Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post
Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post
SALIDA — Less than three years into her transition from Jonathan to Jillian, pro cyclist Jillian Bearden has once again found serenity on her bike. Now, using studies and stats collected during her long career, she’s helping prove that transgender athletes change more than their names; they change their biology.
Bearden has watched her performance ebb since beginning hormone-replacement therapy in 2015. As testosterone fades and estrogen grows, her fastest times on favorite climbs have slipped into what she calls “the gutter.”
It was tough realizing her hard-earned power, developed over more than a decade of elite-level bike racing, was waning.
“I went from 16 minutes to 26, 27, 28 minutes,” she said of her times on her those climbs. “I was like holy … Testosterone gives you this drive, this oomph, and I didn’t have that push. My muscles looked fairly big, but I did not have that push to drive that extra energy. I had good days and really, really bad days. But at the end of it all, I always know that I won the biggest race of all. I am here on planet Earth with my family, and it doesn’t really matter how slow I am. I’ve already won.”
On Thursday, when Bearden saddles up with the world’s best female cyclists for the Colorado Classic in her hometown of Colorado Springs, she will be the first transwoman to race with a pro peloton in the United States. Thanks to recently relaxed International Olympic Committee rules governing transgender athletes, and USA Cycling’s embrace of those new rules, Bearden has become a beacon for transathletes across the globe.
Bearden is basking in a light that saved her life. In late 2014, she was driving in the dark and pushed her car to 90 mph. She turned up her favorite tune and prepared to whip the steering wheel and end it all. The darkness was all-consuming, eclipsing all the outward trimmings of success: a family, a home, a job and elite-level talent on a bike.
But just before that fateful yank, Bearden said she felt “an angelic light” penetrate her overwhelming misery. Maybe it was from her mom. Or her brother, who had taken his life almost a decade earlier.
“Whatever it was, that presence brought me out, and the message to me was, ‘Tell your mom. Just tell your mom,'” Jillian said.
Jillian told her mom. Then she told her spouse. And her kids. And now she’s telling the world that, since her birth, despite the misplaced hardware and the name Jonathan, she is a woman. It’s not just that she always wanted to be a woman. She is a woman.
“I would have killed myself that night, and no one would have ever known why. I always knew who I was, but I was in such turmoil,” the 36-year-old said, sipping coffee before a high-speed criterium race on rain-soaked streets in Salida.
While she was ready to sacrifice her competitive life in the saddle to claim her gender, she wasn’t going to let go of bike racing without a fight. Cycling is her therapy, she said.
“Riding my bike has saved my life many times over,” said Bearden, who works as an electrical engineer.
After her brother killed himself in 2005, she pedaled. As she grappled with her gender dysphoria, she pedaled. When suicidal thoughts consumed her, she pedaled. After several thousand hours of training and racing, she was really good. By the time she came so close to ending her life, she had reached the highest levels of amateur cycling on both her mountain and road bikes. Racing was part of her identity. Staying competitive on the bike was vital as she transitioned.
Her growth to Jillian has included more than counseling: hormone therapy to block testosterone and add estrogen, laser hair removal and a public pivot to female. She’s also worked with the IOC and USA Cycling to implement new rules for transgender athletes.
The IOC’s 2003 rules governing transgender athletes required them to have gender-reassignment surgery to compete in Olympic sports.
“To require surgical anatomical changes as a precondition to participation is not necessary to preserve fair competition and may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights,” reads the IOC’s November 2015 draft guidelines for transgender policies.
The new rules simply require transwomen to keep testosterone below a certain level for a year before competing and must present a doctor’s note showing their testosterone levels are below the IOC threshold. The IOC recommendations include no restrictions for athletes transitioning to male.
USA Cycling was one of the first national governing bodies to embrace the new policy, thanks in part to Bearden’s help. She had the science to support the new rules.
As an elite male racer, she had regular benchmarks measuring her power and lactate threshold. After more than two years of blocking testosterone and boosting estrogen, her wattage output has dropped by 11.4 percent. That mirrors the performance gap between top-tier male and female athletes.
Bearden says those results have fostered a welcoming environment among her fellow racers. And with her decrease in power documented, she’s able to dismiss the argument that she’s carrying her years of training and racing as a man into women’s racing.
