detached yet determined.
“It’s all just politically motivated,” she said, with a blunt honesty mixed with some lament. “It’s just for clicks. It’s just the world we live in. They don’t care about my mental health or how this could impact me or other people. Sports have had trans policy for a long time.”
Policies allowing the participation of trans women in the female category, like the NCAA’s trans policy even with its recent modifications, made a difference for a younger Brooklyn Ross.
Where she is now seems a world away from how she felt a decade ago.
Loving and leaving the game... and loving it again
Ross grew up in Littleton, Colo., a small city of 45,000 south of Denver, loving to play tennis.
“When I was a young kid, it’s just what I loved to do,” she said. “I dreamed of being a really good tennis player. I just wanted to play.”
When her tennis dreams reached middle school, they collided with growing up and the feeling that something was wrong, but not being sure what was wrong.
“Going through puberty was a hard time,” she recalled. “I felt like who I was or who I could be was being destroyed.”
Ross struggled with her gender identity while also dealing with perceptions about the sport she loved and played well.
“People would say that it’s a ‘girl’s sport’ and people would bully me for being ‘more feminine’ or ‘like a girl’ and they would always call me a ‘girl’,” she said. “It got so bad that I just didn’t even enjoy it anymore. I was getting so much hate that I actually quit playing for a little over a year but did pick it back up in high school.”
In high school, she returned to the courts hungry to excel. Ross was the top player on the boys’ team in high school, a four-time all-conference selection, and a three-time state tournament qualifier.
Tennis was her place to hide, but that hiding place became less and less secure by senior year. The turmoil inside didn’t die down, it intensified.
“I didn’t know anything about this when I was growing up. I didn’t know about who trans people were until I was about 17. I felt this way but I had no vocabulary. I had no idea, so I just repressed it. I thought it was wrong and I thought a boy feeling like a girl was the worst thing a boy could feel.”
After high school, Ross went to college but ended up leaving after a semester. At that point, she decided to focus on being true to herself. She started her gender transition, including hormone therapy, and spent two years away from the game she loved as a youngster. She said she was willing to give up the game to move forward with the rest of her life.
“I needed to live as myself first and foremost to have any happiness. I wasn’t finding any happiness really from anything because I wasn’t being myself. I did not feel good in my own skin at all.”
Yet as she came into her own as a person, she came also to a very different conclusion: The tennis that was once a place to hide could also be her place to stand out. And tennis was a part of who she is.
“As I got older and started living my life as I am, I thought that I was wasting my talent,” Ross said. “I felt like that I had the body I wanted, and it feels more fluid to me and tennis was a big part of me.”
She got back to work on the court. She played some local tournaments in the women’s category and won matches.
By 2019, Ross was back in school, now at Metropolitan State University in Denver.
Having found that the NCAA had a trans student-athlete policy, she decided to play for MSU’s women’s tennis team and found a lot of support and success, winning her first match as an MSU Roadrunner as a 21-year-old freshman.
“It was just really nice. I felt supported by my teammates on the men’s and women’s teams,” she said with a broad grin. “I was able to play the sport I love and now I’m having some success in it.”
Her freshman year ended with her being named her region’s Rookie of the Year. She was even better during her sophomore year. Ross earned all-PacWest conference honors and put up a two-year record of 26-7 in singles.
After her junior year, Ross took her ambitions south, transferring to University of Texas-Tyler. She said she transferred to upgrade her game by playing at sea level, as she had aspirations beyond college. She held her own amid stiffer competition and adjusted to a different style of play at lower altitude.
What stayed constant was the support she received from her coaches and teammates. Her experience is a contrast to the current environment in Texas, where transgender girls and women are banned from competing against their cisgender counterparts.
“I had a lot of support from the coaches there and I was surrounded by teammates who just loved to play,” Ross said. “I made a lot of friends among players on other teams. It wasn’t a big deal and that is how it was treated.”
She was also competing as a UT-Tyler Patriot at a time when the trans inclusion discussion was becoming a full-blown debate. As Ross prepared for the 2022 spring season, Lia Thomas was swimming for the University of Pennsylvania and was front-page news for being who she is and winning.
“It definitely impacted me,” she said. “You feel unsafe because you can be targeted at any time, and it's pretty extreme. You hear the arguments and you hear how they want to implement more and more bans. There was no problem with the policies until someone like Lia Thomas had some success.”
Unlike Thomas, who was subjected to vitriol even from some of her teammates, Ross’s experience, and the support for her among her team, never diminished. She was All-Lone Star conference on the court that season and earned her undergraduate degree after a strong senior campaign.
The next step forward
Hearing of the brewing contention over her participation in that tournament in Cheyenne earlier this year, Ross decided to not enter the fray. She withdrew from the Governor’s Cup over pleas from tournament organizers to show up and play.
“Some of the backlash was pretty strong, mainly from some politicians and they were hellbent on shutting down the whole tournament and picketing it if I showed up,” Ross reasoned. “To cancel the whole tournament based on this? It’s not worth playing.
“There was actually a lot of support that came out because of it, like the tournament director who was saying don’t back out because of this. There was a girl who played in a junior division who wore a shirt saying ‘LOVE ALL’ done in the trans colors, and she played the tournament in the shirt.”
Last weekend, Ross made her debut as a Lewis University Flyer against St. Francis (Ill.) and earned a straight-set victory. It’s the first step toward her goal for this last collegiate season.
“I’d love to make it to nationals,” she said, noting getting to the NCAA national tournament as a career goal yet to be fulfilled. “It’s another chance to travel, play tennis and be around my teammates.”
Last weekend was also another example of what trans inclusion in sports can look like. A competitor just being seen as another competitor. That’s all Brooklyn Ross wants.
“It’s very nice to be able to compete as just another competitor because the focus is all on your game. How you hit the ball, the decisions you make, what type of points you prefer to play,” she said. “ After the match, I was just happy to be able to be playing and having the opportunity to compete. It’s certainly something not to be taken for granted.”
You can follow Brooklyn Ross on Instagram.