Interview by Amanda Davies, CNN
CeCé Telfer calls it the moment her dreams seemed to be shattered as she questioned whether years of “blood, sweat and tears” were in vain.
Last week, governing body World Athletics (WA) announced it would be prohibiting athletes who have gone through what it called “male puberty” from participating in female world rankings competitions.
That includes Telfer, an American 400-meter hurdler who became the first out, transgender athlete to win an NCAA title in 2019.
“The overriding feeling was definitely devastation for myself and for many around the world,” Telfer, speaking about her initial reaction to the announcement, tells CNN Sport in an exclusive interview.
She says the regulation change smarts even more because it comes into force on March 31 — which coincides with Trans Day of Visibility — but has also emboldened her hopes of one day competing at the highest level of her sport.
“I’m still going to keep pursuing my dreams and keep competing and keep running as much as I can, wherever I can, however I can,” Telfer adds.
Under previous WA regulations, transgender women with serum testosterone levels below five nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months were able to compete in women’s categories of elite competition.
The new policy follows similar regulations introduced by swimming governing body World Aquatics last year, which say that transgender women athletes are only eligible to compete in the women’s categories if they demonstrate that they did not experience “any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later.”
“The science shows that anyone who has gone through male puberty retains male anatomical differences that provide an athletic advantage,” World Athletics said in a statement to CNN last week.
“The World Athletics Council was unwilling to compromise the integrity of the female category without evidence that these male advantages can be ameliorated.”
The science on these alleged advantages, however, is not conclusive. A 2017 report in the journal Sports Medicine that reviewed several related studies found “no direct or consistent research” on trans people having an athletic advantage over their cisgender peers.
A WA document obtained by CNN earlier this year acknowledged that there is “limited existing experimental data” on the perceived advantages of transgender women competing in women’s categories, and WA president Sebastian Coe said a working group would be set up to evaluate the issue of transgender inclusion over the next 12 months.
The working group, World Athletics says, will include a transgender representative and will “consult specifically with transgender athletes to seek their views on competing in athletics.”
Trans rights groups argue that the new regulations are discriminatory, while opponents of trans inclusion in women’s athletics see them as a victory for upholding what they call fairness in the women’s category.
For Telfer, the decision all but ends her hopes of competing for Team USA at the Paris Olympics next year — though not the end of her track and field career altogether.
“Honestly, I’m not ready to hang up my spikes yet,” she says. “I have so much left in me. The fight has just started.
“To throw that all away — my life of training will be for nothing. I’m going to keep doing what I have to do and show my people and society moving forward that I’m never going to give up.”
Telfer competed for NCAA Division II Franklin Pierce University men’s track and field team for three years, although she told FOLX Health last year that she “never saw myself as a male athlete.”
Competing on the women’s team as a senior, she won the NCAA title in the women’s 400-meter hurdles in 2019.
In 2021, the Jamican-born Telfer competed in and won prize money while taking part in events sanctioned by USA Track and Field (USATF).
She says she was given formal permission to take part in the Olympic trials for the Tokyo Olympics that year but was told the day before those trials began that she had not met eligibility requirements.
Then ahead of the 2022 national trials for the World Athletics Championships, she says she was told she had submitted her blood tests in the wrong format, leaving her unable to compete.
Despite the regulation change, Telfer is still able to compete at track meets that fall outside the jurisdiction of WA and plans to compete at the Bryan Clay Invitational next month in Azusa, California.
She is, however, worried about how she will be received in her first race of the outdoor season.
“I’m sure there is going to be a lot of people giving me the side-eye, wondering what I am doing here,” Telfer says.
“But I’m going to always show up no matter what, and I’m just going to have to stay focused.”
The 28-year-old also says she feels a growing sense of isolation within the athletics community and will attend the meet alone as she doesn’t currently have a coach.
Telfer says she has reached out to more than 500 coaches asking to work with them but has so far not received any long-term offers.
“There were coaches that were interested, but after researching me and seeing the controversy that revolves around an athlete like me, a lot of coaches feel as though their reputation is going to be jeopardized or their career is on the line,” says Telfer, speaking to CNN Sport before the WA regulation change.
“A lot of them are just like: good luck, we wish the best for you, but we’re not the ones to coach you right now.”
On one occasion, she says she started training with an Olympic coach in Los Angeles but was dropped after the other athletes in the group said they did not “feel safe or comfortable” training alongside her, according to Telfer.
“Something inside of me knew it wasn’t going to last too long,” she says.
“When he called me after practice and told me that it was brought to his attention that I am transgender — because he didn’t know — and his athletes brought it to his attention, I knew in my soul. It was kind of like an ‘oh there it is’ moment.”
As she continues to train in the hope of one day competing on the international stage, Telfer also hopes to have a hand in shaping the sport’s future by contributing to WA’s review of its transgender regulations.
And even though her NCAA title feels a long time ago now — like “a dream I woke up from,” according to Telfer — she says she’s dependent on athletics to bring joy and sanity to her life.
“There’s a place for each and every one of us and I know where I belong,” says Telfer. “I just want the world to know that.”
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