A visually impaired sprinter hopes to become the first transgender athlete to compete in the Paralympic Games.
Italian Valentina Petrillo, 47, competed in men’s national races before switching in 2019. She was born with Stargardt’s disease, a degenerative eye condition that has no cure.
After decades of “dressing up as a man,” as she describes it, she came out to her wife, who supported her as she began living as a woman and then began hormone therapy. The couple remains married and shares two children.
Now, less than a year after winning her first official race as a female Paralympic athlete at the Italian Paralympic Championship, Petrillo hopes to reach the Italian Paralympic squad.
Valentina Petrillo, 47, competed in men’s national races before switching in 2019. She was born with Stargardt’s disease, a degenerative eye condition with no cure
Petrillo, who is just under six feet tall, said she is still 13 pounds heavier than she was before switching and registering slower run times, although she still took home gold in the 100m, 200m and 400m T12 events at the national championships (photo )
Her inclusion has sparked a new debate about the fairness of trans athletes participating in women’s sports.
According to International Olympic Committee guidelines issued in 2015, any trans athlete can compete in women’s races, provided their testosterone levels remain low enough for a year. They must have a value of less than 5 nmol/L (nanomoles per liter).
Men’s testosterone levels can vary widely, with health experts noting that they can drop anywhere from 8.7 nmol/L – 38.76 nmol/L. For women this is much lower, usually somewhere in the range of 0.2 – 1.7 nmol/L.
As a result of her hormone treatment, Valentina is now consistently well below 2 nmol/L, reports the BBC.
Transathletes are not required to obtain legal recognition of their gender identity or undergo anatomical surgery in order to qualify for competition. Petrillo has done neither.
What are the rules for competitive trans women?
According to International Olympic Committee guidelines issued in 2015, any trans athlete can compete in women’s races, provided their testosterone levels remain low enough for a year.
Transathletes are not required to obtain legal recognition of their gender identity or undergo anatomical surgery in order to qualify for competition.
But many leading sportswomen have condemned the inclusion of trans women in women’s races, arguing that they have greater muscle density, bone strength and lung capacity.
A petition has been sent to the president of the Italian Athletics Federation challenging Valentina’s right to participate in women’s races.
“Her physical superiority is so evident that the competition becomes unfair,” argued the organizer.
Petrillo, who is just under six feet tall, said she is still 13 pounds heavier than she was before she switched and records slower runs, although she still took home gold in the 100m, 200m and 400m T12 events at the national championships.
She also reported side effects, including anemia, mood swings, and feeling physically weak.
“I understand the doubts, but I don’t think I have an advantage,” said Petrillo last year. “My performances have fallen mercilessly.”
Born in Naples, Valentina first discovered the joy she felt in wearing women’s clothing when she put on her mother’s skirt at the age of nine.
Petrillo could be one of the first transgender athletes to compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Pictured, in September 2011
“It was an incredible emotion. It was like touching the sky with your fingertip,” she told the BBC. But fearing that she would be rejected by her family, she buried the feeling and continued “dressing up like a man.”
What is Stargardt’s disease?
Stargardt’s disease is a rare hereditary condition that affects one in 8,000 to 10,000 people in the UK.
In Stargardt, the light-sensitive layer of cells in the macular area of the eye degenerates. The macular is the area at the back of the eye that is responsible for the fine detailed vision needed for activities such as watching TV and reading.
Symptoms of the condition usually develop before age 20 and include:
- A loss of detailed vision and color perception
- Wavy Vision
- blind spots
- Difficulty adjusting to low light levels
While people with Stargardt’s do not lose their peripheral (side) vision, many people will reach the point of severe vision loss.
Source: Moorfields Eye Hospital
‘Until four years ago, if you had talked to Fabriziozio [the name Petrillo was given at birth]”Fabrizio would have given you the idea that he was sexist. He was a tough guy who spoke scornfully of women and then was a woman in his private space.’
In 2017, when she was in her 40s, Valentina told her wife she was transgender.
She recalled, “I didn’t plan it. I was in bed with my wife, about to fall asleep, and I said, “Remember when I told you I once dressed up as a woman?” She said yes. I said, “Actually it wasn’t just once, I do it every day.”‘
With her wife’s support, Valentina began her transition and then the lengthy process of getting the paperwork needed to participate in women’s events.
“Competition is my life, I like the adrenaline of an official run,” she said last year. “For those like me who can’t see well and can’t drive, running means freedom. My legs are my car.’
Between 2016 and 2018, Petrillo won 11 national men’s titles.
She says in the 200 meters – her favorite discipline – she is now about 1.5 seconds slower than before the switch.
Petrillo could be one of the first transgender athletes to compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
New Zealand weightlifter Laura Hubbard, a trans woman, is in the running to represent the country in Tokyo, while Canadian discus thrower Ness Murby, who recently came out as a trans man, has been selected for the roster.
Petrillo hopes her story will inspire generations of LGBTQ athletes.
“People would rather talk about my sports results than about who I am,” she said in an earlier interview. “I hope to win the race, shake hands with the other girls on the podium and receive a beautiful bouquet of flowers.”