They are the champions

They are the champions

In the face of fear and anger, two young transgender athletes fight to compete in the sports they love.

Warning: This story contains a graphic image.

Mack Beggs steps from his house in Euless, Texas, gripping the leash attached to Dani, who, at 94 pounds, is the largest of his seven dogs. Mack, only 20 pounds heavier than his bullador, strains to get her into the back of his grandmother Nancy's car. Dani seems to know they're headed to the coin-op car wash for a bath.

Nancy watches from her front porch, a cluster of plants behind her covered by plastic hanging from the gutter; this January is unseasonably harsh, and she's trying to protect them. She calls out to Mack to buy cleaning supplies. He needs to scrub the caked mud from the interior of his Scion, which had been in a tow yard since he drove it off the road last month. Nancy had been the one to pick up the Scion that afternoon, securing the bumper with plastic fasteners -- she isn't going to be the one to clean it.

Nancy hopes time away from his car has refocused Mack. In three weeks, he'll defend his 6A 110-pound girls' wrestling state title. Mack, 19, is a transgender boy who wrestles girls because the Texas high school athletic association, the University Interscholastic League (UIL), determines gender strictly by birth certificate, a policy approved in 2016 by 586 of 620 superintendents. Mack's certificate reads "female."

The Texas policy contrasts Connecticut's, which allows transgender kids like Andraya Yearwood to compete with whom they identify. Andraya, 16, is a transgender girl who won the 2017 Class M outdoor state titles in the 100 and 200 meters as a freshman. As Mack preps for his tourney, Andraya also prepares for another title run, in indoor track. The two will compete the same weekend, 1,680 miles apart.

Mack, Andraya and transgender athletes like them are focal points in a fight over the future of sports. In events designed to be binary, how does a school, league or governing body deal with athletes who don't neatly check one of the boxes? All transgender athletes face barriers -- controversies over bathrooms and locker rooms, adoption of non-inclusive policies, overwhelming social pressures -- but they differ depending on the state where they live.

The debate is dominated by fear -- of the unknown, of the misunderstood, of shifting public opinion. Parents fear that Andraya and Mack, who is undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT), have unfair advantages. Administrators fear that having athletes identify their own gender creates an entanglement of rules. Legislators fear that this distorts the very essence of sport.

Mack's and Andraya's families have anxiety too. The thought of a "crazy person with a gun or a knife" coming after Mack keeps Nancy, a retired police officer, up at night. "I fear for his safety," she says. "And not just his but all of these kids that come out of the closet. I pray nobody messes with them."

The list of people Nancy sees messing with her grandson extends to the statehouse. Both Mack and Andraya have been repeatedly mentioned on the state Senate chamber floor, as Texas legislators consider bills that will limit transgender athletes. But she and Mack and Andraya know there's no better way to confront those fears than to tell their stories.

Andraya Yearwood is a sophomore sprinter in Connecticut, where athletes are allowed to compete with the gender with which they identify.

UNDER A SUNLESS sky in New Britain, Connecticut, Andraya Yearwood settles into her blocks. It's May 30, 2017, and the 100-meter final at the Class M state meet is set to begin. The question on most everyone's mind isn't whether Andraya will win but if she even belongs on the track. Not that anyone admits it.

After Cromwell lost a 4x100 -- anchored by Andraya -- to Nathan Hale-Ray in the regular season, Hale-Ray celebrated far more than in any other event of the day. When asked about the raucous response, a parent looked at Andraya on the track and said, "They had some really stiff competition."

In New Britain, the crowd focuses as the runners prepare to start. A group of boys pushes to the front rail of the bleachers, and conversations grow quiet among the few hundred fans.

“I just think that some people are making it into a bigger deal than it needs to be.”

Andraya Yearwood

Andraya isn't the first transgender athlete in Connecticut, but she's the most high-profile. In her first meet of the season, she ran an 11.9 100, just half a second off the state record. Personal medical details became public; though she's transitioned socially, the press reveals Andraya had yet to begin her hormone therapy. That led to open critiques of her looks, from local coverage in the Hartford Courant to national rebuke from Breitbart.

Andraya sees these comments. Against the advice of her parents, she has a penchant for Googling her name. She sees how often she is accused of cheating, of masquerading as a girl to win races. Andraya isn't sure why there's an uproar. She wants to run against girls because she is one, not to game the system. "There are people that are faster than me," Andraya says. "I just think that some people are making it into a bigger deal than it needs to be."