“I’m shocked and I’m blessed and so happy they have embraced me and bought me in and treated me like who I am: a woman,” she said. “I think a lot of people have read about my work with the IOC and USAC, and they see my test results from before and after and they see me as legit. I mean, I’m here. I’m a woman. Let’s race.”
Michelle Henry, a Palmares Racing teammate, has been training with Bearden for several weeks to prepare for the Colorado Classic.
“There are a lot of us who really support her,” she said. “As much as her mission is to help others who might be struggling through that really low spot she was in, for many of us, we want to help those people understand there is a lot of acceptance out there and we support them.”
Bearden credits the support of her team and family with her mental fight to regain her competitive edge. As her power waned, her push became much more internal.
“The testosterone is gone, so you have to find a new way to get to the new you, and the new me was working on my mental game,” she said. “Now it’s all mental.”
Bearden’s steep decline in performance aligns with the first study of transgender athletes, published in 2015 in the Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities by medical physicist Joanna Harper, who is advising the IOC on its transgender policies. Harper’s study showed transwomen runners slowed and lost strength as they blocked testosterone and added estrogen.
Chuck Hodge, the technical director for USA Cycling, consulted with Bearden as American cycling’s governing body crafted a policy that welcomed all athletes. With the IOC revising its recommendations for transwomen athletes, USA Cycling didn’t need to go through a philosophical or political review, he said, so much as embrace “an update that really modernized our view.
“We basically said this is our policy and this is what’s fair and this is what we are doing,” he said.
Hodge worked with Bearden through tweaks, like making sure her former name didn’t pop up with her times on a race’s online results page. “That sounds small, but I can’t imagine going through all these changes and then our automated system throws up their old name. Jillian has been very helpful and understanding through the process.”
Hodge said he’s been “somewhat shocked at the number of calls and emails” from athletes who are following Bearden’s lead.
“This wasn’t a hard decision,” he said. “It’s really just treating people fairly and equitably and with respect.”
USA Cycling is at the forefront of Olympic-sport governing bodies that are crafting policies for transgender athletes. Athletes like Bearden, with her before-and-after power data, support more science-based decisions, said Ashland Johnson, the director of education and research at the Human Rights Campaign who recently conducted a training for U.S. Olympic Committee coaches and administrators to help embrace athletes of every stripe.
“We are seeing more of a move among governing bodies, where instead of making policies that are dependent on old stereotypes based on gender, decisions are based in science, inclusion and fairness,” she said.
Things are moving in the right direction at the international and national level, but more needs to be done at the state level to make sure the Olympic pipeline of younger athletes can include transgender competitors, Johnson said.
“That K-12 arena is where everyone should be able to participate,” Johnson said. “We want to increase inclusion at every level of sport, but especially K through 12.”
Even with the welcome from her fellow competitors and her rising profile as a transathlete role model, Bearden is quick to admit that not one step of her journey has been easy. But it’s better than it ever was.
Last fall, with her wife, Sarah, and their almost 3-year-old daughter cheering her on, she won Arizona’s El Tour de Tucson, one of the largest road bike races in the country. The Trans National Women’s Cycling Team she co-founded last year has 22 members from 15 states and Mexico. So far this season, she’s competed in almost 20 races in Colorado and the West. In late July, she placed fifth in the Salida Classic criterium. The next day, she took third in the event’s road race.
The Colorado Classic will be her highest-profile competition.
She’s a podium contender, and she’s ready for the hate that might bring. She got it aplenty after she won the Tucson race. Her Facebook and Strava pages were quickly stained with anonymous commenters seemingly irked by her talent. Recently, she’s had to report online death threats to the police. Transwomen are disproportionately targeted for violence, and transgender people have a high suicide rate, with an estimated 41 percent of transgender adults saying they have attempted to kill themselves.
But for every bucketload of hostility, Bearden says she connects with one person who is inspired by her story. That makes it all worth it, she said. Since she began racing last year, she’s developed friendships with more than 50 transgender cyclists across the world eager to follow her lead.
As more step forward to claim their gender, she said, momentum is building.
“I want to use the strength I was given through my transition and send ripples to people everywhere. At the end of the day, it could help save a life for someone in a dark place,” she said. “I’m hoping that me being out in the public eye can give people the courage and safety to come out and do what they love and be who they are.”