Interview by Jamie Edwards and Dave Konstanz
Photos by Sam Dugon
Kate Weatherly’s story isn’t new but really seems to have gained momentum over the 2019 race season.
Her podium at Leogang World Cup was, for many people, their first encounter with a Transgender athlete. Certainly their first encounter in mountain biking.
Seeing Kate not only switch from the male to the female field but actually podium at a World Cup was, for many, a confusing state of affairs. In her own words “people only really care when I am doing well”.
I met Kate under the lift station amongst the crowds pouring out of the Les Gets World Cup downhill race. She’d already finished her weekend’s racing, crossing the line in 9th place after a difficult weekend and a challenging track. Amaury had just stormed into 1st place, 2 seconds fastest than super-Bruni and we had to pick our way carefully through the buzzing crowds who were making their way as quick as they possibly could from the hill to the after-party.
I immediately found Kate easy to talk to, open and honest. She admitted quickly that she felt her story had been “done to death” but also seemed happy to tell her story and meet the media attention head on.
We picked a spot for our chat beside Kate’s camper van, parked up in the Privateer Pits (a Hotel Car Park) and got straight into it.
Hey Kate, thanks for talking to us. So, Les Gets World Cup. First question, how’s your day gone?
Terribly?! (Kate laughs)
Yeah, just really kind of a rough result. I had a crash earlier in the week. A big over the bars on the landing of the last jump and I kind of bashed myself up pretty good.
So the body is all a bit sore and I’m in a bit tight. I’ve been struggling all week with the combination of a track that doesn’t suit me and body that’s being held together with duct tape and painkillers and it just wasn’t a good result. But, you know, I’ll get some training in and hopefully do a better result in Val Di Sole.
I saw you put something on Instagram saying “fuck the track builder”?
(Kate laughs) The exact hashtag was “fuck this jump!” and the track was OK it was just specifically the last jump. I think a lot of the girls and even a lot of the guys are struggling with it.
It was sort of a combination of a difficult run in and essentially no landing. Even if you got the jump good it was still a really harsh bottom out and it was sort of a jump that needed a longer better landing or a better run in.
So what was your result today then?
Which is still pretty good result, you know?
Yeah, I know that but I can easily be up there with the top five girls and I know I should be and it’s demoralising to not be.
I suppose there’s a little bit of extra frustration that Tahnee’s not here and Rachel’s not here. It’s a big opportunity for new people to fill in.
Yeah exactly, it’s kind of a perfect opportunity to gain some ground and get some better experience. Yeah, it’s kind of hard not taking that opportunity.
But how’s your season going generally?
Oh yeah the season has been really great. I mean, I did two World Cups last year at Andorra and Val Di Sole, and I got 12th in Val Di Sole and 10th in Andorra which really good for a first time on the World Circuit.
But coming over here I’ve spent all off-season training really hard. It’s been really nice getting some good results. I mean, you know one bad race doesn’t make a make-or-break a season.
And you know, 9th at a World Cup’s not all bad. You know, it’s not a bad race is result is it?
Oh no, it’s not terrible. But you know, I think for me it’s less about the results and more about doing a run that I’m happy with and feeling good on track.
I think for me it’s less so about the number and more so that I did a run that I had made mistakes and didn’t feel good in.
So you told me as we we’re walking over here that you’re in Europe for the season. What does the year look like for you?
Yeah, so I skipped Maribor just because it was too long before all the other races. I would have flown there and flown back home.
So I flew over before Fort William, bought a van and I’ve just being kind of travelling around and living over here and then after Lenzerheide I’m heading back home and then I’ll fly out for World Champs and Snowshoe.
What were your goals coming into this year? Want did you want to try and achieve?
My goals were [to be] consistently in the top ten and maybe a podium. So two sixes and third is pretty damn good and quite a lot better than I were sort of what I was expecting.
And yeah, it’s kind of raised my own expectations myself a little bit. Ideally, I’d like to be going for top five every weekend, but sometimes it doesn’t happen.
