CHELSEA WOLFE: I'm motivated by the same things that would motivate any Olympic hopeful to try so hard for this. But then there's also that aspect of like, by doing what I'm doing, I am being the person that I needed to see when I was younger to show myself that who I am is okay.
This is Game Changer, a series from Death, Sex & Money about how the lives and livelihoods of American athletes have been upended this year. I'm Anna Sale.
Chelsea Wolfe has been riding BMX freestyle since she was a teenager growing up in Florida. And she's got the battle scars to prove it.
CW: I had an accident where I flipped over the handlebars smashed out my front six teeth, crushed my jaw, split my lip in two places, broke my nose, and fractured a vertebrae in my neck. I also have metal rods throughout my left leg. The injuries in our sport are kind of unreal, like it's definitely a tough thing to get yourself over the fear of especially as, you know, when you're in your mid-twenties, you start to just naturally develop a sense of self-preservation that you didn't have when you were younger.
Chelsea is 27 now. I talked with her from her condo near West Palm Beach where she lives today, not far from where she grew up. We talked midday, before it was cool enough for her to get back out on the ramps at the local skate park where she normally trains.
CW: It's just like an open-to-the-public regular skate park. There's no special training facility that I go to or anything.
AS: When you show up are you a park celebrity? Are people like, "There she is!"?
CW: [laughs] It kind of depends. Honestly, it's funny because I've found that a lot of the local skateboarders have been just super stoked on what I'm doing. And like, we're all friends and stuff but they like just kind of jokingly are like, "Oh, there's the pro." That sort of thing.
AS: That's cool.
CW: And there's definitely some little kids in the area that I'll show up at the park and I'll hear them being like, "She's the one that's going for the Olympics!"
COMPETITION ANNOUNCER: Chelsea Wolfe up the vert ramp. Yo! Bonking that back tire on top of the coping! Talk about bike control!
Chelsea is an official member of the 2020 Cycling National Team. And before the pandemic postponed this year's Summer Olympics, she was working toward earning a spot to compete in the first-ever BMX Freestyle events there. That meant traveling to qualifying competitions all over the world like this one, last year's BMX Freestyle World Cup in Japan.
COMPETITION ANNOUNCER: What! This is what we're looking for. Beautiful 360! Almost clicking a turndown...
And it meant daily training while also juggling a part-time job at a grocery store.
CW: From a financial standpoint, if I have some hours in the morning why wouldn't I spend that generating more income? A typical day I would wake up pretty early, work the morning shift, and then when I got home I would usually rest for a bit, eat something, and then get my heart rate going with some cardio training, and then either follow that with some strength training or usually going to the park to practice tricks and stuff.
AS: And tell me a trick that you feel really proud that you have learned how to land.
CW: There's a handful that I just didn't really expect that I would learn someday. One of them, it's called a 360 turndown. That involves you and your bike spinning around in a 360-degree rotation. As you're spinning, you do another trick called the turndown which it's a little difficult to explain, but you end up in a position where you're hanging off the front of the bike, the bike is straight up and down, and your handlebars are twisted around completely backwards. So it's a really incredible combination. It looks cool. It feels really cool. And it's just one of those tricks that growing up I was like, that's wild! But I don't understand how it works. And then I just started trying it, and after a while, it started to work for me.
AS: And for you, I'm curious, like when I think of BMX Freestyle I think both, of kind of - it's a little punk rock and it's also probably really bro-ey? So like... am I right?
CW: Yeah. You really nailed it. It's definitely a counterculture thing. It's something that the weird kids do. It's like, if you're too weird for the football team, you ride skateboards, if you're too weird for skateboards, you get a BMX bike.
