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Thetford Academy transgender runner embraces her identity and gains freedom

  • Thetford Academy senior Bel Spelman exercises during track practice after school in Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Last August, Spelman came out as transgender to her teammates, and since then her running has improved. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford senior Abigail Berard helps Bel Spelman with the physical therapy on her legs during track practice after school in Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Spelman was suffering from shin splints, pain in the lower leg caused by excessive running. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A message in magnets adorns the refrigerator at Bel Spelman's home while she gets breakfast before leaving early for the CVC championship meet in Thetford, Vt., on Saturday, May 11, 2019. Spelman is the oldest of three siblings. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bel Spelman talks with her mother Linnea Spelman before leaving for the Connecticut Valley Conference championship track meet in the early morning in Thetford, Vt., on Saturday, May 11, 2019. Bel's journey has not all been easy. Especially before she came out, she struggled with depression, anxiety and body image issues. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bel Spelman and her sister, Thetford sophomore Samara Spelman, 16, arrive early for the track meet at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Saturday, May 11, 2019. After graduating high school, Bel is attending Middlebury College in the fall. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bel Spelman waits in line for the bathroom before the start of the CVC championship track meet in Hanover, N.H., on Saturday, May 11, 2019. Spelman says the girls team has taken her in and made sure she feels welcome among them. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Outdoor track co-coach Emily Silver laughs with Bel Spelman at the start of the CVC championship track meet in Hanover, N.H., on Saturday, May 11, 2019. Spelman had to warm up for pole vaulting but was more focused on her running events. Silver said there would have been controversy if Spelman had chosen to be on the girls team, but she would have fully supported her. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford senior Bel Spelman (center) leaves the starting line for the boys’ 3,200-meter race at the Connecticut Valley Conference championship track meet at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Saturday, May 11, 2019. “Even before I had the vocabulary to understand what I was going through, running was my outlet for my body image issues, for depression, for anxiety," she said. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bel Spelman reacts after finishing seventh in the boys’ 3,200-meter race in Hanover, N.H., on Saturday, May 11, 2019. "Always the next one," she said. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bel Spelman laughs with friends while waiting for track practice to start at Thetford Academy in Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Spelman's comfort after coming out made her more confident and a better teammate. She feels like her true self on the boys team because of all the support from everyone. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • From left, senior captains Owen Deffner, Bel Spelman and Eli Kaliski announce the accomplishments of their teammates during track practice at Thetford Academy in Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Spelman feels as if the Thetford track and field program is one team -- not separated into boys and girls, and that is part of what made it comfortable to stay on the boys team. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bel Spelman leaves track practice to set up the lights for Thetford's spring musical "Once Upon a Mattress," which was debuting later that day, in Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Spelman designs and operates the lighting for the school's musicals. She said if she does less running in college, then she will probably end up doing more theater, noting that Middlebury has a great theater program. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, May 25, 2019

HANOVER — Ready.

Bel Spelman looks down at her running shoes, looks at the high school track official holding a starting gun, then forward at the synthetic track ahead. She holds out her arms and fist-bumps the runners beside her, shakes out her legs to get them loose, and looks again at the pack of runners lining up for the boys’ 3,200-meter race at the Connecticut Valley Conference track and field championship meet at Hanover High.

It’s not Spelman’s favorite race. Not by a long shot. She prefers the mile. And the shin splints already have started to bother her.

Set.

Spelman and 11 male runners position their feet up at the starting line. Everyone sees that she’s a different competitor than she was a year ago. She used to crumble under pressure: bad first mile and it’s over. Bad race, and she’s in her head for the rest of the afternoon. She took it out on others: her teammates, her parents, her younger sister and her coaches, who were left despairing that their star athlete — one with an all-important year-round love for running — was unable to reach her potential.

There was more to it, her teammates and coaches knew. Something was holding her back.

Spelman, now 18, found the answer last spring and let everyone know by August. The realization helped her lead Thetford Academy to a Vermont Principals’ Association Division III cross country championship in the fall. It’s helped her fall back in love with running.

The starter lifts the pistol over his right shoulder.

Bang.

Spelman, a transgender athlete, the only girl in the race, takes off.

Dissociation

In a life marked by growing pains, Spelman, a senior at TA, has held on to running as a consistent presence.