There is no national policy governing transgender participation in high school sports. Connecticut is one of 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, that do not require medical or legal intervention. Nine require birth certificate modification and/or medical intervention in the form of surgery. Five have no policy. The remaining 19 states enact various other policies. Ten require school districts to decide, but some of those allow for appeals to a state association. In eight states, high school associations determine eligibility for transgender students, either through a ruling by an executive director or through a committee/hearing officer. One state, North Dakota, only provides guidance on hormone replacement therapy but outlines no process to determine eligibility under that guidance.

Connecticut allows schools and districts to submit rosters for all gender-specific sports, believing those closest to the kids can best determine teams. But the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) clearly instructs that gender identity must be respected. "We support students no matter who they are, and we want to give them the easiest access to opportunity without any discrimination in the way," CIAC executive director Karissa Niehoff says.

The starter's pistol sounds, and Andraya charges forward. She finishes first, in 12.66 seconds. Whispers subside, but eyes from the stands watch Andraya leave the track. The only sprinter who speaks to her is Erika Michie, who was third. She claps Andraya's back: "See, girl! I told you that you had this."

This year, Yearwood will defend her two Connecticut state titles that she won as a freshman in 2017.

MACK AND HIS dad, Marco Karam, hustle into the Dream Downtown Hotel on West 16th Street in Manhattan. It's Oct. 3, 2017, and Mack is receiving an Action Award from Athlete Ally that evening. They're running late after getting lost on the subway.

This trip is one of Mack's first public appearances since winning state earlier that year. Other than serving as a grand marshal for San Antonio Pride in July and speaking out against SB 3, the Texas "bathroom bill," in a video for Athlete Ally, Mack has ducked the spotlight, to varying degrees of success.

State legislators said Mack's name 27 times in 45 minutes of debate on SB 2095, a bill that would give the UIL more latitude to regulate steroid use among high school athletes but that opponents saw as an attempt to disqualify transgender athletes on HRT. "The question is: Are we still going to have sports on a pure level?" says state Senator Lois Kolkhorst, who co-sponsored SB 2095 and authored SB 3, both of which died in the House. "Are we going to remove all these barriers and say, 'OK, maybe Lance Armstrong shouldn't be stripped of all of his Tour de France [titles] and all of the other championships he won'? What is sports becoming and what is it going to become?"

Jim Baudhuin, a parent from another district, filed suit against the UIL to keep Mack from wrestling in the 2017 tournament. (It was ultimately dismissed.) The media camped on Mack's lawn. Nancy says they declined The Ellen DeGeneres Show and refused to sell Mack's life rights for a movie. "During the summer, I went into hibernation mode," Mack says. "It was really overwhelming."

Having his wrestling further upended didn't help. On March 23, 2017, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) sent Mack a letter stating that he violated policy by taking testosterone while competing in USA Wrestling events. Mack began HRT in October 2015 by taking a small dose of testosterone. A starting dosage for someone who is medically transitioning is .13 mL per week. Mack was at .08 mL. After the letter, he immediately began applying for a retroactive therapeutic use exemption (TUE), submitting medical records, letters from doctors and a personal statement. He's no longer eligible to wrestle girls in USA Wrestling events. And that's fine, because he doesn't want to wrestle girls. With an exemption, he could finally wrestle other boys.

In Texas, Mack Beggs, a transgender boy, must wrestle against girls because his birth certificate says "female."

According to his exemption application, Mack's testosterone level was up to the typical starting dose of .13 mL per week. As he takes the stage in New York to accept his award, that dose has increased to .18 mL. According to Yale University pediatric endocrinologist Susan Boulware, that level is still below her testosterone target for transgender men.

Mack's exemption was granted on May 11, 2017, just in time for him to wrestle in the men's division at the USA Wrestling Texas State Championships. Under the transgender participation policy adopted by USA Wrestling that spring, Mack was required to wrestle in the boys' division. He didn't place in freestyle but took fourth in Greco-Roman, narrowly missing a trip to nationals in Fargo, North Dakota. Mack carried his TUE paperwork all weekend in case anyone questioned him. In July, USADA officially closed Mack's case and vacated all of his USA Wrestling wins in the female division after October 2015. No further punitive action would be taken.