“my race career hasn’t been that much different to anyone else”
I think a lot of people kind of know your story already because for better or worse you’re in the media. People are interested in what you’re doing. People are talking about it.
What does it feel like to have gone through everything you’ve gone through to get a World Cup Podium. Like it’s hard just being here, isn’t it? You’ve had quite a journey to get there?
I think it’s definitely it’s… I mean, it’s difficult. I mean, my race career hasn’t been that much different to anyone else. I started racing at like 16 and sucked pretty bad when I first started and kind of slowly work my way up.
I think back to my first ever race… I can do that track in about three minutes. I think it took me like nine minutes to get down first time.
So, you know, it was sort of a rough start but I definitely haven’t had a whole heap of natural talent, but I’ve worked really hard to kind of get to where I am. It definitely plays on me, like after Leogang it was quite hard.
There was quite a lot of backlash at people disagreeing with me racing and that kind of thing and that definitely played on my mind a lot. It’s sort of nothing new.
Can you give people the short version of your life story?
So I was born male but I’ve sort of always been kind of different. I never really sort of felt like I fitted in with what was expected of me as a young boy and it felt alien to me. I was always more drawn towards feminine stuff.
Coming into my early teens, I was pushing that down. You know, I sort of knew that I was a boy and there was a set a certain expectations of me. I was trying to fit those but never really felt right.
I started puberty quite late because I was a quite a sick kid. I had a chronic lung disease, which meant that I didn’t start puberty till like 17 really.
It meant that when I started puberty I was like “oh God this is sort of horrendous”. That’s Gender Dysphoria playing a role, which is basically when your brain is a different gender to what your body is and it causes a kind of confusion. And so not long after that I pursued taking hormones.
What age were you when you started doing that?
I think… 18. I started hormone blockers in May of 2015. I think ironically I could have competed in the female field long before I did actually choose to swap over.
The rule is just that you have to have a year with testosterone below a certain level and I’ve been below that level since November of 2015.
I have to take a blood test every three months to make sure I can compete, if I fail to register at the correct levels of testosterone then that resets and I need to wait another year before I can compete again.
But for me, there’s so much more about the transition than just the racing. So for me if my testosterone was to go up, it would lead to all the physical changes that I have tried to avoid, like facial hair.
I mean, since since November 2015 my Testosterone levels have never been above 1.4 nanomoles as a point of reference. The average female range is .5 to 2.5, so basically well within.
And my normal test result is, I think, .4 so basically well below the average range.
Is that an easy thing to keep on top of when you’re on the road?
Yep. A pill a day… Yeah, it’s really easy.
And testing is easy when you’re on the road?
Yeah, testing is a little bit more difficult. I’ve had to time my tests to line up with when I was going to be away. It’s doable and it’s a bit of a pain but you know, it’s what I got to do to be able to race.
And when you decided that you wanted to go through that, were you already racing?
Yeah. I was still fairly new to the sport. A lot of people bring out the “you were a mediocre male and now you’re winning in the women’s field!” but I had a female level of testosterone and oestrogen and I was racing in the men’s field because I just didn’t want anyone to know that I was transitioning for a long time.
I started racing in 2014 and started hormone blockers in 2015. So a year of maybe racing before I started transitioning. So most of my racing life has been in parallel with my transition.
How did people on the race scene react to that? Was it a warm and welcoming community..?
I kind of knew that the mountain bikers wouldn’t be the most keen on it. Mountain biking is a very blokey sport, you know, it’s mostly guys that do it and as a result male culture plays a big role in downhill.
So for me, I knew that it wouldn’t be a non-event. I knew that people would take a while to work their minds around things. So that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t kind of come out for a long time. I was waiting for the hormone blockers and the oestrogen to work it’s magic and I was slowly looking more and more feminine and passingly female.
I think it’s easier for people to get their heads around it if you look like a girl. If you look one hundred percent male but you say “oh, yeah, my testosterone is low” people might struggle with that a bit more.
And I think people don’t necessarily know what that means also?
Yeah exactly. I mean, how you look has nothing to do with sporting performance really but it’s harder for people.