It’s been there through bouts with mental health challenges, an identity crisis in middle and high school and coming out as transgender just before her senior year. The displacement, she says, is complex; she’s been a runner since fifth grade, has trained her body to run at the pace and tempo she commands, to force her mind to adjust and readjust to her in-race strategies. Spelman’s body is her tool.

And yet the body she’s seen when looking in the mirror — a tall, slim, teenage boy — hasn’t reflected who she is, she says. Varsity track and field, this year in particular, has helped Spelman take back control as a male-to-female transgender woman.

“(Running) helped me flesh out my identity,” Spelman said while sitting in a restaurant booth in West Lebanon in early April. “I think this would have been so much harder (if I wasn’t an athlete). … (Running) made me take ownership of my own body.

“This is something I had control over, something that’s useful to me. It’s something I’ve built; it’s something I’ve used. I can almost make it a part of me. I can almost come to grips with it.”

It’s easier said than done.

Spelman remembers the confusing discomfort that started in middle school, though she isn’t sure how to convey the strugglebetween a mind and body that never seemed to line up.

What was clear was that she had to figure it out on her own.

The oldest of three children in a supportive family, Spelman said she suffered for years from severe body image issues that eventually morphed into dangerous depression, anxiety and loneliness. She wanted to crawl out of her own skin but was unsure where to turn.

“As a guy, you feel like nobody wants to hear you talk about yourself, about your body-image issues,” Spelman said. “It’s less socially acceptable to talk about that … the way I looked.”

Spelman’s middle school years, she said, were especially difficult. She overcompensated by trying to act more masculine, emulating the way “most teenage boys acted” and turning it up a notch. It made things worse.

“Even back then, I didn’t realize how bad the body-image issues were because I always thought, ‘All right, it’s not something I should talk about. I’m just a skinny person. I should just let it go,’ ” she said. “That’s when I realized that I had no idea what was going on. It was a very confusing experience.”

Spelman entered high school with few answers. It affected her performance in class, after-school activities and sports. Teachers, classmates, coaches and teammates started to take notice.

“This is someone who was in pain and struggling,” said Joe Deffner, an English teacher at Thetford Academy and the school’s cross country co-coach, who met Spelman during middle school and has coached her for all four years of high school. “Not that we don’t see that with all kids either, because we do. … But it was obvious to me that this was hard.”

Thetford alumna Emma Bauer said the signs of Spelman’s struggle were obvious from the beginning. The pair dated for three years until Bauer moved north to attend the University of Vermont last fall.

“She would put up these concrete barriers that needed to be addressed,” Bauer said. “It was harder to get that vulnerability for a variety of reasons. … There were times when she would back away, physically or emotionally, from a conversation.”

During track and cross country, Spelman’s internal conflict manifested itself into doubt.

“She was easily discouraged. Sometimes she buried herself in a hole that seemed hard to climb out of,” said Emily Silver, an English teacher at Thetford who also serves as a co-coach for the school’s outdoor track team.

Malcolm Silver-Van Meter, Emily Silver’s son, said Spelman was physically fit and “clearly cared about her performance,” but there was “always something keeping her from achieving her full potential as a runner.”

“She struggled with sleep deprivation and how to take care of yourself nutrition-wise,” he said. “All of those things may have something to do with the pressure she was under.”

Slowly, however, Spelman started to figure herself out. By sophomore year, she had begun experimenting with gender-neutral pronouns, asking people to use “they” and “them” when referring to her. It felt right. She moved on to “she” and “her” pronouns, and landed on the name Bel, an ambiguous take on “Isabel.” That felt really right. She started coming out to her closest friends last February.

Then, last August, after a rained-out Tuesday fun run, Spelman stood up and addressed her cross country teammates. She had been putting herself together for the last year and a half. She was nervous. It became real once she said it out loud, in public, for all to hear.

Bel Spelman introduced herself.

NAVIGATING POLICIES

After coming out as trans, Spelman had a big question to answer: Did she want to compete on the girls team?

The Vermont Principals’ Association, which governs varsity sports in Vermont, adopted its gender identity policy in 2010, outlining the philosophy and procedures for transgender athletes to compete on a team that aligns with their gender identity, as opposed to the sex they were assigned at birth. It is one of 18 states — including New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey — that has adopted a policy allowing transgender athletes to compete unrestricted, according to the website transathlete.com, which advocates for the inclusion of trans athletes and monitors the policies of state and national athletic governing bodies.

