What I Learned About Gender From Running Track in High School

Among my many facts that shock people is one that I don’t often discuss – the letter I earned in my junior year in high school on the women’s track team. This was at West Mifflin Area High School in 1987.

I was never an athlete. I played softball recreationally, but my horrible depth perception ruined me for the outfield and my arms were just not great for infield. So I was catcher. I was a good catcher, mostly because I trusted my equipment and my teammates could usually hit my mitt with ease. But I wasn’t high school softball team good.

In the entire season, I earned exactly one point for coming in third in a two-mile run. There were three runners. I wasn’t always last, but I was definitely last-adjacent.

My junior year of high school, I went to the homecoming bonfire with some friends. We jokingly raced to the car or the office or somewhere and my friend Wendy said to me “You are pretty fast, you should run track.” No one had ever said that to me in my entire life – you are sporty, do this sporty thing.

So I showed up in January at the orientation just to hear them out and soon found myself running a two mile warmup in the school hallway, then stretching, and then sent on a distance run. What the hell just happened? I’m just here to collect information about the sport, not learn what my body could do.

What happened is that I wanted to try it and I did and the coaches put me in the best place for me. I showed up for every practice, I worked hard at home, I followed the dietary guidance (no pop!), and I kept running. My parents bought me sneakers and a pair of racing leggings.

I was not very good. In track you win points when you place in an event (1st, 2nd, 3rd.) In the entire season, I earned exactly one point for coming in third in a two-mile run. There were three runners. I wasn’t always last, but I was definitely last-adjacent.

About the letter, at the end of the season, our coach told us that he was deciding who earned letters based on more than points. His cardinal rules were “don’t miss practice” and “don’t miss a meet” followed by a stern rule to the long distance team (my team) that the fastest runner always came in with the slowest runner at practice, we were a team and we made each other better.

The women’s team was filled talent. But only three of us lettered. I lettered because I never missed practice, never missed a meet, and I had one point. The other two female athletes who lettered were actually quite accomplished in the points department.

The rest of the women’s team did not letter, mainly because they skipped practices and even meets. They won when they showed up and some had that arrogant swagger of youth, relying on raw talent more than practice and skill building. I don’t remember the letter situation for the men’s team, but I do recall that the ‘best’ distance runner did not letter because he skipped a practice and meet to go to prom.

In those days, track is perhaps the sport with the most mixed gender encounters. We practiced as one team, we competed as one team, we carried equipment, cheered each other on, and got rides home after practice as one team. Yes, we knew that there were gendered differences, but that felt externally imposed.

Trust me. From the back end of the long distance team “coming in together” I could tell you that the slower boys and the faster girls were a blur in the middle of the pack. Two of the girls had far more endurance than 90% of the male athletes, they just didn’t have the comparable speed. But my whole high school athletic experience was about being a group of kids on a team together, conforming with gendered expectations when necessary.

If we had all ran in the same races, I would not have earned my one point I’m sure, but I would have still lettered. But if we raced in heats based on our performance stats, I probably would have earned more points.

Of course we were competitive with each other and ourselves. But even at the back of the pack, I never resented anyone who was a better athlete than me or felt like their success took away from my own accomplishments. I did learn that generally speaking teammates assigned male at birth (a phrase I did not know at the time) were generally faster and stronger than teammates assigned female at birth. But it was not true that all male athletes were inherently ‘better’ than all females. Raw talent was always shaped by hard work, dedication, and adherence to regimes around nutrition, sleep, etc.

And attitude. The whole prom scenario was a moment that tested the entire team, especially the seniors. In hindsight, I think it was unfair that a meet was scheduled at the same time as this very big milestone – the coaches could have addressed that conflict before the season began. But I also realized we had all faced schedule dilemmas and had to make sacrifices the entire year. And the expectations were made clear at the get-go. So it wasn’t true that innate physical talents like strength and speed, and endurance created winners or even good athletes.

But my whole high school athletic experience was about being a group of kids on a team together, conforming with gendered expectations when necessary.

Of course I wrote this in response to the horrific debates about the validity of trans female athletes in particular. Given the disproportionate resources, including scholarships, lavished on male athletes in college and professionally – that gender disparity seems to be the primary issue of concern, not the secret plan of trans women and trans girls to dominate athletic competitions. (I’m being sarcastic in case some of you think that secret plan is a real thing.)

Beyond just my basic understanding that being trans, no matter what sorts of medical treatment one is receiving does not endow anyone with superhuman powers – that trans folx have a variety of shapes, skills, talents, etc as do we all, there is my own lived experience.

In 1987, there were no out trans folx in my high school that I know of. But I did learn that some girl athletes were competing on the same level as some of the boys, or at least occasionally. So it was never absolutely clear cut that being assigned male at birth translated into being a better athlete than those of us assigned female at birth. It was far more nuanced. And I learned that practicing and competing as a gender diverse team of student athletes was better for all of us.

Remember the Presidential Fitness tests we did each year in gym class? I hated them b/c I always sucked. My junior year was so different. I aced every test. When it came time to run a quarter mile, I sprinted the entire thing. Same with the long jump which wasn’t even my sport. My body was so much stronger for participating in track that I was in the top 1% nationwide, even with my 1 point. That was an accomplishment – competing against myself. It had nothing to do with any other teammate.

The General Assembly would do more for female athletes in every school district if they focused on parity in funding streams for their sports. If the girls swim team, track team, basketball team, and so forth has equitable access to resources including equipment and access to performance venues during peak hours, think how many female athletes would excel and be more competitive for scholarships against other AFAB athletes who are the real ‘threat’?

There are a lot of athletes like me, even today, on youth sports teams around the nation. They aren’t scholarship eligible, but they still show up. They claim third place a lot and earn points as a whole for the entire team while the “best’ runners or players are battling it out for first place. They are an integral part of the team. Now I’m betting among the trans girls who join team sports, most of them are in this mix somewhere. That’s just statistically likely. The impact of their pre-transition life and physical experiences takes a toll on their physical development. That doesn’t just roll away when they begin medical transition. Robbing them of their opportunity to be part of an athletic team because you fear they will somehow have a competitive advantage due to transitioning is ridiculous and cruel. And if your daughter relies on public policy to pave a fair path to victory (and scholarships) instead of a fair path to being part of a true team, they are not winning on their merit are they?

Pennsylvania’s legislature is considering a bill that would exert control over school sports and community leagues by defining who could participate in which sport based on their gender identity. This is ludicrous. The General Assembly would do more for female athletes in every school district if they focused on parity in funding streams for their sports. If the girls swim team, track team, basketball team, and so forth has equitable access to resources including equipment and access to performance venues during peak hours, think how many female athletes would excel and be more competitive for scholarships against other AFAB athletes who are the real threat?

Imagine if that carried over into college sports and professional sports? The opportunities for female athletes of all stripes would exponentially increase. Brittney Griner might not be in a Russian prison if she didn’t have to go to Europe/Asia to play off-season for financial reasons.

But the Pennsylvania General Assembly is not going to touch boys football or basketball funding concerns because they are a patriarchal institution filled with many former high school athletes whose glory days are imperative to their sense of self.

Read more about the Pennsylvania attempts to control high school athletic decisions and then ask if this is an issue that is paramount for your family.

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