With each issue Mack overcomes, moments like being in New York become more meaningful. Honored for living his life authentically, Mack feels the warmth of the spotlight, not its scorch. "They'll never break me, they won't faze me," he says in his speech. "Most importantly, though, they'll never, ever, take away wrestling from me, as long as I am breathing and have the love for the sport in my heart."

His senior season will start soon after he returns to Texas, and Mack will once again wrestle against girls. Of all the criticism since his story became public, the insinuation that testosterone treatments handed him a championship hits the hardest. "People don't realize how much work you have to do in this sport," he says. "I'm doing this on my own. I only have the testosterone equivalent of a 10- to 12-year-old."

Beggs' name has been used on the Texas Senate chamber floor, as legislators consider bills that will limit transgender athletes.

ANDRAYA SITS ON her bedroom floor at her mother's house the night before the 2017 Connecticut State Open. Ngozi Nnaji and Andraya's father, Rahsaan Yearwood, are divorced. Andraya and her brothers split time between the two homes. The family has lived here for three years, but Andraya's room remains a work in progress. Nnaji, on a stool while painting inside of a closet, says the whites don't match in the room. Andraya doesn't see a difference, or even the need to match the inside of a closet.

As Mom paints, the outside world enters Andraya's room -- her first-ever negative comment on social media. She's familiar with negativity on news stories and even sometimes at school. One friend told her she couldn't be a girl -- she didn't shave her legs. Andraya's reply: "There are girls who don't shave their legs because of, like, feminism." They are no longer friends. But this is different. On an Instagram photo of her jumping onto a friend's back, someone comments, "stop running with the girls." Andraya isn't in a track uniform in the post. The user identifies as "someone who wants real girls to get the chance they deserve to race against real girls, and real girls only not freaks with dicks."

"I'm pretty shocked by it because no one has said anything like that to me in person," Andraya says. "But I'm not crying about it."

Alarmed by the negative Instagram comment, Mom crosses the room and grabs the phone. "Why didn't you show me that?" She reads the comments and hands the phone back to her daughter. "You're not supposed to be responding to that."

Andraya shrugs. Her account is now private.

She has always been headstrong. Born at 24 weeks, her birth name means "strength" in Igbo. Ngozi's father chose it. In February, Andraya and her mom made the trip to a government office to submit paperwork for Andraya to legally change her name. She is the only one of Ngozi and Rahsaan's children not to have a Nigerian first name, but she kept her birth name as a middle name. She picked Andraya because, well, she liked it, and a phonetic spelling so it couldn't be mispronounced. "I was going to put an 'h' at the end," she says, "but I didn't want to be extra."

The journey has been difficult, but Ngozi and Rahsaan love their daughter. One morning when Andraya was in middle school, her mom said she couldn't wear a wig to school because it was matted and on the floor. "You're not going out of the house looking like that," she was told. Andraya began to cry and at school went to the nurse instead of class. "That's when I realized how real this is," Nnaji says.

"Are you crying?" Andraya asks her mom from the floor in her room.

"No," Nnaji responds, quickly wiping away a tear and stepping back onto the step stool. "I'm just tired."

Andraya is tired too and ready to be just another kid again. The swirl of questions, doubts and pressure is exhausting. Each time she runs, another article is written. Each win puts more attention on her trans-ness and how she is different. Her personal information is public, her family's choices questioned.

The following day, Andraya takes her mark at the state open to run against the top talent regardless of school size. She's not favored to win. Andraya had told her mom she didn't want to run. She was ready for the season to be over. She wins her 100-meter heat but stumbles and falls over the finish line, scraping her knee and shoulders. She places third in the final and eighth in the 200 meters.

Beggs says his coach Travis Clark has been instrumental in shaping him as a wrestler and a man.

THE REFEREE RAISES Mack's arm on an otherwise empty mat at Wakeland High in Frisco, Texas. It's January 2018, and his would-be opponent from Lancaster High stands to the side, refusing to compete. Lancaster coach Spencer Gilbert slaps a sweatshirt on the floor in frustration. Gilbert asked his wrestler to compete, as did her teammates. They told her she'd make the news if she forfeited and said she and Mack were the same weight. None of it helped.

