Transgender Sprinter Unfazed By National Attention
A young athlete finds her way in life, on and off the track
Amadi Yearwood was one of the fastest boys on the track and field team at Cromwell Middle School in Cromwell, Connecticut, but the joy he got from sprinting was often overshadowed by feelings of confusion.
Middle school is a complicated time for everyone, but it was even more so for Amadi. When he confided to his father, Rahsaan Yearwood, and his mother, Ngozi Nnaji, that he was gay, they responded just as you would hope your parents would — with unconditional love and support.
But even with his parents’ backing, Amadi’s uncertainty didn’t dissipate. A child of the modern era, he turned to the one place that seemingly has all the answers — the Internet. A Google search in eighth grade helped him gain a better understanding of his true nature: he wasn’t a he, but a she.
After telling his parents that he identified more as a female than a male, Amadi was once again rewarded with love and support. “They were really supportive,” she said during a recent phone conversation. “They said, ‘That’s cool. We’ll help you get through it and help you go to therapists and help the teachers and administration help you and accept you.’”
To aid her transition, Amadi started wearing wigs and feminine clothing, and when she entered high school, she had her name changed to Andraya in the school’s database and made it known that she preferred feminine pronouns be used to describe her.
During a meeting before the start of her freshman year at Cromwell High School last fall, school administrators made it clear what was expected of her. “We talked about how if I wanted to identify as a female while cheerleading in the fall, I would also have to identify as female on the track team,” Andraya said. “I couldn’t switch genders on the teams.”
Given this restriction, once Andraya decided to join the cheerleading squad in the fall, there was no turning back. If she wanted to run track in the spring, she would have to do so as a girl. And that was just fine with Andraya.
The most remarkable thing about Andraya’s decision to join the girls’ track team this spring was just how unremarkable her reception was.
“We did nothing differently,” said Brian Calhoun, who has coached track and field at Cromwell for the past three years. “There were no meetings with the team or with the students. I had no conversation with Andraya. Because we run the [boys and girls] programs so closely together, it really doesn’t matter early in the season what gender you are.”
Cromwell, Connecticut is a small, tight-knit community. Many of the students at the high school have been going to school together since kindergarten. Calhoun taught Andraya language arts in seventh and eighth grade. This sort of closeness undoubtedly aided Andraya’s transition.
“Everybody knew me from cheerleading, so it wasn’t anything new or shocking,” she said when asked about the way her teammates reacted to her joining the girls’ track team. “They welcomed me with open arms.”
“Her local community and her school embracing her makes sense,” said Monrovia Van Hoose, a psychotherapist from Austin, Texas, who specializes in gender identity and LGBTQ issues. “It’s a lot harder for people to be ugly to someone when they’ve known them for years and years.”
A bigger test would come on April 5 during Cromwell’s first meet of the season against Portland and Old Saybrook. Before her first event, Andraya succumbed to a case of jitters beyond the normal race-day variety. “I was nervous because this would be my first time running with girls, so I didn’t know how people would react. I guess I was overreacting because nothing bad ever happened.”
In fact, nearly everything Andraya did that day was good. She won the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter dash and helped her 4x100-meter relay team, which she anchors, take second place.
Because she was only a freshman and because her winning time in the 100 (11.99 seconds) would have won the Class M title last year (and was just .01 seconds slower than the winning time at the 2016 Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) State Open Outdoor Championships), she was suddenly forced to deal with pressure of an entirely different sort: outsized expectations.
Coach Calhoun did his best to slow the hype train and put Andraya’s performance in perspective. While she had won her races handily, her times might not have been quite as fast as advertised. “Our tri-meets are run with a sprinting timer,” he explained. “So sometimes we have some results that might not be that accurate.”
He was also quick to point out the unfairness of putting so much pressure on someone who was so young. “After the first meet, people started asking me questions about things that were way ahead of where we needed to be,” he said. “People asking about Nationals and things like that. I mean, she’s doing extraordinarily well for a freshman. We’re proud of her because she’s had to learn some things in order to reach some of the success that she’s received. But the idea that she was going to blow away a state record? Not quite sure that’s going to be the case.”
Much was made of the fact that during the meet on April 5 Andraya didn’t use starting blocks, the implication being that if she had she would have been even faster. But Coach Calhoun pointed out that most athletes in their league don’t use blocks at the beginning of their high school careers and once they do there’s a learning curve.
“When the kids come up as freshmen, it’s really my job and Coach Saunders’ job to work with them on how to use blocks,” he said in mid-May. “Just this week, we were adjusting how far back we wanted the blocks from the line, the height of the pedals on the blocks, and what number is right for her.”
While learning how to use starting blocks, Andraya experienced some growing pains. She continued to finish first in all the 100-meter and 200-meter races she entered, but her times failed to improve. In the 100, she clocked a 12.43 in a meet at East Hampton on April 18, a 12.61 in a meet against Haddam-Killingworth and East Hampton on May 2, and a 12.81 in the finals of the Running Rams Invitational on May 13.
According to Calhoun, it wasn’t just Andraya’s use of starting blocks that was slowing her down but also her form coming out of the blocks. “She was standing up too quickly, which is a common habit,” he said. “As soon as the gun goes off, rather than exploding outward, the athlete will stand straight up and then run, which slows down their time.”
