Playing collegiate sports is both difficult and rewarding for many student athletes. For University of California Santa Cruz student Athena Del Rosario, making the decision to play as goalkeeper for her college women’s soccer team for all four years while hiding a huge part of her identity as a transgender woman from all but a select few was indeed difficult.
After completing her college athletic career this past year, Del Rosario decided to come out to her teammates and fellow students in a very public way. Publishing an article on “Outsports”—a website devoted to information on LGBTQ athletes—Del Rosario described her experiences as a “stealth” trans woman playing soccer unbeknown to those that played against and alongside her. “I wish I could have went on and just been their teammate…that I was in the future where trans people were already accepted in sports,” Del Rosario said. “Not their trans teammate. I just wish it wasn’t necessary for me to have to do that but I felt like it was.”
Since her story published in early June, the Environmental Studies major has seen an outpouring of support from both her teammates and others looking to make the lives of trans athletes better, as well as come into the role of a visible transgender activist. “Someone has to do it,” she says. “If people aren’t going to come out and be visible, then we are never going to go anywhere.”
As Athena saw other teammates that didn’t conform to traditional gender expression face hatred and harassment from others on the sidelines, it only solidified her decision to keep her secret from everyone but her coaches. Had transgender athletes and the controversies surrounding their eligibilities not been such a “hot topic” as the years went on, Del Rosario would have been content to never come out as a trans woman athlete. After seeing the reactions from anti-trans people in response to Texas high school transgender wrestler Mack Beggs, which made national headlines, Del Rosario felt prompted to do something about the injustice she was seeing. “Here I am, an adult that has been playing secretly and just enjoying it the whole time,” she said. “And there’s this high school student taking the brunt of everyone’s vitriol and hatred of trans people, kind of just standing in the face of it all. [It] really inspired me.”
In addition to the controversy surrounding Beggs, Del Rosario feels as though her difficult experience through the recruitment process, with no previous trans woman athlete to look to for guidance, was a large part of her reason for coming out not only to her teammates, but to the world as a whole. “There are a lot of trans men athletes that have been coming out, and that’s really great,” she says, “but not really many trans women, especially from the college level. I didn’t have that opportunity to ask about the experiences of trans women athletes, and I think people deserve that opportunity.”
Shortly following publication of her story on “Outsports,” Del Rosario was contacted by the Department of Education as a part of an effort to understand the needs of trans athletes and what can be done to help them succeed and fully participate. Since then, she has become a point of contact for the department as they attempt to craft a “blanket policy” for transgender student athletes, using her experiences to shed light on some of the roadblocks that many still face. “I think they’re kind of understanding that it’s not a simple one-size-fits-all policy that you can put down and it’s going to make everyone’s life easier. There’s no way that they’re going to make everyone happy,” she says. But that won’t stop her from continuing to help provide perspective and guidance for the department, as they attempt to enact these policies in a political climate that needs them.
Embracing her newly found platform for trans athletes, Del Rosario was recently invited to the Outsports’ Evening of LGBT Sports Storytelling event during Denver Pride as a speaker. Sharing her story with a room full of LGBT people that mostly identified as cisgender was difficult for her, but necessary, as she said a lot of work needs to be done still in the gay and lesbian community for more inclusivity of others. “It’s very intimidating to be talking about this kind of stuff,” Del Rosario says. “It was a good story to share and just me being there was a good thing; just having a trans woman athlete presence in the room might encourage others to come next year.”
On Playing Soccer
Soccer has always been a part of Del Rosario’s life, as she began playing on boys’ teams in youth soccer at the age of 6, and eventually moved on to high school boys’ junior varsity. Beginning her secret transition from male to female in high school by finding and taking hormones from wherever she could, Del Rosario began playing on women’s teams from her senior year on. “People were much meaner back then,” she says. “It sucks when you’re going through it, but the fact that there are actually kids transitioning in high school now will show you the amount of progress that’s been made.”
Many years later, after transitioning and presenting her authentic self through her gender expression, Del Rosario started school at Los Angeles Valley College. Knowing she wanted to play college soccer, Del Rosario struggled with the recruiting process and the roadblocks that trans athletes experience when trying out for any team. “They had never had a trans athlete before that they knew of,” she says, “and I was kind of scared because I didn’t really have anyone to go to…I had no one to ask what their experience was like.”
Transferring to UCSC after two years of community college soccer, she reached out to Helen Carroll, the co-creator of the NCAA Transgender Handbook, and found someone to help her through the process of recruitment for an NCAA athlete. Having to provide evidence of hormone usage for more than a year, as well as tests showing that her testosterone levels were in the normal female range, were just some of the requirements that Athena had to meet that her other teammates did not.
“It was very confusing,” says Del Rosario. “Even for me, who’s been through college—I’m not a freshman coming out of high school—I know my way through the education system. I can only imagine a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old trying to be a freshman and come play and try to figure out all this on their own; it’s tough.”
Her Future in Sports
Though her career playing college soccer has come to an end, Del Rosario is still looking forward to opportunities in sports as she finishes her last year in school. Not only is she going to assist with the coaching of new goalkeepers for the UCSC’s upcoming season, but she also coaches younger players in camps and workshops. The Bay Area’s Premiere Soccer League is also another avenue that could potentially continue her goalkeeping career outside of college.
Recently, Del Rosario was also contacted by USA Team Handball to try out for a position in the next few months, though she has never played the sport before. “If I don’t make the team at least I can say I was invited to try out for an Olympic team,” she says. “Just going and trying out for an Olympic team as a trans person is progress.”
No matter what her future brings, Olympian or not, Del Rosario will always continue to better the lives of trans and non-trans athletes alike. “I just want to see that anybody who identifies as trans is able to participate in sports and athletics if they want to, without being harassed or intimidated. Everyone deserves to be able to play. I think it should be fair for everybody, and non-trans people as well. Fairness goes both ways.”