By Robert Johnson
May 28, 2019
Over Memorial Day weekend, everyone who cares about the future of women’s sport saw their worst fears become a reality.
Transgender woman CeCe Telfer, who was born and raised as Craig Telfer and competed on the Franklin Pierce University men’s track and field team during her first three years of college, won the women’s 400-meter hurdles national title at the 2019 NCAA Division II Outdoor Track & Field Championships. Telfer dominated the competition, winning in 57.53 as second place was way back in 59.21.
Prior to joining the women’s team this season, Telfer was a mediocre DII athlete who never came close to making it to nationals in the men’s category. In 2016 and 2017, Telfer ranked 200th and 390th, respectively, among DII men in the 400 hurdles (Telfer didn’t run outdoor track in 2018 as either a man or woman). Now she’s the national champion in the event simply because she switched her gender (Telfer’s coach told us that even though she competed on the men’s team her first three years, her gender fluidity was present from her freshman year).
The fact that Telfer can change her gender and immediately become a national champion is proof positive as to why women’s sports needs protection. Telfer ran slightly faster in the 400 hurdles competing as a man (57.34) than as a woman (57.53), even though the men’s hurdles are six inches taller than the women’s hurdles. Yet when Telfer ran 57.34 as a man, she didn’t even score at her conference meet — she was just 10th at the Northeast-10 Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 2016. Now she’s the national champion.
Ostensibly, the NCAA has a policy in place to protect cisgender women athletes and prevent male-to-female transgender athletes from dominating the women’s category. The NCAA transgender handbook states that an MTF transgender athlete must take “one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment” in order to compete in the women’s category, but the vagueness of that statement is remarkable. There is no mention of a minimum testosterone level that must be achieved or a minimum level of medication that must be taken, nor how those levels are to be monitored. Contrast that to the International Olympic Committee, which requires that an MTF transgender athlete “must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition.”
We reached out to the NCAA to ask for specifics on their transgender policy, and whether it is actually enforced with testing. They referred us to the the transgender handbook mentioned above and said we could expect a more detailed response on Wednesday.
Medical physicist Joanna Harper, who has served as an adviser to the IOC on transgender issues and has made the transition from male to female herself, said the NCAA doesn’t have a set limit for testosterone for trans women, nor does she believe there is consistent verification of T levels. “The NCAA has not set a maximum T level for trans women, and I don’t believe that they do any independent verification of hormone levels,” said Harper.
The theory goes that if one greatly reduces their testosterone, their performances in sport should decline significantly. Harper told me one would expect roughly a 10% decrease in performance for flat events (she wasn’t sure it would be the great in the hurdles due to the difference in hurdle heights). Yet Telfer is actually running faster in a few flat events as a woman as compared to what she ran as a man. Her 60-meter personal best as a man was 7.67. As a woman, it’s 7.63. Her flat 400-meter pb was 55.77 as a man and it’s 54.41 as a woman.
However, her coach Zach Emerson said that anyone looking only at Telfer’s times to try to see if the NCAA’s rules on testosterone suppression for MTF transgender athletes is effective would be making a mistake. He said that the difference between Telfer’s work ethic this year compared to her first three was vast.
“She’s been been incredibly motivated this year and I think the transition one million percent had something to do with that. It’s like night and day as far as what she was willing to do as an athlete and how committed she was,” said Emerson, who indicated that while Telfer always had a large presence on the team, she often only showed up to practice a couple of times a week until this year. As a coach, he said she wasn’t an athlete that he could rely on. “You couldn’t look at her during her first three years and say that’s an athlete doing their best. As a coach, I could not do that.”
Frustrated by the fact that track meets were the only place in her life where she was referred to a man, Telfer quit the team in January 2018 before coming back out for the women’s team in October with renewed motivation. Since coming back out for the women’s team, Emerson said Telfer has been a “model athlete” who has not missed a single day of practice, one who hit the weight room for the first time, one who stayed on top of her studies and one who made sure she got ample sleep.
Video of Telfer from earlier in the year
“She did phenomenally well [in doing all that we asked her this year] and has been a completely different, motivated athlete,” said Emerson. “It’s only worth doing if she does her best. She made that very, very clear at the start of this year — that she wants to do this because she loves the sport, she wants to do well, and she wants to be genuine to herself. And we held her accountable, saying, ‘You have to be an example for everybody else on our team — let alone everybody else [that is paying attention].’”
While Emerson admitted he doesn’t know how he would have reacted if he were a rival coach, he said he’s very proud of what Telfer has accomplished. “People can have opinions on that all they want, but at the end of the day as a coach, I have to be proud of someone that works their ass off and does the things that I ask and is a good teammate. You have to be proud of those things.”
More. Talk about CeCe Telfer on the LRC messageboard: MB: CeCe Telfer, who for her first 3 years was on the MEN’S track team, just won the NCAA DII title
MB: CeCe Telfer Transgender D2
From the LRC Archives:
May 2, 2019: LRCWhat No One Is Telling You About Caster Semenya: She Has XY Chromosomes
April 22, 2019: LRC Guest Column From 1968 Boston Marathon Winner Amby Burfoot: The Whole World Is Watching: Caster Semenya vs IAAF
September 19, 2014: LRC Guest Column from Joanna Harper: A Brief History of Intersex Athletes in Sport