CW: [Laughs] So it has its roots in counterculture movements, but it also, at the same time, it does have very bro-ey parts of it. You know, if you grow up as a young boy in BMX Freestyle, you see this future for yourself where you can go to the X Games, you can compete in the Dew Tour. There's all of these other contests that you can set your sights on and have a reason to be just risking your neck to work so hard to learn all these death-defying tricks. Growing up as a woman in BMX, it's like you don't really get that opportunity to see a future for yourself and doing it professionally. And then as soon as they said the Olympics are involved, it just changed the game for all of us.
AS: When did you start thinking, "I bet I can be an Olympic athlete in this sport"?
CW: They announced that our sport would be added to the Olympics in 2016. And right as soon as they announced it, I was like, I'm going for it. I don't know how it's going to end up. None of us even knew what the qualification process to even go to the Olympics would be. I'm not even sure if we knew that there would only be nine spots available for our entire sport for each gender class, but it was basically just as soon as they announced it, a lot of us were like, "This is what I'm dedicating my life to for the next four years." Training became serious. Learning tricks became serious. There was actually a reason to really dedicate your life and make sacrifices to go for a BMX career because it was an opportunity that was now available to us that wasn't before.
AS: What was it like for you to realize the games this summer were in jeopardy?
CW: I know what was really tough for me is that I spent from 2016 to 2018 just purely training and then doing the behind the scenes work of getting all of my paperwork in order and documentation to get even get a competition license. It wasn't until December of 2018 that I was able to enter my first contest. You know, most competitors all you have to do really is just have a passport and then contact your National Federation to get a license. I had to go through all sorts of medical testing to document that I met the criteria to be eligible for competition as a trans woman. So meeting that criteria takes a good chunk of time and proving, like having the medical records to prove that you do and the legal documents to prove that you do, took a lot of time to get in order.
AS: Can you tell me what that was like for you? What did you have to get paperwork documenting, and what were those conversations like when you were scheduling those doctor's appointments?
CW: The biggest thing was making sure that my testosterone in serum was at the time below 10 nanomoles per liter. The doctor's appointments were basically just getting blood tests to prove that I did have my testosterone below 10 nanomoles per liter in serum for a year and then maintain it at that level prior to my first competition. So getting the records all into one place and basically getting the ducks in a row was a lot of organizing and just extra work that I had to do before I could even apply for a license.
AS: Did you make some buddies at your doctor's office? If you were going in so regularly, did they know what you were getting your blood drawn for?
CW: So at first I was going to a different doctor's office and my experience with them was absolutely horrific. I switched to a different doctor's office a few years ago and they've been fantastic. I'm pretty sure a few of them have watched my competitions.
AS: That's cool!
CW: [Laughs] It's neat. They're definitely in support and excited about what I'm working for. I have to get tested. I think it's like every three months. They just say regularly enough to where there's no doubts whether or not your testosterone is fluctuating. So my first full season competing was 2019. And I got this like wonderful taste of like, to compete on the professional level and travel the world, and have all these wonderful experiences. And then right as soon as things start to look great, just boom, coronavirus happens and everything is shut down and postponed. At the time, they were even saying that the Olympics would be canceled, that they wouldn't even postpone them.
AS: What sets of emotions came up for you as you were realizing just how different this year was going to be than what you had expected?
CW: For the past four years of my life, this is what has given my life purpose and just, you know, it's your reason to get out of bed in the morning, like what drives you. To have that taken and put on hold indefinitely, it was really difficult to figure out like, "Okay, well, what am I going to do now?" I know we're going to keep working for this year, but all of these things in my life that I cultivated to bring joy, like traveling, and competing, and accomplishing things, and meeting people, none of it is safe anymore, just sit in your bedroom and stare at a wall. [Laughs] It was extremely difficult. The anxiety and depression that has come along with that has been tough to cope with, for sure.
For now, the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until July 2021, although there is debate about whether it will be safe to hold a worldwide gathering at that point.
Coming up, I talk with Chelsea more about what's keeping her motivated, and about trying to train during a pandemic.
