Coaching an athlete in transition

Coaching an athlete in transition


My world is a better place because of her

By Denis Vachon for CBC Sports
October 18, 2020
 

E is for Emily. I have been coaching for almost 20 years. I have produced many world class athletes. I have taken advanced coaching courses around the world. But nothing and no one prepared me for the delicate challenge of coaching an athlete who was going to transition.

I had to learn quickly, and as error-free as possible, because this child needed me.

When I first met Emily, we called her by a boy’s name, which also started with E. (Something else I learned quickly: the trans community hears disrespect in ‘dead’ names. So we try to avoid using them.) As a young boy, he was timid, shy, stuttered a bit and had a difficult time looking you in the eye. If he did raise his eyes though, you’d see a sparkle and a glimpse of something beautiful. When E was 12, his mother asked for a meeting to tell me he’d gained the strength to tell his parents he was meant to be a girl and that they were honoring his wishes to do so.

Post transition, Emily is confident, happy, and energetic. Image submitted by Denis Vachon Post transition, Emily is confident, happy, and energetic. Image submitted by Denis Vachon

The change in E (her nickname until she chose Emily) was instantaneous. Gone were the timid, fearful days of the past. She came to training confident, happy, and full of stories. Her energy  was contagious. It was like having a new athlete in the group. Physically, the changes were a tad slower, her hair started to grow longer, her attire began becoming more feminine and because of that, eyes started wandering and voices started whispering.

I remember the day E showed up with her nails painted and her hair long enough to be in a short pony tail. I caught sight of her teammates glancing over, and seeming very curious. I hadn’t asked the parents if I could talk to the team about the transition. I didn’t know if that would be appropriate, if it would make E uncomfortable. I struggled with the language. I wasn’t sure how to put it into words I understood, that I could also convey to teenagers. All I knew is that I wanted her to stay happy.

Denis Vachon was guided by a principle while coaching E in transition: Always be a positive influence in a young person's life. Image submitted by Denis Vachon Denis Vachon was guided by a principle while coaching E in transition: Always be a positive influence in a young person's life. Image submitted by Denis Vachon

When E asked to go to the restroom, I took the opportunity to pull the remaining group together and tell them that I had noticed their looks, their body language and changed behavior, and that it wouldn’t work in our gym. I reminded them that we all came to tumbling because of our common love of the sport, and to let our differences fall away.

I told them I expected the gym to be a safe space for them, as it had been for me when I was growing up. As an out and proud gay man, this is a crucial and life saving thing for me. I made it clear that I would never tolerate a negative atmosphere or hateful behavior.

Kids really can be better than adults. They have the capacity to be open-minded, encouraging and willing to grow. It’s mind-blowing to me, how a group of teenagers, most of whom were boys, embraced E for her bright qualities. They had no care for the gender transition that was happening. Teenagers are publicly blamed for so many transgressions in our society but this experience showed me that kids are responsible for a lot of good in the world.

 

A few months later, we went to an event in Eastern Canada and E (still competing under a male name at the time) showed up for travel in hot pink pants. Her dad wished her good luck and kissed her goodbye. I will never forget this moment of unconditional love.

Emily has since moved into other sports. Image submitted by Denis Vachon Emily has since moved into other sports. Image submitted by Denis Vachon

Back to Emily now, she was in high school and sport was becoming hard for her. While the gymnastics community embraced her whole-heartedly, the nature of the sport and the toll it takes on her body was overpowering. Hormone therapy had stripped her of testosterone and she had become physically weaker and quite fragile. She broke her arm doing a skill she’d been doing for about six years. The skill was error-free but her body didn’t care. It was a sad day when we had to decide that she needed to shift her focus to a sport that would be less stressful on her. It’s hard to watch someone let go for reasons beyond their control.

Emily went on to be quite a successful trampoline athlete. Once she had a handle on her new body, she regained her strength and continued her pursuit of personal excellence. She made it to the highest provincial category and narrowly missed earning a spot at the national level.

I take great pride in knowing that I contributed to this young woman’s life in a positive way. As coaches, that is really the main thing we should strive for. It is definitely what I always try to do. I am thankful Emily allowed me to share my side of her story and that she chose me as her coach a decade ago. I think she impacted my life far more than I did hers.

 

Now I stay in touch with Emily through her Instagram profile. I smile and feel happy when I see her living her best life. She shows confidence, enthusiasm, and sheer beauty.

My world is a better place because of her.

I will always be Emily’s biggest fan.

(Top large image by Getty Images, all other images submitted by Denis Vachon)

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