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The Athletic Supporter: Courage on the mat

Two weeks ago, in an unassuming gym in Cleveland, Ohio, Donna Rosen broke a barrier when she stepped onto the mat at the U.S. Open Women’s Freestyle Wrestling Championship.

She made history not because she was a cancer survivor, or because she was 51 years old, or even because 30 years had passed since her last competitive wrestling match at the 1970 Canadian Olympic Trials.

No, Rosen made history that day because a little over 10 years ago, she completed the transition from a male to a female. On Friday, April 23rd, Donna Rosen (who goes by 'Donna Rose' but is still legally registered as Rosen) became the first transsexual woman to compete in a mainstream, nationally sanctioned wrestling event.

It was a moment that broke a barrier. A moment filled with the emotion of a life come full circle. It was a moment that was to be the payoff of an incredible investment of money, determination and sweat. It was a moment dreamt about for years, and in the hours before it was to finally become real, because word had gotten out about who Rosen used to be, it was a moment that almost never happened.

About Donna
Donna used to be Dave, and quite frankly Dave was a stud. A champion wrestler in Canada, his female self was kept hidden deep down inside, in part so Dave could enjoy and excel at the sport he loved.

“One of the misconceptions about transsexuals,” Rosen told SDGLN in a candid interview, “is that before their transition they have this inherent femininity that comes out in everything that you do. That wasn’t me. I was a middle linebacker, I was a bouncer, and I wrestled.”

Years later, after leaving wrestling behind, Dave would meet someone, become a father and live a life in conflict until he just couldn’t anymore. About 10 years ago, Donna completed her transition and now lives openly as a transgender woman. She is an author, a prolific blogger, a single parent, and an IT consultant.

Returning to Wrestling
Twenty-five years after her last match and now fully transitioned, Rosen wanted to return to the sport she had loved since childhood. She was resolved to find the time to train and even found the perfect outlet, the Gay Games in Chicago in 2006.

What she couldn’t find was a place to train, people to train with or who would train her. “Wrestling has changed a lot,” Rosen said. “The rules have changed, the strategies, everything. I needed to be brought up to date.”

Rosen was looking around her local area for a place where an adult woman could be trained but had little luck.

Road To Chicago
After some research, Rosen came across a wrestling community in the San Francisco Bay Area by and for the LGBT community, the Golden Gate Wrestling Club.

There she found friends, camaraderie and competition, but with men. She continued to train, became acquainted with the changes in the sport, and felt ready when it was time to go to the Second City.

But when she got there, she was disappointed. She found only one woman listed in her weight class who promptly withdrew to compete in a higher weight class after catching a glimpse of Rosen.

“I won the gold medal,” she said, “but it was by default. I didn’t have anybody to wrestle, and that was why I went.” The committee, wanting to make sure everyone got a chance to wrestle at least exhibition matches, pitted her against a couple of men in higher weight classes.

She didn’t get to wrestle in a match that mattered and she didn’t get to wrestle against a woman, but Donna Rosen got to wrestle, and she got to wrestle as herself. The fire was rekindled.

A Setback
When Rosen celebrated a milestone birthday, she received devastating news.

“I learned when I turned 50, I had a malignant melanoma, a very serious form of skin cancer,” she said.
Rather than being devastated by this deadly disease that takes a serious toll, Rosen battled. “I felt stronger than ever that this was just another challenge.”

Once the serious treatments were over, Rosen wanted back on the mat.

She contacted her local, mainstream wrestling groups and this time found a coach willing to train her as a private student.

Coach Melvin Douglas
Melvin Douglas, two time Olympian and a former U.S. Men’s champion is by any measure, a bad ass.

When he agreed to train her, Coach Douglas asked Rosen very simply what her goals were. She answered:

1. Compete in a tournament
2. Wrestle against other women
3. Walk out onto the mat feeling prepared and ready
4. Win a match

Coach Douglas’ response was to search for a tournament an adult woman could compete in. The only thing coming up was the Asics U.S. Freestyle Wrestling Championship in Cleveland, in 6 weeks.

Even though it had been 30 years since she’d wrestled a match that counted, and even with only 6 weeks to train, and even though she wasn’t entirely sure a transgender woman would even be allowed to compete against other women, Rosen went all in. “Let’s do it,” she told her coach.

“I would train twice a week,” Rosen said. “I would pay him, he’d beat up on me and eventually he had other people beat up on me. Just like any wrestler and coach.”

But this wasn’t just any wrestler and it wasn’t just any coach. In fact, just how unique a wrestler Rosen was, she hadn’t yet confided in Coach Douglas and wasn’t sure she was going to. Then something happened - and forced the issue.

“None of his other students were going to Nationals,” she said, “so he offered to be in my corner and be there to help me navigate the tournament brackets and be prepared. It was an incredible gesture.”

That offer forced Rosen’s hand. “I felt it important for him to have all the information before he made that decision,” she said. At their next training, Rosen brought with her pictures, from 30 years ago, and her original birth certificate.

Not Just Any Coach
After practice, Rosen sat her coach down and said “I want to show you some pictures.”

She showed him a picture of her son, a picture of Dave holding his son as a toddler and of Dave winning a wrestling match. “'That’s me,’ I said.”

Rosen said Coach Douglas sat there for a minute, looked at the pictures and said, “A. I already knew. B. It doesn’t change what’s in your heart and so far as I’m concerned, we’re good to go."