Fifteen states — including New York and Maine — require medical intervention, mainly hormone replacement therapy, for trans athletes to compete on teams that correspond with their gender identity, policies that transathelete.com says “need modification.”

Eight states — including Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana and Indiana — have policies that require a modified birth certificate or proof of surgery, which can be high barriers that leave many young transgender athletes with little chance of competing on the team with which they identify. The trans athlete advocacy website labels those policies as discriminatory.

In the Twin States, the decision about which team a trans student competes on is left up to officials in individual school districts, leaving each state’s sports governing bodies out of the equation.

In Vermont, transgender athletes who wish to compete among athletes who share their gender identity are required to seek approval from the school’s superintendent and the student’s home school who, according to the policy, will “determine the eligibility of a student seeking to participate in interscholastic athletics in a manner consistent with his/her gender identity where the student’s gender identity does not correspond to his/her sex assigned at birth.”

The New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, which adopted its policy in 2014, requires trans students and their parents or guardians to notify their school at least two months prior to the sports season. The student must submit to the school a written statement affirming the student’s gender identity, documentation from individuals such as parents, friends or teachers “which affirm that the actions, attitudes, dress and manner demonstrate the student’s consistent gender identification and expression,” and written verification from a health care professional and medical documentation regarding any hormone therapy the student has already undergone, if any. The school is instructed to use this criteria in its determination, then communicate its decision to the NHIAA offices.

Both states have procedures for an appeal by other member schools.

Spelman said she considered competing on the girls cross country and track and field teams, but decided to stay with the boys team she had been competing with all her life.

“I wasn’t (medically) transitioning; I wasn’t on estrogen,” Spelman said. “I wasn’t taking hormones or even thinking about getting surgery. I had always competed with the boys; I’ve been doing track for about eight years now.

“I think even if I was going on estrogen, even if I was transitioning, I don’t think I would have switched over. I wanted to finish out (my high school career) with the group I had been running races with all this time.”

Spelman also acknowledged she didn’t want to stir controversy. Indeed, trans athletes elsewhere in New England have faced backlash from observers who say male-to-female transgender athletes competing in girls sports have an unfair advantage. Critics say having more testosterone, more muscle mass, larger lung capacity and a broader cardiovascular system all contribute to a wider range of athletic abilities.

They point to a recent controversy in Connecticut where two trans high school athletes placed first and second in the girls indoor track state championships.

Supporters of trans athletes competing on teams that match their gender identity, on the other hand, insist on equality for athletes competing within their gender identity, no matter the body type. Biological differences and advantages among individuals are part of sports, they say, and not all trans athletes are sports stars. They assert that many arguments against transgender athletes imagine a non-transgender man would use transgender policy to take a shortcut to success.

Had she switched teams, Spelman’s numbers would have made her one of the best female high school runners in the state. She currently holds a personal best of 4:39.30 in the 1,500 and 10:20.89 in the 3,000, both from this spring, and would have bested last year’s girls winner at the VPA Division III state championship meet, Thetford’s Meaggie Balch, by about 18 seconds in the 1,500 and more than 30 seconds in the 3,000. Her 1,500 time also is about 14 seconds faster than Champlain Valley’s Ella Whitman, in VPA’s Division I, currently ranked No. 1 in the event.

“It would have been high-profile,” Emily Silver said. “It would have been controversial.”

But if Spelman had made the decision to compete with the girls, Silver said, she likes to think that she would have handled the scrutiny gracefully — and she said the school and the team would have had her back.

“We would have supported her,” she said. “And we would have been in controversy.”

CHAMPIONS

After coming out, Spelman flourished. Her coaches noticed a gradual difference: more confidence, focus and newfound energy. Other runners saw a better teammate.

“I think very few of us saw it coming,” said Thetford sophomore Eloise Van Meter, another distance runner and Emily Silver’s daughter. “I think we were all like, ‘This is cool. We can support this person throughout the season.’ ”

Spelman felt the difference, too, saying cross country helped her “in a big way,” and in turn, her comfort in her identity helped improve her results.

“I used to dread every single workout,” she said. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back: ‘How can I possibly worry about this workout when I’ve got all this stuff with me?’ All of that was gone. I could just enjoy trying to improve myself.”

