Olympics Summer

‘Sports saved my life’

Kristen Worley, a woman who was once a man, is striving to be the first openly transitioned athlete to compete in the Olympics, but the Canadian Cycling Association says it can't happen.

Kristen Worley, a woman who used to be a man, strives to make it to the Olympics, but the Canadian Cycling Association says she hasn't qualified


Kristen Worley aims to be the first openly transitioned athlete to compete in the Olympics. She's using science to argue that transitioned female athletes do not have a competitive advantage. (Geoff Robins)


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The Olympic dream of cyclist Kristen Worley — a 40-year-old woman who was once a man — is being crushed.

The Canadian Cycling Association says any chance to qualify for Beijing has passed.

"It's just not possible," said Lorraine LaFrenière, CEO of the CCA, who says Worley didn't compete in any of the Olympic qualifying events that could send her to the Games.

"It's about performance, and she just doesn't have it. She hasn't done any of the required events," she said. "I mean, you can train in your backyard and get results, but unless anybody sees it, unless it's at an official event, it's not going to happen."

Born and raised male, Worley grew up in Mississauga, Ont., as Chris, and began "transitioning" to Kristen in 1996. She took hormones for five years and in 2001, in her early-30s, had surgery to complete the process.

At five feet seven inches, 150-pounds, she says she's "no different than any woman who's had a hysterectomy." She says she's clearing Olympic qualifying times for the 3,000-metre pursuit and the road time trials, and that she deserves the opportunity to compete in China. (The qualifying standard for the 3,000m pursuit is 03:51:07.)

If she does go to Beijing, she'll be the first openly transitioned athlete to compete at an Olympic Games.

"That's my gold medal," she said, a smile stretching across her face, her blue eyes lighting up as she imagines herself walking into the opening ceremony.

"To me, it will be a message to the world that you can be anything you want if you put your mind to it — and that you're normal," Worley says.

But LaFrenière insists that while Worley may be recording Olympic qualifying times, unless she posts such results at a qualifying event, the door to China is closed.

Barriers in sport
While growing up, Worley says sports gave her an escape from constantly feeling she wasn't "normal." ((Geoff Robins))

"There are a lot of barriers in sport, and she's trying to foster an environment for transitioned athletes, which is fairly new, and it's important. But if you talk about her in an Olympic position, it's just not happening," she said.

But Worley, who trains six hours a day, almost every day, says official channels to qualify are more difficult given the obstacles facing transitioned athletes.

For instance, she explains that transitioned females lose the ability to develop red blood cells, which carry oxygen on demand to muscle groups. As a result, she often suffers "crash fatigue." Her times at past competitions, including a 2006 Olympic qualifying race, were significantly slowed.

"I'd be riding and all of a sudden my body would just stop," she said. "It was so frustrating because I knew why it was going on, but I couldn't tell anyone because I hadn't come out yet. People would be like, 'Isn't she training?' It was really hard."

With gender myths and stereotypes a major part of sport culture, Worley said the training environment with the CCA was not one that made her feel comfortable. She trains independently and says she couldn't find a coach since she "was seen as controversy."

"I'm the guinea pig in all of this," she said. "I'm the first one doing this."

Worley says LaFrenière and the CCA have been well aware of her Olympic intentions and despite what they say, she's determined to fight for a chance at Beijing.

At the end of June, in addition to events in the U.S., Worley will race in the Canadian Nationals — which the CCA says is not an Olympic qualifying event. She says it will be her chance to show what she can do — and that it's Olympic worthy.

Her determination comes from a life more difficult than most could imagine — one in which cycling and sport were her saving grace.

"Sports saved my life," she said.

Long, hard road

When she was much younger, and her name was Chris, she had a  "gender variance," also known as "gender dysphoria," a medical condition in which a person's sex and gender identity are not aligned.

In 2007, the condition was said to affect one in 500 people, but before that it was said to affect one in 1,000, and before that one in 30,000. Many used to consider it a mental disorder.

"It created fear and stereotypes," Worley says today.

She was adopted into a traditional, conservative family, with a father who "was tough, a guy's guy." She learned early on that intimate problems weren't discussed at  home, certainly not her confusion that though she looked like a boy, she felt like a girl.

"There was such a disconnect. It would be like your brain tells you you're female and you want to do female things, but then everyone keeps calling you 'George' and asking you to do boy things," Worley said. "I was in a really mixed up place."

Years later, her mom recalled when Chris used to come to her in tears.