CW: I've even tried riding in a mask where I'll keep it on in between taking runs, and then when the runs - like when I go to drop in, I'll just take it and push it down towards not cutting off my peripheral vision. That's the tough thing about wearing a mask while I'm riding, is if it's going over the top of my nose, I can't see my bike.
This is Game Changer, a series from Death, Sex & Money. I'm Anna Sale.
Chelsea Wolfe hasn't worked at her grocery store job since March. She hasn't felt safe going back. She's working on landing sponsorships and sells videos of herself doing tricks for commercials, but the majority of her income right now comes from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee by way of the U.S. Cycling National Team.
CW: We're on the Elite Athlete Health Insurance program, as well as we get funding so we don't have to worry so much about working a day job, but we can focus on our training more.
Chelsea earned a spot on the team for the first time this year. But without the 2020 Olympics happening, and its millions of viewers with eyes on its corporate sponsor logos, Chelsea says it’s unclear what the financial picture will look like for the national team in 2021. She says even if her stipend gets cut, she hopes to hang on to her medical coverage.
CW: A lot of concussions have been an issue for me. Um, I actually, I just had another one about two and a half weeks ago. And right as everything really started to get going for preparing for the Olympics, I was basically in this mindset of just like, "I need to try absolutely everything and have no fear and ignore any kind of second-guessing." And it just led to a string of accidents. The worst one being the one where I smashed my whole face in. Stuff that should be career-ending, you just bounce back from within a matter of months.
AS: Do you have medical debt?
CW: Oh, yeah. Let's see - the accident where I broke my femur, I think, that's like a $16,000 bill. The one where I smashed my face in, the dental bill alone from that is like a little over 20 grand. Not even counting the ER bills, which was another few thousand on top of that. So yeah, there's a lot of medical debt. [Laughs]
AS: Did you have health insurance at the time of those accidents?
CW: Not great health insurance, but I did have health insurance.
AS: But that debt, those costs, became things that you were personally liable for, for the most part?
CW: Yes. Those are the costs that I'm personally liable for. That's what insurance didn't cover.
AS: Mmhm. Do you have student loans?
CW: Yeah. I have student loans as well.
AS: About what share of your budget every month goes towards debt payments?
CW: Honestly, a lot of what I do is just figuring out if I can defer things based on income because right now I'm not at a point in my life where I have a ton of expendable income. It's all towards trying to see if I can make a career out of riding. So yeah, definitely relying on debt forgiveness and income-based payments has helped me a lot. The money that I get from being on the U.S. National Team is good enough to cover my expenses, but just barely.
AS: Do you think about money when you think about whether the Olympics is worth it?
CW: Honestly, it's not a thing that I'm doing for the money. At this point, even with the income I've had, I probably have still spent more to chase this dream than I've actually brought in from income from chasing this dream. So yeah, the money element has nothing to do with whether or not I'll still keep chasing the dream for the Olympics.
AS: Tell me why, for you, when you think about why you want to do this and be an Olympic athlete, what excites you?
CW: I mean, the big thing is like...it's the Olympics.
CW: [Laughs] I don't know how else to put it other than just like, it doesn't really matter who you are, what sport you do, whether or not you're into sports or not, the Olympics are the holy grail of sporting competition and accomplishment. It's definitely going for the glory more than for the money.
AS: Uh huh. And as someone - you could be, if not the first, among the first trans women to compete in the Olympics, is that important to you?
CW: Oh, no doubt. Yeah, like it would have helped me a lot if I could have seen somebody doing what I'm doing now to show me that I can be a trans woman and an athlete, I can ride BMX Freestyle and be trans. The two don't have to be mutually exclusive, and I don't have to feel ashamed for who I am, or like I won't have a place in this world.
AS: When you think about that version of yourself that really needed to see someone like you existing and performing at that level, how old was that version of you who really needed to see that it was okay?
