She's 13, transgender and stopped swimming because of Utah's law against athletes like her - Salt Lake Tribune
When she hits the water in her rainbow swimsuit, she becomes a blur of colors darting below the surface.
She locks eyes on the tiled line at the bottom of the pool. A kick off the wall, a splash of her feet, it all comes back.
Here in the water you don’t know she’s one of the most controversial athletes in the state.
But that’s why this 13-year-old swimmer hasn’t been in a pool for nearly a year.
Since she came home from the state championship in July with several medals. Since, in the months after, Utah lawmakers decided they didn’t want her to win any more. Since transgender girls like her became banned from competing in the sports they love.
Today, she’s here just to swim. The pool was always the place where she could be anonymous. With a swim cap covering her thick hair, no one could see who she was, only how well she performed.
In the middle lane, it’s poetry as her shoulders arc above the water in measured time.
She’s been in the pool since she was 6 months old, swimming before she could walk. Days before her fifth birthday, she made her first team. Her bedroom doorknob is heavy with medals, which hang alongside posters from her favorite Broadway shows.
For just as long, she has known she’s a girl. She remembers telling her second grade teacher to call her by her new name.
“Now the state is saying I’m not girl enough to compete,” she says. “And that really hurts. Because I am. I am girl enough.”
She skims across the water in a breaststroke and looks like she’s flying more than swimming. The red and gray lane markers sway with her powerful movements. A few people at the gym stop to watch her.
She never wanted to quit. She felt like she had to.
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Holding onto the concrete edge of the pool with her elbows, she needs just one word to describe what’s kept her from being here. “Frustrating.”
She used to love putting on a swimsuit; now, it makes her anxious. When her mom pushed, hoping it would be good for her to get back in, she only agreed to go to a private pool where there are few other swimmers and none she knows. She doesn’t want to be ridiculed, questioned, outed.
At 13, she could have continued swimming for another year with a club team before entering high school, where the state’s new ban would have stopped her. But she saw no point in waiting for that inevitable pain to come.
So she decided to get out of the water to protect herself. And that was also painful.
“It used to be freeing,” she says, emphasizing the past tense. “You just got to swim and not deal with the troubles of the world.”
The Salt Lake Tribune has agreed not to name the girl and her family to protect her identity and privacy.
She is one of two transgender girls in the state who are currently known to be impacted by HB11. The other is a swimmer already in high school, who will be benched for this coming season because of the law, her coach confirmed. There’s no telling how many other girls might have joined a team and now will not.
Set to take effect this summer, HB11′s ban means transgender girls will not be allowed to compete with a team under their preferred gender. They can participate in school sports, but only during practices.
The 13-year-old’s mom calls that setup “the deepest cruelty couched in kindness.” Her daughter will never get to see her name on the girls’ leader board again. She won’t get to celebrate wins with her friends and teammates.
“They’re telling her that she can come to the team, she can work out with the team, but in the moment it matters, she doesn’t count,” she says. “What’s the point? Why practice and get better if you can never showcase that or work toward achieving something like everyone else on the team?”
She looks at her daughter. “If she can’t compete, she can’t compete. Nothing makes that more fair.”
The law is part of a conservative crusade that has swept the country. Utah is now the 11th state — all controlled by GOP leaders — with this ban. State lawmakers here went forward with it after overriding Republican Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto and his pleas to protect “our most marginalized transgendered youth.”
Using the same repeated reasons as those leading the charge, they claimed transgender girls would be bigger, faster, stronger, knocking other girls out of spots and claiming new records. Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, the bill sponsor, framed the effort as a way “to preserve the integrity of women’s sports.”
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The 13-year-old is tiny, skinny, the shortest girl on her team. Even her colorful swimsuit is a little big, hanging off her small shoulders. Her pink robe swallows her.
She is nothing like what lawmakers picture for a transgender athlete.
“That’s what they’re trying to use,” she says, “that because we started off as male and went to female, we’re going to be bigger and stronger and stuff. But that’s not true. It’s really not.”
Opponents point to Lia Thomas to make their arguments.
Thomas is a 22-year-old competitive swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has found herself at the center of national debate. She competed her first three years of college on the men’s team. After transitioning, she got in the water this year, for her senior year, as a woman.
She’s shattered women’s records for swimming at her school and across the Ivy League. And she’s got a shot at being an Olympic breakout in 2024.
Relentless criticism has dogged her, though, with some on her own team saying because she went through puberty as a boy, she has inherent advantages over other female competitors; she’s got bigger hands and feet, they say, a larger lung capacity, a longer body — even with hormone replacement therapy.
“Do we want to wait until something like the Penn swimmer situation happens in Utah?” one Utah lawmaker asked during debate on HB11.
