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Switching gears

Michael wanted to be a woman. O.K. Michelle (né Michael) wanted to be a female downhill racer. Fine. Then Michelle started winning races. Uh-oh.

By Susan Reifer

For more from Sports Illustrated Women, check out our November issue, on newsstands now.

Michelle Dumaresq, 32, is a newcomer to the international downhill mountain-biking circuit. Even so, the Canadian's 24th-place finish at the 2002 World Championship in Kaprun, Austria, on Aug. 31 was a hotter topic of conversation than Frenchwoman Anne-Caroline Chausson's seventh-straight world downhill victory. You see, Dumaresq -- who finished 54.7 seconds off the lead mark -- used to be a man.

"I don't go around waving a flag, but people talk, and I don't really blame them for it," says Dumaresq, who suffered from gender dysphoria (a condition in which a person feels he or she is the wrong gender) until initiating hormone treatment at the age of 21 and finalizing her sex change with surgery at 26. "It's not everyday kind of news, right?"

If some of her Canadian teammates (all of whom she dusted quite handily in Kaprun) had their way, she wouldn't be in the news at all -- at least not in the ranks of pro cycling.

"At my first race of the year I got third," says Dumaresq, a Vancouver-area native who rode motocross as a boy named Michael, then transitioned to free-riding the renowned single-track of British Columbia's North Shore as a woman before taking up downhill racing in 2001.

"The next race I came in first by 10 seconds. It was my first win as a pro. All of a sudden everyone freaked out."

Some other racers -- led by top Canadian downhillers Sylvie Allen and Cassandra Boon, with whom Dumaresq had frequently ridden over the preceding two years -- circulated a protest form at the finish line, requesting that the event results be rendered null and void due to Dumaresq's involvement.

"I was beside myself," says the soft-spoken, easy-smiling Dumaresq. "Their complaints are the height of poor sportsmanship."

The race commissioner rejected the request. The reason was simple. Even though the governing bodies of downhill bike racing had suspended Dumaresq's competitor's license during the 2001 season pending further review, in April of this year her license was reinstated with no restrictions.

"She is legally a woman," says the Canadian Cycling Association's Pierre Hutsebaut, echoing the 1977 New York State Supreme Court decision that granted transsexual Renée Richards the right to play tennis in the women's division at the U.S. Open.

But Allen persisted. She drafted a petition asserting that Dumaresq had an unfair advantage over "natural women" and should be either banned from the professional racing circuit or relegated to a new, "transgender" category. In late June some of Dumaresq's teammates took their protest to the World Cup at Mount St. Anne, Que. -- but their complaints fell flat.

In the meantime Dumaresq won an event in the Canada Cup series, beating her nearest competitor by 17 seconds, which secured her a spot on the national team that would compete in the world championship in Austria.

"The [World Cup] women are self-confident, they're amazing bike riders, and they were not intimidated by me at all," says Dumaresq. "They took this opinion of, Bring it on, let's see what she's got!"

According to medical experts, Dumaresq has no more physical advantage than any one female athlete might have over another. "The advantage that males have comes from testosterone and higher levels of hemoglobin," says Louis Gooren, M.D., one of the world's leading experts on endocrinology, gender and transsexuals.

The testosterone generates larger muscle mass and greater muscle strength; the hemoglobin allows the blood to carry more oxygen. But after hormone treatment and removal of the male sexual organs, testosterone and hemoglobin levels drop, and the advantages diminish.

As it happens, the International Olympic Committee recently abandoned its long-standing policy of gender-testing women athletes to verify their sex because scientists are so far unable to find one single biological indicator that proves in all cases that a woman is really a woman.

As many as one in 500 women do not have standard XX chromosomes. Women with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, for example, have the XY chromosomes of men but the identities, bodies, external sexual organs (albeit infertile ones) and athletic prowess of women. Then there are the women with seemingly "normal" female bodies who have a mosaic chromosome pattern: XXY.

Women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia have a standard XX chromosome pattern but adrenal glands that produce an excessive amount of male hormones, which could give them a distinct athletic advantage. At the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996 eight female athletes reportedly had this condition -- and were approved for competition.

"The idea of a natural woman is not a real category," says Suzanne Kessler, Ph.D., and author of two books on sex and gender. "These people who are saying they are 'natural women' have a naive view. What this issue forces us to grapple with is the question of what it means to have a natural advantage or disadvantage. And there are many reasons why someone could be advantaged. They could afford lessons. They could afford a better bike. My guess is if [Dumaresq] has an advantage it's because she was raised as a male. Being treated as a male, even if you never felt like one, leaves you with a higher level of confidence."

"I am mentally capable of going fast," says Dumaresq, but she doesn't attribute that advantage to gender. Quite the opposite. Beyond losing much of her testosterone, 30% of her muscle mass, some bone density, three inches of height (through shrinkage of her vertebral discs, she now stands 5'9") and lots of her former endurance and strength, Dumaresq has found that her approach to risky situations has changed.

"I find myself thinking about things before I do them," she says. "Guys have this unique risk-taking ability that comes with testosterone. They deal with consequences after. Women always examine the consequences beforehand, analyze them and then take a calculated risk. I think that's the biggest difference between how I used to be and how I am now."

That said, Dumaresq intends to stay in the game. "I love racing, and I'm good at it," she says. "I never set out to change the world or anything. I just want to race a bike."

For more from Sports Illustrated Women, check out our November issue, on newsstands now.