"I don't want to wrestle a transgender," she told her teammates. Her decision disqualifies her for the entire tournament. When asked about the conversation in the stands, both Gilbert and his wrestler decline to comment. With three weeks until districts, this is the first forfeit win for Mack in nearly a year.

The event feeds tensions that have simmered as Mack steamrolls through the 2018 season. UIL deputy director Jamey Harrison says that the UIL has never had an athlete request to compete in a division different from the one on their birth certificate. Says Mack: "Why would I ask when I won't be able to?"

"We would work through it the best we could," Harrison says in response to what would happen if such a request surfaced.

It is possible to change a birth certificate in Texas by bringing a court order to the Department of State Health Services, but the process requires money and time. Letters from doctors, medical documents and court fees add to the cost. Only 45 Texans per year endure the process despite an estimated 139,150 transgender people in the state. "What we're doing has worked," Harrison says. "To say that our policy restricts participation, in my opinion, is inaccurate. You can participate within the division of your gender that your birth certificate says you are."

Harrison contends that Mack's case is not about gender but steroids. The UIL bans steroid use but can do only random testing, which hasn't been funded since 2015. However, Texas law has a "safe harbor" clause that allows students to take banned substances if under doctor's care for a "valid medical purpose." Mack's family says the UIL approved him for girls' wrestling, but Harrison makes it clear that the UIL has no standards to determine an acceptable range of testosterone or to discern "safe harbor." (SB 2095 would've changed that.) Bottom line, he says such approval never happened.

In Frisco, Mack prepares for the tournament's championship match. No one else has forfeited. He shakes his muscles loose, bounces around the mat. The students in the stands begin to chatter.

"I wouldn't even touch him."

"It's an it."

"No, he's a he," a singular voice defends.

"If he doesn't have a thing, he ain't no man."

Nancy and Mack's mother, Angela McNew, enter the gym wearing red "Mack Attack" shirts they had made for last year's state run. The two of them take a seat and loudly cheer for Mack as the referee starts the match. The chatter stops.

Yearwood (head of table) was born at 24 weeks. Her grandfather gave her a birth name that means "strength" in Igbo.

AT THE SAME time Mack is suiting up for his 2018 district match, Andraya is 1,680 miles away and about to run for a state title in indoor track. Now a sophomore, she has a renewed spirit toward the sport she has grown to love. With a time of 7.31, Andraya takes the 55-meter dash by .13 of a second. In the 300, a race with which she has struggled all season, she is the state runner-up.

Andraya runs with far less attention this year. No boos or cheers. But the undercurrent of cynicism remains that she runs with girls because she couldn't hack it with boys, that this still isn't fair.

"I define fairness as everyone getting what they need, but that doesn't mean everyone gets the same," says her dad, Rahsaan. "As long as you're within the rules of the competition, all else is fair."

Niehoff, the CIAC's executive director, has felt some pushback since Andraya won the outdoor championship. She received about a dozen phone calls and letters questioning the fairness of the CIAC policy. She has met with principals and athletic directors who have similar criticisms yet also express their support of transgender students.

"Our association is in a place where we don't look at [fairness] in terms of winning and losing," Niehoff says. "It's more about opportunity and access. We want to be fair there first.

"It's not easy to be a high school kid to begin with -- growing up is tough. To be a transgender adolescent is an extra challenge. This is about life, not winning and losing in sports. If we could all be supportive, that's far more important."

Critics point to testosterone levels of those assigned female at birth versus those assigned male as reason enough to bar transgender girls from sports. But some experts say we don't know enough about testosterone to make that decision.

"There is an appalling lack of actual physiologic data that compares performance in any sort of authoritative way that relates to sex hormones," says Myron Genel, professor emeritus at Yale and an endocrinologist who has worked with the IOC. "Not that there isn't some demonstrated effect of testosterone, but applying it to demonstrated performance -- there's very little data."

The NCAA and IOC have similar broad-based policies: Transgender men may compete in men's sports immediately and must compete with men once in HRT; but transgender women may compete with women only after undergoing HRT for a year.

So should high school kids be held to the standards of elite athletes? "Absolutely not," Genel says. "But I'm not sure what standard to hold them to."

