For Madisan DeBos, cross-country and track runs in the family.
Growing up, she remembers standing on the sidelines as her mom, an All-American athlete who ran in college, competed in races in their hometown of Bolivar, Ohio. She remembers when, as a kindergartener, she begged her mom to be allowed to run her first five-mile race.
“I saw the love she had for running, and I wanted to give it a try,” DeBos said. “And as soon as I did, that love was just instant.”
Becoming a runner came with its own set of challenges, however. According to DeBos, distance runners like herself must distinguish between pushing themselves to the limit and going too far.
“That’s just how distance running is, especially for females,” she said. “You’re really always walking that line.”
During her freshman year at Southern Utah State University, DeBos unexpectedly encountered a challenge beyond anything she had experienced before.
“It was the 2020 indoor track season, and I was in the distance medley relay, which was the first time I had run in the same race as a transgender athlete,” she said.
The athlete, whom DeBos and her teammates recognized, had competed on a rival team for three years as a male. Now, he was returning to the event to race in the women’s division.
“At that point, you kind of know that you’re racing for second,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s not fair. You don’t stand a chance.”
According to DeBos, as soon they realized what was going on, there was a collective sense of defeat among her teammates. The male athlete took his team from 6th place to 2nd place in the last leg of the medley relay, and would have won, if not for a warning from his coach.
“In just one mile, the athlete moved all the way up to third place,” she said. “Then the coach yelled ‘slow down!’ The athlete moved up to second and finished in second.”
DeBos’s team regularly practiced with the men’s team, so she was very familiar with the differences between what male and female athletes could achieve.
“Our training is so different – the girls’ team could never do what the guys’ team does,” DeBos said. “We’ll do the same workouts, but they’ll do significantly more reps than us, and the times they have to do it in are significantly faster.”
Not only did DeBos’s teammates know that winning would be impossible against the male athlete, his presence disrupted the whole atmosphere of the meet.
“Nobody was focused on what running is or should be,” she said. “It wasn’t a good atmosphere because so many people were upset about the situation.”
The athlete is now out of eligibility, so DeBos and her teammates will not have to race this individual again. However, the experience inspired her to speak out about the broader issues that result from allowing biological men to compete with women. Her teammates have rallied around her, and she said that her coaches, friends, and family have been very supportive.
“In order for us to make a change, in order for us to save women’s sports, we all have to come together and use our voices as one,” DeBos said. “That’s how we’re going to make a difference.”