Jacob Slaughter, a senior runner for Thetford, said Spelman’s announcement made the team feel more connected. Boys and girls warm up together and consider each other teammates, and Spelman coming out “brought us closer together.”

“(It) helped reinforce my feeling that we are all one team, not divided by gender, whatever that may be,” he said.

Van Meter said the team made an effort to make Spelman feel included on the girls side, bringing her onto their roster during the team’s annual girls-boys synchronized swimming contest.

“It was like ‘Yeah, you’re part of this group now,’ ” she said. “We were treating her like any other girl.”

Spelman was named a co-captain of the boys cross country team. She ran a personal-record 18:45.1 in the 5K during the VPA D-III state meet at Thetford, taking sixth place out of 111 athletes.

The result helped Thetford win its first state cross country title since 2010.

“We needed Bel to be solid and consistent,” said Deffner, the co-coach. “Without (Bel) having figured it out and having become more herself, that (championship) probably doesn’t happen.”

For Spelman, the accomplishment meant even more. At the postseason sports awards held at the school, Spelman heard her name over the loudspeaker. They were listing her accomplishments, celebrating what she had done to help the team.

“Those were Bel’s accomplishments,” she said. “I was recognized. … That was the most intense pride I had ever felt. It felt like I was fleshing out my identity with it.

“This wasn’t Ian the cross country runner,” she said, referencing her former name. “This was Bel the cross country runner. She had done this with her legs. That was a big moment for me.”

Spelman said she feels fortunate to have grown up in a supportive community, surrounded by an encouraging group of friends and teammates who embraced her. She knows that isn’t always the case.

“I can’t even stress how lucky I feel about it,” she said. “When you run in a small town, there are a lot of people who cheer for you, and you have no idea who they are. I remember having random people cheer ‘Bel’ when I was racing. I’d look up and recognize the face but not really know who they were but just be so impressed how quickly the community was able to adapt to me coming out.”

There were challenges, Spelman acknowledged, coming out at home. Spelman says her parents, who declined to be interviewed for this story, were supportive, but “just because you have such a deep relationship with your parents, it does take longer for these things to happen. It can be difficult during that process.”

“I did have troubles (at home, at first),” she said. “But I will say that I have the best parents anyone can ask for.”

For years, Spelman said, her relationship with her younger siblings — along with a younger brother in middle school — were strained, at best.

“I was a terrible big brother. Being completely honest, I am not proud of the way I treated my siblings back then,” Spelman said. “It’s still something that I’m working to change.”

Spelman’s younger sister, Samara, 16, is a sophomore who also runs for TA, and said Spelman’s transition has dramatically changed their relationship for the better.

“She’s really become the big sister I’ve always wanted,” Samara said. “It’s really nice to see that she’s become a total role model for me. She’s super supportive now. I can talk to her about literally anything.

“I’m proud of her. I love her a lot in this transition she’s made.”

AFTER THETFORD

Ding.

The bell sounds. One more lap in the boys 3,200-meter race at the CVC championship meet. Spelman is in the back of the pack, not trying to think about the shin splints. She finishes in 11:03.24, good enough for seventh place out of 12 runners — three of whom are eventually disqualified for infractions. She puts her hands on her hips and paces, out of breath and disappointed.

The 3,200 is not her favorite race. Not by a long shot.

Spelman insists that she has not dealt with more than other racers; not this season, anyway. She’s careful to point out that other athletes have their own issues going on that nobody else knows about.

But now, she feels free. Spelman remains undecided about medical transitioning such as hormone therapy and surgery, worrying about changing a body she’s trained for years to do her bidding. The NCAA requires trans athletes complete medical transitioning to compete on teams that match their gender identities, and, for female-to-male transgender people, to undergo testosterone suppression treatment. She will compete in the VPA Division III track and field championship meet at Windsor High School next weekend. She’s also headed to Middlebury College in the fall and wants to continue running — whether it’s recreationally or competitively. Running will always be part of her life. It remains her one consistent.

“Whether I do it competitively for a club or somewhere else, I’m going to continue to run and train myself,” she said. “Even before I had the vocabulary to understand what I was going through, running was my outlet for my body image issues, for depression, for anxiety. That was part of how I dealt with it.

“Having it become such a central part of who I am as Bel and how much it has helped me with this whole process, it just means too much to me to stop.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.