Here We Go: Male Transgender Runner to Compete in Women’s NCAA DI Cross-Country Race

University of Montana cross country runner Juniper Eastwood is set to be the first transgender athlete to compete in NCAA Division I cross-country. (Photo: Rachel Leathe, AP)

If Juniper Eastwood is feeling particularly motivated on a training day, she’s up at 6 a.m.

She eats a banana and plugs in a podcast before taking off on an 11- to 12-mile run.

She should stretch, but is often short on time. After a shower and getting dressed, she heads to work as a camp counselor for a youth empowerment program.

Eastwood’s routine is similar to that of other college athletes practicing in the offseason.

She has to prepare for grueling cross-country practices while balancing work or school.

The difference between Eastwood and her teammates on the University of Montana’s cross-country team is the testosterone-suppression and estrogen pills she takes as part of her training regimen.

Eastwood was assigned male at birth, but identifies as female. She’s transgender.

The 22-year-old is set to be the first Division I trans athlete to compete in her sport.

“(I’m) nervous and excited. Nervous for what that means and how people will react, but excited because I haven’t competed in 15 months, and am excited to get this started,” Eastwood told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Eastwood is a Belgrade High School graduate and has been competing in men’s cross-country and track since middle school. She was a standout athlete in high school and won state titles in multiple men’s races. She earned athletic and academic scholarships to attend UM.

Eastwood spent three years running for the men’s cross-country and track teams. In 2016 and 2017, she ran the best times of anyone on her team at the Big Sky Conference championships. At her last track meet in 2018, she placed seventh in the 1,500 meter conference championship race. She was, by all accounts, a competitive and successful male runner.

However, during the fall of her third season competing for UM, Eastwood came to terms with an internal struggle she’d had since elementary school. She no longer wanted to live and compete as a man when she felt like she was a woman.

By the rules
Nearly a decade ago, the NCAA first adopted a policy to guide the inclusion of transgender athletes in intercollegiate sports. The organization serves as the governing body for college athletics. It outlines policies that address everything from academic standards to fairness.

The 55-page policy draws expertise from a wide variety of academic and medical professionals. It requires a transgender athlete who has transitioned from male to female to take testosterone-suppression pills for 12 months before competing.

Eastwood is in full compliance. She said she has lost muscle mass, endurance and is slower since taking the hormones suppressants.

Brian Schweyen, head coach of the University of Montana’s track and field program, describes Eastwood as a “very talented” and driven athlete. The kind that any coach would want to work with, he said.

Schweyen said he fully supports Eastwood’s decision to compete on the women’s team. He said that while some may question the fairness of the situation, the NCAA makes that determination, and he trusts the decision.

Tom Wistrcill, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, said as long as universities follow NCAA guidelines, the conference supports and encourages all athletes to compete.

Schweyen said the upcoming season will require open-mindedness and empathy from all involved.

“There will be mistakes made and lessons learned. But those lessons will be fantastic,” Schweyen said.

Coming to terms
When Eastwood first decided to begin her transition, she decided to quit competing.

“I felt kind of stuck. I had done this running thing for so long and was pretty miserable doing it, because I was pretty miserable in men’s racing,” Eastwood said.

Eastwood had to take a break from running sophomore year due to an injury and began feeling the weight of what she had been hiding. She had known for years what it meant to transition, and knew that’s what she needed.

Her love of competing held her back from taking the plunge.

But when Eastwood didn’t have the distraction of practices or meets while injured, she became depressed. She began engaging in what she called unhealthy behaviors. She was self-medicating with alcohol and said she spent nearly every day wallowing in despair.

Depression and subsequent self-destructive behavior is not uncommon for trans people.

A study published by the American Psychological Association in 2019 found that people who identify as gender or sexuality minorities, like transgender or bisexual, reported significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety than people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Hitting rock bottom helped Eastwood make the decision to transition.

“I thought, ‘Hey, this is super dangerous, maybe there’s a healthier option and maybe I need to take strides in doing that,'” Eastwood said.

At first, Eastwood said she was relieved to have made the decision to quit the team. It had been a burden for so long, and she could see “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

But then track season came, and Eastwood was running well. And it reminded her of why she loves to compete.

Eastwood did her research and found the NCAA’s trans athlete policy on her own. She realized she could have both, her true identity and the sport she loves.

“I felt like I still had more years in me, and that I would regret it later on if I didn’t at least try to do what I am doing,” Eastwood said.

She said it was nerve-wracking to tell her team her decision. But for the most part, teammates were supportive, and at worst, indifferent. Eastwood asked them to start using she/her pronouns and call her Juniper, or June. She picked out the name, after the tree, because she loves nature and being outdoors.

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SOURCE: Bozeman Daily Chronicle – Shaylee Ragar