At the end of the 2017 season, a photographer back home found out about me. I don’t know how but he did. He outed me to people who were making jokes about it and telling everyone which was quite stressful.
My plan was to come out at the end of the 2018 season and then have that year for people to work their heads around it before coming back.
Which is presumably just a complete invasion of your privacy?
Oh, yeah. It was horrendous and it was really stressful and horrible, but ironically, at the time everyone was like “oh, yeah, who cares?” and I was like “Oh really? Okay”.
So then I did then swap over for the start of the 2018 season and that was when I then won national champs and when, for the lack of a better analogy, shit hit the fan (Kate laughs).
“when everything really exploded in the media”
I can imagine that’s probably the issue people found… “Oh, she’s turned up and beaten everyone…”
Well, yeah because I raced the last couple of races of 2017 in the male category and then swapped over and that was what freaked everyone out.
In actual fact, nothing had changed because my T levels hadn’t changed. I hadn’t suddenly got the OK to go ahead. I’d been able to race for a long time, I’d just been choosing not to. So when I did swap over, although it seemed very sudden, it kind of wasn’t sudden for me.
I think that was when everything really exploded in the media.
I think once I started winning events people kind of got more and more uncomfortable with me racing.
I think I’ve figured out that people only really care when I am doing well. We joke about it, but it’s when I get a bad result it’s kind a good thing because I’m not going to get all the hate that I do when I get a good result. Yeah, it’s kind of funny.
Like I said, I did two World Cups last year and got 10th and 12th and no one cared. Then I came over and started doing well this year after six months of training really hard and everyone suddenly has an issue with me.
And the reason you’ve done well is 100% because you’ve ridden well, trained and practiced.
Yeah, yeah. I mean the amount that how your body works and functions is linked to sex hormones is huge. I’ve had to educate myself so I can talk about it and justify my own place in the sport.
Which sucks. But, yeah, I want to help people understand more about it…
The level of changes that occur is insane.
One of the big things everyone always brings up is bone density. So oestrogen doesn’t reduce bone density, it maintains whatever current bone density you have. However, if you remove sex hormones entirely you will have a reduction in bone density. It’s one of the reasons why women who have gone through menopause and have much lower oestrogen are at higher risk of osteoporosis.
So I had about a six month gap between when I started testosterone blockers and when I started estrogen, so the result that six months is I did have a big drop in bone density. Muscle size has dropped, red blood cell count drops. Like the amount of physical changes is endless. Even crazy stuff like the lens of your eye changes shape. No one really knows.
But the amount of changes that occur when you change over the sex hormones in the body is huge and I never really had a big dip in sort of my performance. But I definitely plateaued earlier. I’ve been training in the gym for four years for my riding. In that four-year time I think my max deadlift is like 115kgs, which is good. But for someone who’s been in the gym for four years, it’s not amazing and definitely not what you would expect for someone who had a male or someone with a testosterone physical advantage.
I’m definitely not in the camp of people who posture that testosterone isn’t what causes physical advantages, I don’t agree with that. I think there’s a reason that the male record deadlift is like 500 kgs, and the female record deal lift is like 300kgs.
So you look at runners, they often have low T levels and that’s one of the reasons why you see the woman’s times are getting closer and closer to the men’s.
Don’t ultra long-distance men and women’s times often even out?
Yeah, that’s exactly it and that’s because at some point that testosterone stops playing a role. Whereas in strength sports is still a big divide.
People are always like “oh, you have a male’s body” and it’s very difficult because biology is so complicated.
It’s really hard to say that every male has an advantage over every female. Look at Rachel Atherton, for example, she’s about as tall as I am and I think probably a hell of a lot stronger than I am. I think the idea that I have some physical advantage over all the other girls is a bit crazy when you actually look at me and look at them.
We run a race team and I see the amount of work the riders have to go through just to understan their own nutrition, their training, their recovery.
The amount of science you’ve had to learn to get to the stage where you’re riding a World Cup… It must be a big extra challenge.
Yeah because I do all that other stuff as well, the nutrition and training and everything.