"She said, 'You wanted to tell me something so badly, but you couldn't.' It was so frustrating because at the time I couldn't figure it out myself," Worley says.

Her adolescence was spent fighting off a changing body, one that brought unwanted hair and a more masculine build. She used anorexia as a defence.

In grade seven and eight gym class, Chris discovered that he could run faster than many of his peers. Gradually, he became known as "the runner." The gender-free identity gave him a sense of peace, an escape from constantly feeling that he wasn't normal.

At a family cottage, he learned to waterski, and learned it well. By 16, he was on the national barefoot team. The status allowed him to make more friends and feel better about himself.

'I'd always loved pink'

The sport also gave Chris an outlet to express more of who he was, especially through sponsorship that came in the form of gifts.

Looking back, Worley says, laughing, "I'd have clothes thrown at me. It was great because I'd get to wear all these bright colours. I'd always loved pink, but could never wear it. I mean, God forbid you're a boy who loves pink."

The luxury of sponsorships, however, brought plenty of booze, which Chris often used to hide from reality.

"I'd ask myself, 'Am I gay?' But I knew that I wasn't. Girls would call the ski school asking for me, and it was so frustrating because I didn't know why I was resisting it," Worley remembers. "I didn't know what was going on."

In his 20s, he finally found the courage to seek counselling. A session at a mental health clinic left him so traumatized he tried to kill himself three times.

"They told me I was a sexually deviant individual," Worley says. "They told me to put on a wig and go down to Church Street (a downtown Toronto district known for its gay/lesbian culture)."

When she told her adoptive family of her plans to transition, they abandoned her.

"I'm a survivor," she said. "My life has not been easy, but I have to say I feel I'm winning the battle."

Enter cycling
The Canadian Cycling Association says that since Worley didn't compete in an Olympic qualifying event, there's no way she can go to Beijing. ((Geoff Robins))

Chris had always used cycling to train for waterskiing and in his late teens he decided to make it more of his focus. He knew he had the ability to compete in waterskiing at a high level, but it wasn't an Olympic sport — and cycling was.

Chris began cycling for a Toronto club and by 19 he was racing at the national level. The more competitive he became, the less he drank. A bonus, too, was that cyclists could wear Lycra and shave their legs.

"I just felt so free spinning around," Worley says. "It was like me letting go, not feeling like a bad person, because that's how society can make you feel. Sports became my drug. They gave me a purpose, a value, a place to escape to."

In the early 1990s, Chris enrolled at Trent University and began to see a lot of an old friend named Alison. They were married in 1993, withstood the challenge of his transition to Kristen, and they are still married 15 years later as she prepares for the Olympics.

She argues against those who contend transitioned female athletes have an unfair competitive advantage, and is using science to argue the opposite-claiming, for instance, that transitioned female athletes are at a disadvantage because, among many reasons, their new bodies do not produce any testosterone, the hormone that builds muscle.

"Nobody in sport knew this until I presented my blood work," Worley said.

She started at the top, confronting the International Olympic Committee on its gender policy — and won. In a conference call with Worley and Canadian sport representatives, the IOC medical director admitted that the organization didn't have the scientific research to support its regulations on transitioned athletes.

Today, Worley receives support from all over the world, with phone calls and e-mails pouring in from families and individuals in Saudi Arabia, India, Europe and Australia.

"It shows how global it is. This is about all of us," she said. "Society wants to put us in these boxes, and if you don't fit exactly, you're not accepted, there's something wrong with you. But that's not it at all."

Hats off to Kristen

Canadian organizations are starting to get the message, and they're inviting her to speak at conferences and lectures. This spring she was named one of Chatelaine magazine's top "Women to Watch." Inspired by her efforts, Sport Canada and various partners have begun a major research project on transitioned athletes — the first of its kind in the world — that will provide sport bodies with the information they need.

"There are misconceptions, terrible stereotypes, but yet no studies to prove anything," says Jasmine Northcott, executive director of AthletesCAN. "We need to understand the issues."

Kevin Wamsley, co-director for the International Centre for Olympic Studies, and researcher for Sport Canada's project on transitioned athletes, agrees. "Society needs to be educated and sport specifically needs to be educated. This is going to be a very difficult task. Hats off to [Kristen] for bringing this into the public eye."

For Worley, that it's all being done as she cycles toward her Olympic goal — which the CCA maintains cannot happen — is most inspiring.

"That's what the Olympic movement is all about — the coming together of people and the breaking of cultural barriers. It's about seeing the truth. This is the power of sport," Worley says.

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