“Then he gave me a hug,” Rosen said.

Glory Robbed
Coach Douglas has a remarkable sense of right and wrong that is perhaps unique in the hyper-masculine sport of wrestling. An incident in 1993 might have helped shape it.

At the ’93 U.S. National Championships, Melvin Douglas was wrestling in the finals. Neither he nor his opponent was successful in earning a pin, so the close match would be decided by points. An officiating error incorrectly awarded 2 points to Douglas’ opponent he did not earn, costing Douglas the match. Some months later, Douglas was notified by tournament officials a review of the video-tape uncovered the error and that the results of the match had been overturned. Douglas had won.

But rather than having his hand raised by an official, and instead of standing on a podium to the cheers of the crowd - the things a wrestler the caliber of Douglas lives for - his belt was mailed to him, at home.

“They stole my glory,” he would tell an interviewer more than 10 years later.

The Nationals
The U.S. Open Women’s Freestyle Championships brings out the best-of-the-best. Including Iris Smith, a four time national champion, who Rosen describes as a machine and who just happened to be in her draw.

Winning a match wasn’t going to be easy, and that was one of Rosen’s goals.

The Weigh-Ins, and the Moment that Almost Wasn’t
“I stuck out like a sore thumb at the weigh-in” Rosen said. “Here were all these girls, half my age, or more and here I am, this 51 year old woman.”

Rosen said her singular presence led to real curiosity and more than a few Google searches.

Not knowing what to expect, Rosen was prepared for whatever eventuality came her way. “I’m easy to find on the web,” she said. “I have a blog, a book and I have detailed my journey on my website, complete with pictures.

“I wasn’t there hiding. I didn’t self-disclose [my transgender status] on the application, but there’s not exactly an MtF box, is there?” Rosen said.

A little more than an hour before she was to wrestle, Coach Douglas came to her and said some of the women at the meet had found her website and knew her status.

“’What do we do now?’ I asked. ‘Keep stretching and getting ready. I have a meeting about it soon and I’ll tell you how it goes,’” she recounted. Coach Douglas was not going to let Rosen’s glory be robbed.

What happened in that meeting would decide a lot; for the future of wrestling, for Donna Rosen’s life and for her quest to re-live the love of her sport.

“Wrestling isn’t something you do,” she said. “It’s something you are. You are a wrestler.”

Rosen said, “I had gone through blood testing. I had tested my testosterone levels. I knew what my estrogen levels were. I knew there was nothing physiologically that gave me any kind of advantage [being born a man].”

Coach Douglas came back from that historic meeting a little while later and told his unlikely pupil she was “good to go.”

And just like that, the competition committee at the U.S. Open Women’s Freestyle Championships opened the door for transgender athletes to compete against other athletes in their reassigned genders, and when Donna Rosen stepped on to the mat a few moments later, history was made.

The Moment That Was
Just because she had won in a committee meeting, didn’t mean she was automatically going to win on the mat. She still had to do what she came for, wrestle in a match that mattered.

Her first opponent was Paloma Basulto, who just three years ago wrestled in the Juniors circuit and had placed 4th in a statewide competition. Rosen had an opponent less than half her age, who was younger than her son, and who excelled at gritty, in-your-face competition.

Rosen was the underdog.

From the moment of the opening whistle, though, Rosen took command of the match and shortly more than a minute later, on the southern shore of Lake Erie, a referee’s hand pounded the mat, signaling a pin. Seconds later, that referee raised the arm of a 51 year old transgendered cancer survivor in victory.

“When I won that match,” Rosen said, “it was a sense of euphoria, relief and accomplishment unlike anything else that I have ever experienced. It made it all worthwhile. And because I did it as Donna, it was the most honest I have ever been on the mat.”

Rosen lost her next three matches, including against Iris Smith, a 4-time U.S. champion.

And she’s ok with that.

“I didn’t need to be the best. I didn’t need to be #1. My biggest opponent going into this match wasn’t Iris Smith, it wasn’t the people sitting there at the scoring tables. My biggest opponent was my heart, and between my ears, and those are opponents I know I can vanquish.

“This is a quest about Donna," Rosen said, reflecting on the moment. "It’s not a gay rights quest, a transgender quest, an AARP quest. I wanted to come back to this sport that I had loved as a child that had become part of my fiber."

Even though she only won one match, coupled with her performance in the other three matches, her victory earned Rosen a berth in the World Team Trials in 4 weeks. The Trials will determine who earns a spot on the U.S. team heading to Moscow for the World Championships, which could lead to the Olympics in 2012.

But that’s way down the road and Rosen hasn’t decided yet if she’s competing at the Trials. While it’s an honor she doesn’t take lightly, she has practical considerations to think about.

“I spent a lot of money on my face, to make it look a certain way, and the last thing I need is someone to put my nose where my ear should be,” she said.

Here is a link to Donna's quarterfinal match on Youtube.

Roman Jimenez is the sports columnist for SDGLN. He is an award-winning journalist who spent most of his career covering crime and politics. After burning out, he became a media consultant for high profile science and technology companies as the founder of The Media Prose. Belying his massive frame, Roman's skills as an athlete are well known, playing tennis and softball regularly with all the quickness and agility of a pregnant rhinoceros. As a result, Roman has covered sports in our community for various outlets off and on for 10 years.