Coaching Management, 14.8, September 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1408/bbglbt.htm
When Jennifer Hartshorn became Head Coach of the women’s track and field program at Bates College in August 2005, she expected to face some new challenges. One of them, however, would have been new for almost any coach: The most decorated athlete on the team wanted to become a man. At the end of the 2004-05 school year, thrower Kelly Godsey, a perennial NCAA Division III All-American, decided she wanted to identify as a male. Over the summer, she changed her name to Keelin and asked then-Athletics Director Suzanne Coffey that the school use the new name and the pronoun “he” in bios, press releases, and other references. The senior also asked to use a separate section of the women’s locker room.
Following the request, Coffey, now Athletic Director at Amherst College, spent the summer consulting with the NCAA and the Center for Drug Free Sport to explore potential legal and competitive issues. Because Godsey would not begin taking male hormone treatments, he was deemed to have no competitive advantage. Though he preferred to be identified as a man, from a competitive standpoint, Godsey was still categorized as a woman.
Hartshorn’s first step was to address the issue openly with her team. At a preseason meeting in August, she introduced herself, described her expectations for the season, and then told the athletes that one of their teammates wanted to say something. “Keelin got up and basically said, ‘This is what I’m doing, and this is what I’d like to be called,’” says Hartshorn. “He also told his teammates they could come to him at any time to talk, and that he didn’t mind questions.”
Godsey extended the same offer to Hartshorn, and the coach immediately took her star athlete up on it. “We probably talked for an hour and a half,” says Godsey. “I asked him everything I thought someone might ask me about the situation. I wasn’t ever going to give up Keelin’s secrets, but I really wanted to understand why he made this choice so I could best help him down the road.”
Next Hartshorn addressed the situation with the coaches she’d be competing against. While attending the annual New England Small College Athletic Conference track and field coaches meeting in December, she told her peers about Godsey’s situation, and NESCAC coaches voiced unanimous support for Godsey.
Dealing with the media was the next challenge. When the season began, the Bates Sports Information Department began publishing press releases and other department materials using Godsey’s new first name and referring to him using male pronouns. Slowly, word of Godsey’s changes began to circulate among the local media. Having decided earlier to limit media attention, Bates made Godsey available for only one interview, with a long-time local newspaper reporter who covered the track and field team.
Hartshorn also prepped the rest of her team for dealing with questions from reporters. “We told athletes they could say what they wanted, but that it was also fine to tell a reporter, ‘I’m at a track meet, and this isn’t what I want to talk about right now. I’m here to get ready for my race and support my teammates,’” she says. “That approach worked really well.”
Even with these measures, it was impossible to completely control how the media handled the subject, and one article in particular proved painful. Though Godsey had declined to be interviewed, The Boston Globe published a story that included interviews with Godsey’s family about Keelin’s gender struggles growing up.
“The Boston Globe article was really the hardest part of all this, because Keelin did not want it written, and he didn’t want anybody to talk to his parents and dig into his past,” says Hartshorn. “He gave the one interview to the local paper and really wanted that to be the end of it.”
Despite that bump in the road, the season went very smoothly, and Hartshorn credits Godsey for much of the success. “It helped that he was already an established part of our team before his request, and that he went above and beyond to stay connected with his teammates—something that’s rare in this sport’s elite athletes, let alone someone going through the changes Keelin was,” says Hartshorn. “Keelin was really into helping his teammates and that made it easy.”
Godsey ended his career at Bates as a 16-time All-American and was named to the Division III Silver Anniversary Team for the hammer throw by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. In May, Godsey won his second consecutive Division III national championship in the hammer throw, breaking his own meet record with a throw of 206 feet, 5 inches. Having graduated in May, Godsey has his sights set on competing at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials.
But more important than any records was Godsey’s comfort level following his decision. “Keelin seemed very happy this year,” Hartshorn says. “This was something he really needed to do for his peace of mind.”
As for making it work at an institutional level, Hartshorn says the key for Bates was being proactive at the outset. “It’s important that coaches realize that this can happen,” she says, “and that with a little preparation, it doesn’t have to be a big deal.
“Every day, athletes ask me to do things for them and compared to most of those requests, this really wasn’t that big of a request,” Hartshorn adds. “But at the same time, honoring it meant a lot to Keelin.”