I was my own coach for a long time and I’m lucky because I do find it quite interesting all that stuff. But it is a lot and it is hard trying to go through and justify my place in the sport, but you know it is slowly getting easier as people work their heads around things and kind of get used to it.
Whenever something’s new, it is a big crazy. I mean look at when 29’ers first came out! (Kate laughs).
(laughing) yeah, exactly!
Let’s talk about what you’re going through at the moment then. You recently did well at the World Cup and an Instagram post goes up from a Team Manager. How did that make you feel?
I think that hit me a lot harder than any of the other stuff… I get a lot of comments and messages and people thinking that I care about their two cents. For the most part, it’s just kind of the same, you know.
I don’t want to be rude to people because a lot of time it doesn’t come from a place of hate, it just comes from a lack of understanding. People just don’t really know about it and it is kind of counterintuitive. When they picture an ‘ex-man racing in the women’s field” they picture Loic Bruni growing his hair out or something.
Like I was never, ever hyper-masculine or strong or big, you know, I’ve always been smaller and more drawn to feminine stuff.
When that post was put out it was quite hard and I struggled with that. It was during the Innsbruck race week at Crankworx and it was really hard to focus on the race with that…
And you’d just had a good result…
…and it just really ruined the high. I think. It was really hard and I really respect how all the brands who sponsor that team responded afterwards. Thank you to them for saying that they disagreed with the team managers point of view. That means a lot to me.
I would love to sit down with him and have a conversation like this and not just be throwing thinly veiled comments back and forth.
“Silencing dissenting opinions just causes more harm”
I suppose there’s two sides of it. Obviously that was said but it’s also probably a conversation that’s good to have?
Yeah I definitely think that. When I first came out there was a perspective by a lot governing bodies that there was no conversation to be had. They had made a rule, they had decided and if you had any issues with the rule, you could either shut up or stop racing. I really disagree with that.
I think that having conversation is important because it is something new and people don’t understand it. Silencing dissenting opinions just causes more harm in the long run than having an open conversation.
That’s one of the reasons why I’m so keen to sit down with anyone who wants to have a conversation about it and I’ll talk about it openly and explain everything. Hey, if you want I’ll send you all my testosterone results. It’s not something that I’m cagey about or secretive about because being open about it is what gets it accepted.
What has the reaction been from the other female racers?
(Kate laughs) It’s funny… a lot of people on Pinkbike were like “oh, yeah, like you can tell. Look how awkward she is with the other girls! They really hate her!” (laughing) Just because I’m bad at hugging doesn’t mean you can be a dick about it!
They’ve been lovely, like everyone is so friendly. Emily is amazing. She’s so supportive. Rachel, Tracy they’re all super chill. I even talked to Rachel Strait about it.
I mean, I haven’t talked to every competitor and been like “Are you OK with me?” but everyone is really friendly and I haven’t even remotely felt at all ostracised or like any of the other girls are weirded out by. Everyone is so chill and friendly. If they didn’t like me, they could be a lot less friendly.
I don’t want to think that every single one of my competitors is chill, but I think that the majority are and I think that as it goes through more races more and more people will figure it out.
You’re probably the first person, that I know of at least, in mountain biking that’s been through this?
Well, there was Michelle Dumaresq in the 90’s and she had a really hard time because it was the 90s and you know and everything was a bit newer…
I remember in the 90’s everyone thought that Missy Giove was completely crazy as a gay mountain biker.
Yeah, so she got basically publicly booed on several podiums. And I mean she didn’t even do that well. I’m pretty sure her best result at an elite World Cup was like 17th. I think she was the first and it’s been a long time and perspectives have changed since then.
I guess I’m the first in modern mountain biking.
So as the sport develops presumably more people will go through what you’re going through.
Do you think the current set of rules work for transgender athletes?
No, no I don’t. The current ruling was created quickly by the IOC and everyone has adopted the same IOC ruling.
I don’t think it works but not for the reasons that people often think. For example, the limit of testosterone that’s given by the IOC is 10 nanomoles per litre of blood. Any one who has properly blocked testosterone and is actually transitioning will have far, far, far, far less than that. If you’ve had bottom surgery it will be nil. If you have properly blocked testosterone, it will also be nil. Like I say, I have 0.4. I think that limit should be dropped.