But unlike Thomas, many transgender girls now are making decisions about their bodies at a younger age, choosing to delay puberty or start hormones earlier. As high school athletes, they do not have the alleged “scientific benefits” of a larger body.
The 13-year-old swimmer, feeling certain at a young age that she was born into the wrong body, has a tiny blocker inserted into her arm. It has stopped the flow of testosterone and, by proxy, her growth. She got it a year ago and is basically still in the body of a 12-year-old.
“It’s not like you’re getting stronger than anyone else,” her mom says. “The Legislature has just got this completely inaccurate idea.”
“I think I’m actually getting weaker,” the 13-year-old corrects.
Even still, she’s a good swimmer, earning top spots at last year’s state championships for her age group. A second place in one event, a third in another.
But never a first, her coach notes. She also hasn’t broken any state records. She has no dreams of going to the Olympics (her heart is set on being an astronomer). It shouldn’t matter if she did want to compete on that stage, her coach adds, but “the fear mongering is around athletes that look and compete like Lia Thomas. And that’s not what we have here.”
She coaches both of the transgender girls who swim in Utah, who are on different teams but practice at the same facility.
The coach adds: “I wish people could understand this population is so small in high school, and it’s not harmful to the female athletic community at all. It’s this tiny population that just wants to play their sport and be who they are.”
The 13-year-old and her coach insist any accolades she’s received are because she earned them.
“I won medals, but only because I worked for them,” the girl says. “I worked hard every day to get better and better at swim. And that’s the only reason I was able to win medals. It’s not because my body is at all bigger.”
She twists a couple of the ribbons in her fingers. “If you’re scared of going up against other girls, then maybe you should practice harder,” she says matter-of-factly.
The comment makes her mom laugh. “There’s my sassy teenager.”
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But trying to get opponents to change their beliefs feels as effective to her as screaming underwater. The bubbles rise to the surface, carrying no sound.
She wasn’t swimming to disrupt the sport or shatter records, she says, or even to make a statement. She was there to work on herself and compete with friends and coaches, her support system.
Her mom starts to say, “The coaches and other swimmers are …”
Her daughter jumps in. “… beautiful, amazing, the best. There, I filled in the blanks for you.”
At school, other kids have made fun of the 13-year-old, mocking her long ponytail that she keeps in a colorful scrunchie, her hair once perpetually damp from swimming. At the pool, she could forget about it and talk with her teammates about the last episode of “The Golden Girls” she had watched.
“There’s a few that have bigger dreams,” her coach says. “But the majority of our athletes are there to be with their peers.”
They need this, she says, all kids. Those who are transgender maybe more so.
She worries about the kids who will never try out now, who will never get a chance to see what it’s like to be on a team. She thinks about her older swimmer, in high school, who got a taste of it and had it ripped away by the ban.
And the 13-year-old’s teammates were supportive. They’ve been asking where she went, her coach notes.
She swam with the boys until she was about 8 years old. Then, feeling she didn’t belong there, she ducked under the buoyed lane marker and joined the girls. Starting so young, it made her the first transgender athlete to compete in Utah.
But there were a few parents who pulled their kids away from her when she would walk past, her coach says.
And the opposition has gotten more intense with the extra attention on transgender athletes.
The Utah High School Activities Association, a private entity that oversees school athletics within the state for those ages 14 to 18, has been seeing more complaints, says David Spatafore, a lobbyist for the organization.
A handful of parents, he says, have written in to object to transgender youth competing. A few times, they’ve said their daughters are being harmed. Some, he adds, have made comments about “students who may not look feminine enough” and accused them of being transgender. They use old arguments that boys who didn’t make the boys’ team are trying to play as girls.
It’s an ugly fight. And it’s not over.
The ACLU has said a lawsuit against the ban is “necessary and inevitable.” And even if it is struck down by the courts, a controversial commission would go into place to make decisions on which transgender athletes can play, based on evaluations of wingspan, weight and height. Many don’t see that as a better option.
“As an association, we don’t know where this is going to end up. We don’t,” Spatafore says. “So we’re preparing for everything.”
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She’s been swimming for two hours. And for a moment, twirling under the water in pirouettes, she remembers that feeling of freedom and ignores her mom calling her name, asking her, “You done?”
She pretends she can’t hear her through her swim cap. She’s not ready to get out yet. She doesn’t know when she’ll find the courage to come back here, knowing it took months of her mom pleading with her just to try.
She relents, again. Climbing out of the cold pool and onto the concrete perimeter, she instantly shivers. Her mom hands her a pink robe that she slides on outside the locker room. Out of the water, she goes back to being reserved.
“I’m just happy to have you swimming again,” her mom says.
She wants to respond with the obvious, “But it’s not the same.” Instead, she musters, “Yeah.”
This is the controversial athlete, the girl, that the state has banned.
She goes to the door of the pool and walks away.
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