He acknowledged that her form toward the middle and end of the race could also stand to be improved. “She generally finishes the race the way she began, but we want to make sure she has her elbow locked and that she drives her hands cheek to cheek from her backside up to her face and keeps her hands at her sides, because she was cutting the middle of it. She also had some side-to-side motion with her shoulders that directed some of her momentum off to the side rather than forward. So we worked on that as well as keeping her shoulders back over her hips.”
On May 6, Andraya’s streak of first-places finishes came to an end when she finished third in the 200 in the Middletown Invitational Varsity Meet, which is open to schools of varying sizes. Her 25.75 was a personal best, but it still put her .80 behind Cassidy Palmer’s winning time.
Afterward, Calhoun gave Andraya some advice about how to improve her time in the 200. “Something I always say is, ‘The more times you hit the ground, the faster your turnover, the faster you’re moving.’ About 50 to 100 meters into the 200, right before the halfway point, she was taking longer strides, which we didn’t want. I talked to her about that: ‘You want to keep that turnover going straight through. As long as you’re not tiring yourself out, it should produce a faster time.’”
Heeding her coaches’ advice, Andraya has seen her times steadily improve since the Running Rams Invitational in mid-May. In a meet against Westbrook and Creed on May 16, she ran a 12.76 in the 100 and 26.23 in the 200. At the Shoreline Conference Championship on May 24, she ran 12.71 in the 100 and 26.48 in the 200. And at the CIAC Class M Outdoor Track and Field Championship on Tuesday, she won the 100-meter dash with a time of 12.66 and the 200-meter dash with a time of 26.08.
As fast as her times at the Class M Championship were, she hardly dominated the field, only beating Stonington’s Kate Hall by .17 in the 100 and Woodland’s Erika Michie by .30 in the 200. She also has a long way to go before she threatens to break the state records in the 100 (11.50) and the 200 (23.75), and perhaps that’s just as well. Transitioning from middle school to high school track is hard enough, but doing so as a transgender person adds an entirely new level of difficulty to the equation.
Given the controversy surrounding transgender athletes, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to hear that Andraya’s participation on Cromwell’s girls track and field team had elicited some heated responses from other teams, but Coach Calhoun said that hasn’t been the case.
“There hasn’t been anything of that nature,” he said. “I thought Andraya would have to have a thick skin at times, but she really hasn’t had to.”
Andraya confirmed her coach’s take on the matter. “No one has ever said anything bad about me,” she said. “A lot of people from HK (Haddam-Killingworth) even said all these positive things on Instagram.”
“All I can say is that we have a great community here in Cromwell,” said Calhoun. “Part of our mission statement is that we have an all-encompassing, inclusive community, and we really believe that. I’d like to think the schools that we’re competing against have the same goal.”
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for every school district in the U.S. High school athletic organizations only started addressing the issue of how to accommodate transgender athletes in the past few years, and the policies they’ve instituted vary from state to state.
The website transathlete.com sorts states into certain categories according to their level of tolerance for transgender high school athletes. On one end of the spectrum are the states labeled “discriminatory.”
Thanks to a state law enacted in 2011 that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression, Connecticut lies on the opposite end of the spectrum. When it comes to gender identification, the CIAC defers to the student and his or her school, so to compete against girls Andraya doesn’t have to produce a birth certificate that says she’s a girl.
Nor does she have to submit to hormonal therapy, as transgender athletes who wish to compete in the Olympics must do. But she plans to anyway. This should put an end to any criticism that could potentially be directed at her from those who argue that it’s unfair for people who were born male to compete against females because testosterone gives them an advantage.
Once Andraya starts taking puberty blockers and stops producing testosterone, any advantage she might currently have will vanish. When this happens, she’s going to have to work even harder to get the same results.
Given her quiet demeanor, her age, and her gender orientation, Andraya is just about as vulnerable as a person can be, a point that’s not lost on her. “I’ve heard of [transgender] people killing themselves or getting killed or becoming homeless because of bullying or discrimination from other people. I do feel really, really lucky because I live in a place that’s so accepting.”
As quickly as our society’s attitude toward transgender people is changing, we still have a long way to. It’s almost guaranteed that Andraya will be met with some negativity sometime in the future, at which point it will be crucial for her well-being that she be allowed to vent her frustrations on the track. She has the potential to be a track star in high school and beyond, but as enticing as that sounds, isn’t it even more important that she simply be allowed to compete without any reservations, doubts, or obstacles in her way?
With her strong showing at the Class M meet on Tuesday, Andraya qualified to compete in the State Championships on June 5. If she does well there, she’ll be invited to compete at the New England High School Outdoor Track and Field Championships on June 10. As the events she competes in continue to grow in importance, the spotlight now shining on her will only get brighter.
For a freshman in high school, Andraya’s come very far very fast, but to expect her to dominate next week’s championships is not only unrealistic but unfair. Having said that, at this point in her development her youth is as much of an advantage as it is a disadvantage.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Calhoun. “It will be interesting to see how much time and training she wants to put in. I think we can open her up to more events. As far as the 100 and 200, I’d expect her to be in the company of elite talent by the end of her senior year.”
When asked what her goals are, Andraya mentioned breaking the state record in the 100 and possibly running track in college one day. In the meantime, she just hopes that the world continues to become more tolerant of those who don’t fit neatly into one box.
“I just feel like people shouldn’t be so close-minded,” she said. “They should be open to more things, even if it’s different or not traditional. And that even if people do say rude things to you, you should always stay positive and not let them bring you down.”