I also think that there’s a limited amount of research around this. I found one study of like 15 runners that looked at them pre and post transition and looked at decrease in performance. That’s the only study I’ve ever found that’s shown either way.
Because there is no scientific research I think that it should be a case-by-case basis. I do wonder if some athletes may have an unfair advantage in some rare cases. If someone is way outside the mean height or is particularly muscular pre-transition, maybe that has a play.
And the extreme example is, I suppose, if Loic or someone suddenly decides after 20 years of elite male racing to change and wins every race he turns up to…
Yeah. I mean maybe maybe just having having had the experience at male speed then gives you an advantage later. We don’t know. The thing is everyone brings that up and we don’t know but it’s within all realm of possibility that the reduction in testosterone could ruin him. It could take away that advantage.
It has never happened. There’s never been a high-level male athlete who has transitioned and so we don’t know. Until that happens, it’s hard to make a rule based around that.
I think that rather than a blanket line, making it a case-by-case system where a governing body makes a decision around whether or not an athlete can compete is a good system.
Back home, Cycling New Zealand actually do have that in their policy. They do have a case by case basis where they look at an athlete and then decide if they feel that it’s fair for the athlete to compete, taking into account the IOC rules.
We were chatting about your support you get which I thought was super interesting… and maybe a bit annoying.
What support have you had from likes of New Zealand Cycling? You obviously had to go through a process of coming out to them?
They were really good. I emailed them and I was like “Hey, I’m wanting to change over categories. You guys don’t have a policy. Can you please put a policy in place? So I have something to fall back on, you know, if things do go South”.
They were really supportive, they made a policy, put it in place and I then followed that.
Financially, they’re not overly supportive but that’s kind of because back home all cycling money goes intro track cycling because that’s what Kiwis are generally good at. Downhill’s not an Olympic sport so it’s hard for Government bodies to want to put money into it.
In terms of policy based support, they’ve been great and they’re really good with shutting down anyone who thinks I shouldn’t race. Which is helpful.
And you’re sat here doing this interview behind your camper, after race runs in Les Gets, sat on the pavement in a car park. What’s your setup like?
I have a wholesale company back home who are amazing and super supportive. Shout out to Duncan and Action Down Under. They’re really helpful. They don’t have a heap of money, it’s basically just a passion project of his.
I don’t get heaps stuff for free, I pay for everything, but they help as much as they can and I’m forever grateful of everything they do.
It is hard though, coming over here and racing against all the other girls that have all got their mechanics and spin bikes at the top. I’m sort of just jumping up and down and hoping that it’s enough of a warm up! It’s the same with every privateer, we don’t have mechanics. We don’t have really a pit space. It’s hard but we make it work.
What’s your setup like whilst you’re in Europe?
I have a really cool van that I squeeze my bikes and myself into yeah. I was lucky. I was able to bring a trail bike over with me which has been nice to have a break from the big bike. It’s OK, we make it work.
And how have you found people’s reactions to sponsorship applications from you?
Back home, it’s difficult.
I’ve talked to a lot of people and a lot of time I do get rebuffed but it’s hard because back in New Zealand there isn’t a lot of money in the sport.
Every wholesaler is like “we’d love to support you but we can’t give you what you need or want because we just don’t have the money to be able to do that”.
So I’m hoping that with my results this year I might be able to find some support from an international body because it’s too hard back home.
You are travelling halfway across the World and you can’t really go home between races because flights are even more expensive often than elsewhere in the world. So you’re basically then living over here and that’s also then hard because all your support is back home and you’re trying to figure where to get things from.
Big shout-out to SRAM and Maxxis who have been incredibly helpful. Obviously, I’m not a sponsored rider by either of those companies, but they do what they can help me out and that’s been really helpful.
Where’d you get the van from?
A lady in Canterbury! Yeah, it’s a Mazda Bongo. It’s really good. It’s kind of hard getting everything in and out because it’s quite small but it’s got a pop-top roof so I can sleep in the roof and everything goes down below.
