Transgender weightlifter could walk into lion's den

4:23 pm on 5 April 2018

When weightlifter Laurel Hubbard competes at the Commonwealth Games on Monday, she will do so knowing a lot of people want her to fail.

Laurel Hubbard.

Laurel Hubbard Photo: Photosport

That's because many do not think she should be there in the first place.

Hubbard is one of New Zealand's brightest medal prospects, yet she faces a potentially hostile environment on the Gold Coast.

The 40-year-old became the first transgender athlete to be named in a New Zealand Commonwealth Games team late last year.

That's upset some rival teams who believe she has an unfair advantage having previously competed as a man.

Australian Weightlifting Federation boss Michael Keelan doesn't believe Hubbard should compete in the women's division and wanted her banned from competing at the Commonwealth Games.

Samoa Weightlifting Federation president and national coach Jerry Wallwork said it was not a level playing field with Hubbard there.

Wallwork has a weightlifter in the same category, Feagaiga Stowers, who is currently ranked second to Hubbard in Commonwealth Rankings.

"She's also a little bit disheartened, she had a real chance of competing for a gold medal but now it's a bit of an unfair disadvantage as you can see."

Before she transitioned in her mid-30s, Laurel competed for New Zealand for many years as Gavin Hubbard.

Officials ruled she has met International Olympic Committee (IOC) guidelines after undergoing at least 12 months of hormone therapy and recording low levels of testosterone.

But Wallwork believes a lot of the strength Hubbard developed when she competed as a man has stayed with her.

"I still am against it because I think it's unfair and I just hope that all this happening over there whatever media, is not going to affect the other athletes from competing at the Commonwealth Games and the spirit of the Commonwealth Games."

President of the Samoa Weightlifting Federation, Jerry Wallwork.

President of the Samoa Weightlifting Federation, Jerry Wallwork. Photo: RNZI/Vinnie Wylie

Wallwork said it was very unlikey that anyone would upset Hubbard, who became the first New Zealander to win a medal at the Weightlifting World Championships with her two silvers in the US last year.

Hannah Mouncey, an Australian rules football player, transitioned to a woman in 2016 and has been the subject of controversy over her eligibility to take part in women's competitions.

Mouncey has now been cleared to play in state leagues but is still barred from playing in the national AFLW competition.

Chris Rourke is her coach at the Ainslie football club in Canberra and has known her for some years through the club.

A self-described 50-something year old 'dinasaurian', Rourke said it was an eyeopener.

"I'd never come across it before. It was a good experience for the whole club to actually learn a little bit more about how it all works and what these girls have to go through."

He said the negative attention on Mouncey had been appalling.

"Social media has been horrendous to her. I actually read a few of the things on there and I had to shut it down I thought it was really poor, I can't believe people actually can speak about another human like that. She's coped a lot of abuse, she still cops it here because she's quite a big lady, she certainly stands out on the field."

One of Hubbard's main rivals in the 90kg-plus division will be Australian weightlifter Deborah Acason.

Rourke said he hoped Hubbard was not met with a hostile environment in Australia.

"I mean once they've been cleared by the proper authorities, what more can you do? If they're abiding by the rules and their testosterone is where it should be then I don't see a great problem with it so hopefully Australian people will cheer her just as loudly as we do with any of the other medal winners."

In an interview with RNZ last year Hubbard said she believed the best way for her to cope with the attention was to focus all her energy on her sport.

"As an athlete all I can really do is to block that out because if I try and take that weight on board it just makes the lifts harder so all I can really do is just focus and lift."

Mouncey's approach has been quite the opposite, said Rourke.

"She takes it head on, she presents herself really well in the media, she's really upfront with her thoughts and that's just who she is and she doesn't run away from the fact that she's transgender and she loves her sport and she wants to combine both."

Left to right: Simon Kent, Alethea Boon, Cameron McTaggart, David Liti and  Andrea Hams

Left to right: Weightlifting NZ High Performance Director Simon Kent, Alethea Boon, Cameron McTaggart, David Liti and Andrea Hams. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Team Chef de Mission Rob Waddell said the New Zealand Olympic Committee and weightlifting body will do everything it can to allow Hubbard to perform at her best.

"You do your best in anticipating what some of the commentary and discussion might be and again we've worked closely with her and her NSO to understand that and make sure that she's in the best place to perform but that's something that we do across all our athletes, is we plan and prepare."

Hubbard has delayed her arrival in the Gold Coast, not travelling with the rest of the squad, but Weightlifting New Zealand High Performance Director Simon Kent said that was not because of the controversy around her selection.

He said they had six medal contenders in the 12-strong team, deserving of just as much attention as Hubbard, who preferred to stay out of the spotlight.

"She keeps pretty much to herself so we don't want to change that routine and build-up for her so in leading up to the competition Laurel won't be fronting the media."

Kent said they had other squad members who had stories to tell of their own.

Laurel Hubbard competes on 9 April.

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