CW: That would have been when I first got into BMX Freestyle from the racing side of things. It was also when I first realized that I was some kind of gender weird. It took me a few years to figure out what that gender weird meant, but I first started to really feel extreme sadness and struggle with gender and sexuality when I was in middle school. I was pretty young, like sixth grade. Throughout middle school, it was a really tough struggle. It wasn't until like 9th or 10th grade in high school was when I finally started to be exposed to the ideas that like, who you are is okay, like there's not something wrong with you, you're just transgender, that's fine. It was around when I got into BMX Freestyle from the racing scene that I got the language to understand what I had been feeling and realize that like, I'm not broken. This is who I am and that's okay. And naturally, just like any kid getting into a sport, you're going to look at the pros who are at the top of the game and just idolize them and want to do things just like them and want to accomplish the same things they have. They inspire you. When I looked at the pros who inspired me to want to do what they're doing, almost immediately I had thoughts of like, "Yeah, but that's not going to be okay for you to do. You're not going to be accepted to pursue those dreams." At that age, I looked a lot around for anyone who had done something like it before, and at least in BMX Freestyle, there was nobody.
Not everyone has been supportive of Chelsea's career in BMX as a trans woman. Last year after several trans women athletes won high profile sporting competitions around the world, some called for the International Olympic Committee to lower their accepted testosterone limits for trans women athletes. Chelsea says in her own life, she's faced internet harassment and let downs from people she thought were allies.
CW: A lot of people who I thought supported me as a trans athlete, didn't actually support me, they just tolerated me so long as I didn't start competing. It just created a super bad storm where like instead of focusing on riding better, I was focusing on just being okay as a person. That took probably a good year to even get over where I felt like I deserved to exist in the world let alone try to win the Olympics.
AS: Did you have access to counseling or therapy through the national team or through the Olympic Committee?
CW: Yes. Thank goodness. The USOPC has done a fantastic job of making sure that mental health resources are available to all of the athletes. And a lot of our conversations you know, drifted towards handling the unique challenges that this year was posing for us rather than like, "How do we make sure that in the moment of competition, you'll be able to focus and be on your A-game?" It then became like, "How do we deal with all of this stuff that you're working through with your dreams and hopes and everything that makes you happy being taken and put on hold?"
AS: Have you noticed that COVID has it made it more difficult to land tricks, for example, that you were easily landing before? Are you noticing a way that your mental space is affecting your performance?
CW: I wouldn't to say it's been a huge mental distraction for me to deal with. If anything, it's helped me be able to focus on just like learning how to reframe my idea of what riding means to me. Prior to all of this happening, my riding was very much like an escape and something that I absolutely needed to do. Throughout my life, it's always been the thing that I use to escape and accomplish things and feel like I have a sense of purpose and worth as a person. It was something that I was emotionally dependent on, which wasn't healthy because in the situations where I couldn't rely on it to be there for me, my mental health would just plummet. Learning to just sit and be comfortable with life as it is and not feel like I needed to constantly accomplish new things, has really enabled me to restructure how I think about riding and how I relate to it. It's honestly been a good pause to be able to focus on getting my mind right, to be able to come back stronger than I was going into this whole situation.
That's BMX Freestyle rider, Chelsea Wolfe. As things are now, she sits in the alternate spot on the Olympic BMX team, but there are still two more qualifying competitions that they hope to reschedule for next year. If you want to see Chelsea in action, you can find a link to a video in our show notes.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I'm usually based at the studios at the Investigative Podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Katie Bishop produced this episode. The rest of our team includes Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our music. I'm on Twitter @annasale. The show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Thank you to Allison Myers in St. Louis, Missouri, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Allison and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
Chelsea told me if she does end up going to the Tokyo Olympics next year, she thinks some of her friends and family members might come along to watch her in person, including her sister and her mom—who is really supportive.
CW: There was somebody that was saying some nasty things about me on Facebook the other day. She went and commented a bunch of stuff back to them like, "Sweet. My mom's going to bat for me."
I'm Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.