And being small does mean I can park in normal car parks, which has been a godsend because I’m not that great a driver! (laughs)
How long have you been away for?
My flight over was, I think, 20th of May so I think coming up on two months… I’m staying over here till winter then heading back home.
I think I got like five days at home and then I’m back on a plane and flying out to Mt St Anne for World Champs and then flying down to Snow Shoe.
What do you want to try and get done by the end of the season?
My stretch goal is be top five overall. That will be really cool. But I think if I can just keep myself safely within the top 10 overall and get some more podiums… That’s kind of the hope.
I’ve ridden Val Di Sole before so I kind of know what to expect there, I think I can get a good result there. And the same with Lenzerheide. I’ve also spent a week there after Leogang and got a feel for the track.
So I think short of any big mistakes and falling off some large jumps (laughs), I should be in a good position to get some more good results and carry on.
“I’m very hard on myself because I’m concerned that people may be less willing to support me than other riders because of the controversy around me.”
Is there anything you’re taking away from this weekend in Les Gets?
Yeah. Definitely. After my crash on Thursday, I spent the whole rest of the day stressing out about the jump and not actually focusing on the rest of the track… Which in the long run was what mattered and not the jump.
If I feel like if I can’t do something, a line or a jump, I should just forget about it and focus on the 99% rest of the track. There’s so much more time to make up elsewhere and getting injured and then being sore for the rest of the weekend is far more demoralizing than just not trying.
And also, you know, bad results happen. I’m very hard on myself because I’m concerned that people may be less willing to support me than other riders because of the controversy around me.
All the girls that I’m around or on Factory Teams or they’ve got good support. I feel like I almost need to be above them to get the level that they get and I think that when I get a bad result, I’m sort of more hard on myself. Every rider has bad races though and makes mistakes.
Tell me about the jersey you raced in.
I thought it was an NZ team jersey, but it’s actually a NZ National Champs jersey?
Yeah (laughing) the New Zealand and National Champs jerseys looks very similar. I’m the national champion and you have to wear either a sleeve in the color of your flag or your national champs Jersey. I couldn’t afford to get a jersey made up with sleeve.
Although ironically, if you’ve been watching the live streams I did have a sleeve at Fort William. That’s because I forgot my jersey and I wanted to avoid the 200EUR fine that I would get for racing without it. I went to a dollar store and bought a New Zealand flag and with my incredibly talented sewing skills I sewed the flag onto my jersey and raced in it. That wasn’t great because it’s a flag and flags aren’t very stretchy and don’t make good sleeves!
Did you cut the old sleeve off?!
No, no. I’ve still got the old jersey. I just sewed it over the top! I had someone message me on Instagram and was like “hey, if you get a Podium, can I have your jersey?” and I was like “oh no, sorry I pay for these!”
So when you get home are you going to be sending some CV’s out and trying to get some support?
Yeah, definitely. I don’t have any crazy high expectations of grandeur and salaries and that kind of thing. I want to be in a position that I can continue to get better and continue getting experience.
Like I said, this is only my first year on the circuit so it’s all learning and everything takes a little while. My goal is to hopefully get some support to be able to come over here and race again next year.
Is there anything else you want to talk about? No pressure…
Don’t case big jumps! I think I worked out the rolling the jump here versus hitting it was 2 to 3 seconds and I was not two to three seconds off the podium!
It’s often not worth the stress that you put into it. It’s just about having fun, feeling good on track and if you’re sitting there worrying about jumps then you’re not feeling good and you’re not confident. That’s not what you should be feeling.
And despite all the bullshit that you’ve had to go through this year and having to talk to people like me all the time about your story… Are you still stoked on racing?
Yeah, you know, I’m loving it. It’s amazing. It’s been my dream to race World Cups for forever.
I’m finally doing and being out there with the top girls is incredible. I only hope that I can continue to do in the future!
Thanks to Kate for her time and for the honest and open conversation. You can follow her on Instagram at @kateweatherlymtb.