Applying the NCAA/IOC standard would solve Mack's problem but create new ones for Andraya. Medical intervention requires resources for doctor's visits, psychological consults and treatments. All of that takes time. Andraya might still be sitting out, or running with boys, something she doesn't want.

"For young people, there are so many positive outcomes from participating in sport and connecting with their peers," says Chris Mosier, co-founder of and a Nike-sponsored duathlete who has competed for Team USA, the first publicly out transgender person to do so. "All young people, including trans people, should get those benefits."

Connecticut's policy for transgender athletes is geared toward opportunity and access, rather than winning and losing.

EMPTY SEATS FAR outnumber ones filled by fans at the 11,000-seat Berry Center in Cypress, Texas. Still, Mack's family and supporters cannot drown out the booing crowd at the 2018 state wrestling tournament. The harder Mack's section cheers, the louder the response. With hands cupped over mouths, a group aggressively boos in the face of Mack's father, Marco. He walks onto the concourse and cries, his body shaking as emotion runs through him.

Later, the referee raises Mack's arm to declare him the Texas 6A 110-pound girls' wrestling state champ. Again. Mack points to his chest: undefeated in 92 matches over the past two years, 156-24 for his career. Ever since he first wandered into the wrestling room at Trinity High and got his butt kicked at practice, he has worked toward this moment. Wrestling gave him a sense of purpose. Wrestling saved Mack.

Mack was hospitalized in seventh grade for cutting and in therapy working on gender identity. He stopped cutting when he began wrestling. "He didn't have that need to hurt himself anymore," Nancy says.

Nancy credits Mack's coach, Travis Clark, with his turnaround. Mack says Clark has been instrumental in shaping him as a wrestler and a man. Clark declined to comment for this story under advisement from the school district, which also declined to make superintendent Steve Chapman available.

Nancy admits that this journey has been hard. She, Karam and McNew try to absorb as much of the hardship as they can. She advocates for Mack at school, deals with the UIL and USA Wrestling. She educates friends and family on what being transgender means and understands that not everyone is on board. But she has an answer for them too: "You don't have to get it, you just have to go with it."

In Cypress, with the crowd still booing, Karam looks for his son. Last year, after Mack went public, Karam drove up to Cypress. He worried that the attention was too much, that he hadn't done enough to support his son. Mack assured Karam not to worry. He had everything under control. A year later, a teary Karam flings his arms around Mack. He kisses his cheek. "I'm so proud of you," he says.

"Told you I had this, Dad," Mack says, wrapped in his father's arms. "I still got this."

Beggs is undefeated in 92 matches over the past two years and is 156-24 for his career.

THE GUN SOUNDS and Andraya charges down the track at Bristol Central High in April 2018, running with concentration as her legs turn over the synthetic surface. She pushes forward with everything she has, but for the first time in her high school career, Andraya is trailing in a regular-season meet.

Out of the corner of her eye, Andraya sees the girl running next to her. She sees kicking legs and swinging arms. And then Andraya sees the runner's back. Andraya crosses the line in second, clocking a 12.5.

The winner is also a transgender girl and also a sophomore. She declined to be interviewed for this story. When the two race the following weekend, Andraya again finishes second.

Andraya can take solace from what former rival and now friend Erika Miche remembers about their races, with Erika watching Andraya's back at the finish. "It only takes one person to make this transition easier," Erika says. "If I can be that person, that matters way more to me than winning a title."

Andraya still runs, and Mack is back on the mat. Unlike last season, he has competed in USA Wrestling's men's category all spring in Greco-Roman and freestyle. His third-place finish in both styles qualifies him for a trip this July to nationals in Fargo.

College is on the horizon. Life University, an NAIA school near Atlanta, offered Mack a partial academic scholarship, the chance to train in international wrestling styles and compete against men. He wanted to commit right after speaking with the coaches following the January meet in Frisco, but Nancy persuaded him to wait until after they visited.

"I think he'll change the world some," Nancy says. "Probably not for everything, but he'll have an impact. It will be a positive impact. I pray that it is."

Andraya and her family are hopeful her impact is positive as well. The local attention around not one but two transgender girls competing has pulled Andraya back into the spotlight. The season isn't over. There's the conference meet and then the class championships. Andraya won't face her again until the State Open, where they likely will run, each as a class state champion.

Katie Barnes is a writer/reporter for espnW. Follow them on Twitter at Katie_Barnes3.