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    8 Transgender Athletes Explain How Fitness And Movement Changed Their Lives

    Transgender people face a particular set of challenges when it comes to spaces where people exercise and compete. Here, eight athletes tell BuzzFeed Life about their experiences with fitness, movement, and competition.

    1. The yogi

    Danh Duong Photography / Via

    "Every time I practice yoga I am choosing to be happy and healthy." —Sparkle Thornton

    Sparkle Thornton, 33, is a yoga instructor and massage therapist who lives in the Bay Area. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, she started practicing yoga when she was 19 and became an instructor at age 25. This March she’s leading Yogay, a yoga retreat in California for queer and transgender people. Thornton shares how her yoga practice helped her realize that she wanted to transition, and how, almost 15 years since she started, yoga continues to be her source of emotional well-being and self-care.

    When I started practicing yoga it started to really come up that I wanted to transition. Of course it was in there all along, the desire was there. I didn’t have the words for it but I knew that I wanted to grow up and be female when I was 5 years old. Yoga has this way of stirring things up, like whatever has been buried and whatever the things are that we are trying to ignore. For me that was that I was trans. It helped me to feel comfortable in my body. I really think yoga is why I’m still alive and why I’m happy and thriving now.

    For me [practicing yoga] has always been mental health. I feel so much more able to face the world when I’ve practiced yoga. I don’t really trust myself to make good decisions until after I’ve done yoga. If I’m really worried about something or feeling impatient it’s probably because I haven’t practiced. It keeps my state of mind open and aware of what might be unfolding that I don’t have control over. So for me it feels like necessity. If I don’t do it, I suffer.

    2. The running CrossFitter

    Ben Pender-Cudlip

    "I am actively in search of my body’s limits and I don’t think I’ve found them yet." —Niki Brown

    Originally from Iowa, Niki Brown, 30, is a web developer who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He grew up running track and cross country and playing soccer. He’s still a runner — a half-marathoner and, since last year, a marathoner. He also competes in local fitness competitions. He tells BuzzFeed Life about how his transition impacted his mental toughness and his connection to his body.

    I definitely think transitioning has made me stronger mentally. Some of the stuff I’ve had to deal with — people not handling it well, family members not talking to me — I have to get past it, deal with it, get stronger. I think that translates to the mental toughness of [running a marathon]: "OK, I have to be running for four hours and when your knee hurts saying nope, turn it off. Keep going."

    My whole life I felt disconnected from my body, so working out helps with that.

    I don’t even know if I have the words to accurately describe it. ... It’s difficult to put into words. I am still getting used to being connected to my body in that way.

    3. The MMA fighter

    Rhys Harper / Via Facebook: transcendinggenderproject

    "My strengths right now are my determination and my will." —Fallon Fox

    Fallon Fox, 39, is the first professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter to come out as transgender. Initially interested in learning martial arts for self-protection, she started training Brazilian jiujitsu in late 2007, picked up Muy Thai a couple years later, and less than a year after that started training in MMA, in which opponents fight using a variety of styles from Brazilian jiujitsu and Muy Thai to wrestling, judo, and kickboxing. She will be featured in Game Face, a documentary about LGBTQ athletes, set to be released this year. She talks about getting inspired to learn MMA by watching other women fighters, what happened when UFC host Joe Rogan made public comments about her gender identity, and how professional competition can be more inclusive of transgender fighters.

    The thing that inspired me the most was other female fighters, these older style fighters before women’s MMA became popular. I was blown away because women were actually fighting. They were letting women fight. I’d never seen that intensity, that assertiveness, that skill. ... I felt I needed that for my own assertiveness. I felt I was lacking that for my own self-protection.

    [It would help trans people if] promotions [the organizations that produce MMA matches] hire trans fighters. Or they can punish their employees and fighters who say transphobic comments and slurs. That would help us out the most, promoting the perception of reality that we are who we say we are. I suppose it should be looked at like this. [When MMA celebrities] say transphobic comments, they kind of set the pace for the kind of negativity that fans might have. They stir it up. They light the fire under it. When [UFC host] Joe Rogan said those comments, the fans would come to me online or while I'm fighting and say they heard it from Joe Rogan. That affected me in the beginning. It affected me a lot. I wasn’t used to that. I had to get used to having names yelled at me while I was trying to do my job.

    4. The track star turned weightlifter

    5. The CrossFit coach and competitor

    6. The martial artist and bodybuilding enthusiast

    7. The fitness coach

    8. The triathlete and trans activist

    Interviews have been edited for space.

    Niki Brown competes in local fitness competitions. The original post mistakenly said he competes in local CrossFit competitions.

    The events described related to Chloie Jonsson all took place in 2013; rather than having qualified for the 2013 CrossFit Games, Jonsson was, she says, invited by a team to join them as an alternate. And, according to her lawsuit complaint, it was actually in spring 2013 that she was told by CrossFit Games general manager Justin Bergh that competitors must register under their original gender. CrossFit’s general counsel later confirmed that she would “need to compete in the Men’s Division.” An earlier version of the post mistakenly said it was the 2014 CrossFit Games Regionals, that Jonsson qualified for a highly competitive spot as a team alternate, and that it was at that time that CrossFit HQ told her she’d have to compete in the men’s division.