Words: Francesca Grana
Images: Francesca Grana

First there was Chris Mosier, the American transgender triathlete able to gain a spot on the Team USA duathlon men’s squad at the 2016 World Championship. Next, there was Veronica Ivy, the first ever transgender world champion, winning the Women’s Sprint at the 2018 UCI Masters Track World Championship, in the 35–44 age bracket.

Valentina Petrillo, a sprinter from Italy suffering from Stargardt disease (an eye disorder that causes vision loss), is aiming to be the first transgender Paralympic Games qualifier ever.

Valentina Petrillo

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) first allowed transgender women to compete in the Olympics in 2004, along with certified genital surgery, two years of post-operative hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and legal gender changes.

In 2016 new guidelines were ratified: male-to-female transgender athletes were not demanded to complete surgery before competing, the length of time on HRT was reduced to one year and the legal requirements were replaced by a declaration of gender identity.

Despite the changes there was still no influx of transgender athletes. The Athens, Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics have come and gone with no openly transgender athletes. 

Valentina Petrillo’s push to Tokyo started in Jesolo, the seaside town close to Venice, where she became the first Italian transgender athlete allowed to take part in national paralympic championship. In her T12 category (visual impairment) not only did she toe the starting line, Petrillo came back home with three brand new national titles.

Tons of times I’ve been charged with the assumption I made the transition just to win easier. That’s because people ignore I had already won eleven national titles as a man. Frankly speaking, I’m honest enough to recognize that Paralympic Master races are a secondary issue in the sport stage. So it’s not about winning, it’s about the chance of being accepted for what I am. Running fast is my passion, yet feeling free to express my personality is my need..” Says Petrillo when asked about her place in the field.

Even if used to high speed, Petrillo was forced to slow down. After starting her transition and hormone replacement therapy in January 2018, Petrillo clashed with an exasperating fight with governing bodies (Italian Paralympic Committee and Italian Track & Field Association), which claimed she wrongly interpreted the rules and guidelines, or simply ignored them all together.

Looking back at her initial applications, Valentina was pushed away. “The first time I expressed my desire to compete as woman, they just replied I was crazy. ‘Men race against men and women race against women and that’s all’. They just told me that the one and only explanation possible. By that time I was alone in my struggle and it was so much easier to shut me up.”

“That night I was so discouraged I couldn’t manage to sleep so I kept surfing the web until I bumped into a name which later became a familiar face: Joanna Harper” she recalls with a smile upon her face.

Harper, a Canadian researcher, is one of the most influential world-wide voices in the debate over transgender and intersex athletes, working as an advisor to multiple international sporting federations including the IOC.

“That very same night I wrote to Joanna in my poor English and somehow I managed to explain her my story. Within a hour I received her answer and that’s was just incredible! She confirmed I was not a clumsy daydreamer. International rules about transgender athlete eligibility were already in place and the fact [my reuqest] had bounced back just a few hours earlier was just a matter of ignorance towards trans issues in sport federations.”

Nowadays, the situation has slowly changed.

Not only FISPES but also FIDAL have recognised her right to compete as a woman. Last October she took part in national master championship, where she won the 200m in the 45-49 age bracket. . "When I was on the podium, I was the only one celebrating. None of my opponents seemed happy I was there and they just ignored me. But this is where I feel at home. I was definitely not at ease running against men. I feel so much more at home racing side by side with other women, that's the place where I feel I belong.”

“It took me courage to attend the local group of support, but quickly I found friends and family in the Gruppo Trans Bologna. The same did not happen with my previous coach – [once] I started my transition, he started to not see me in a good light, making it unavoidable to change coach and team. Actually it was a stroke of luck – I found a new, young and open minded coach, Luca Giacometti, and a new welcoming team, Polisportiva Pontevecchio Bologna. Meanwhile I was engaged by Joanna in a research program commissioned by World Athletics, whose guidelines I fulfilled completely; a concentration of testosterone in the blood of under 5 nmol/L3 continuously for a period of at least 12 months.” 

The World Athletics Eligibility Regulations for Transgender Athletes became effective from 1 October 2019 but it took one more year for Petrillo to see her first official results at the Italian Paralympic Championship in Jesolo. Over the 11th to the 13th of September this year Valentina ran 13.24 in the 100m, 27.47 in the 200m and 1.04.59 for the 400m.

“Hormone replacement therapy consequences on my body are clear – during the first month I put on 10kg, I always felt tired and sometimes it was just impossible to run due to the pain. Nowadays my legs are much more graceful and, as a woman, I’m happy about that but and I run 0.8 seconds slower in 100 meter, over 1.5” slower in 200m and 12” slower in 400m. But that’s ok. Since my Paralympic dream has slipped away for another year, I now have much more time to make my personal records my very first priority again.”


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