Emily Bridges: Coming out as trans in cycling is a crucial step on my journey
The intense Great Britain academy programme produces future Olympians - but for one of cycling's rising stars who was excelling in men's track, gender dysphoria was the greatest challenge. On Coming Out Day, Emily Bridges explains how her life has taken a happier track since lockdown
Last Updated: 12/10/20 7:42am
My name is Emily Bridges, I'm 19, and I'm a trans athlete.
I'm writing this for Coming Out Day because I'm no longer comfortable with not being true to myself in all aspects of my life.
I'd also like to inspire people to be true to who they are, in and out of sport. If I can make even one young trans person feel less alone and more welcome in the sporting community, then I will have succeeded.
I started cycling in 2010 when I moved to Wales at the age of nine, training and racing in cycle speedway outside the National Velodrome. One day, I went inside and looked down at the steep track and thought 'wow'. I wanted so badly to give it a go, so I booked a taster session in late 2011.
I was instantly hooked. Every day, I'd count down the minutes in school before I could go and whizz around the track and feel free from everything. I soon joined my local club and was down at the velodrome every Saturday morning.
A turning point for me was watching the Great Britain cycling squad train at Newport ahead of the London 2012 Olympics. The track team went on to win nine medals - seven of them gold. It inspired me to give racing a go and I competed in my first race that November, which was in pairs with one of my club mates. I had so much fun. I knew then that I wanted to race all the time.
I've never fitted in with any of the kids my age. I wasn't like the boys - I was so different from them and I just couldn't understand the way they acted. Girls didn't want to be my friend as I was a boy, so I grew up feeling isolated from everyone.
At the same time as I was starting cycling, I was starting to have more experience with gender nonconformity. One day, in school, I picked up a copy of 'The Boy in the Dress' by David Walliams. The book quickly became very important to me - it resonated so much. I loved the way he wrote about the subject and the fact that the book was so popular too. It was exactly what I needed. Suddenly, I had a better understanding of how I was feeling.
I didn't instantly know I was trans but gender nonconformity made sense to me. I wanted to dress in a feminine manner but I'd always had such a deep sense of shame about it. I believed that everyone would hate me for stepping out of my masculine box and wearing dresses or makeup. Nevertheless, I knew deep down that this is who I am.
Growing up, and growing aware
I got better at my cycling over the next year, getting a few podiums, and I took my first big win in August 2013. The feeling of victory was thrilling - it put racing into a whole new light, and I was addicted and wanted more. Being on my bike gave me so much joy anyway and racing was even better, with winning being the cherry on top.
I've always loved activity and sport. It's given me a release from everything that I've been experiencing, and something to immerse myself in. It also distracted me from thoughts about my gender identity, which in turn delayed my understanding that I am trans.
Over the course of the next few years, I took a few more wins - a local victory in Cardiff was a highlight - and I moved on and off the regional Olympic development academy.
My confusion around my gender identity didn't really change through this time; this manifested in me questioning my sexuality more, instead of my gender identity. I didn't really know how to express my being different from the norm in any other way.
Aged 16, I won a silver medal at junior nationals in 2017 and was moved onto the Great Britain Junior Academy with the best young male riders from across the country. This was amazing, but it felt like a baptism of fire - I was off the pace at first, which made me doubt my ability and place on the team.
During my first track race of the following year, I got hit by a pacer motorbike, which knocked my confidence back again. Annoyingly, more bad luck followed - while training before my next race, I got hit by a car. Despite those setbacks, I went on to break the national 25-mile record a few weeks later, and I briefly held the 10-mile record later in the season too.
In August, I won two silvers at the national track championships, and then rode in the World Junior Championships in Switzerland. We missed out on a medal in the team pursuit after one of our riders crashed out. My misfortune with accidents continued - I was descending a mountain from the hotel to the track when a car turned across my path and left me with soft tissue injuries. I recovered as much as I could overnight and raced the next day to get ninth in the world. I also had success in the U23 Ghent Six Day in November with my team-mate, becoming the youngest pairing and first juniors to ever win there.
As the year drew to a close, I'd grown increasingly aware of my gender dysphoria, and my mental health became worse and worse. I was in a bad way. I told my coach that I was suffering from depression and I got the help and support that I needed, but I didn't talk about my gender identity as I was scared the cycling world might find out.
For about six months, I was a mess. At times, I couldn't even train, only managing to do a few short rides a week to get out of the house.
I started identifying as trans to myself and I knew that if I wanted to be happy, I would have to transition at some point.
Success on the track, but feeling trapped
Things started getting better with a short break after my A-Level exams. I won my first national title in August 2019, which was an incredible, unforgettable experience. We then went off to the World Junior Championships in Germany, where I was gutted to miss out on a bronze by just two-tenths of a second.
I'd been experiencing some ankle pain, and eventually had a scan - which showed I had in fact been competing on a broken ankle! I had to have surgery and spent 12 weeks in rehabilitation before training properly again.
I spent a lot of time on my own in this period, and I'd constantly be thinking about how unhappy I was. Much of this was linked to my body image. I knew deep down that my hatred of my body - or more precisely, its masculinity - was not normal for a cis man. By about October, I started identifying as trans to myself and I knew that if I wanted to be happy, I would have to transition at some point.
Meanwhile, I moved on to the residential GB Senior Academy programme in Manchester, the pathway for the Olympic hopefuls. It was already hard enough to see the other riders start to pull away from me as I was going through my rehabilitation from injury. I started to become increasingly self-isolated and more distant from the rest of the group. I didn't feel like I had anything in common with them. I just didn't fit in.
I began seeing a specialised therapist when my depression returned and my gender dysphoria was getting unbearable. By this time, I was completely suffocated by my thoughts and felt trapped in my own body. I desperately needed space and time to talk.
I'd been telling myself to aim for the 2024 Olympics and then become who I really am. However, it became crystal clear in my mind that I definitely couldn't wait that long - I wanted to start transitioning by the end of 2020. I had no idea if I would be able to continue to cycle competitively, as there was no universal cycling trans policy in the UK. I had to use the international policy which didn't apply to domestic competition, but I had nothing else to refer to.
Lockdown conversations, new directions
I finally got back to good fitness by the end of February, where I had a productive training camp and felt like I was back to normal. We did our first race and a few days later we came back to the UK, as it became increasingly clear that the COVID situation was escalating rapidly. We were told we'd be leaving our shared houses and going back to our homes around the country.
I was so happy to go home as there would no longer be the pressure to act like someone I wasn't. I wasn't annoyed to be missing the races. I only cared about wanting to be me.
We had weekly check-ins as a team, but I was enjoying life a lot more back home than when I was with the squad. I had my best-ever training block through lockdown and got PBs in everything. Without the stress of not lying about who I was, I was so relaxed, allowing me to focus on my training.
We were told to return to Manchester in June. As this grew closer, I became more and more nervous. I was anxious about returning and trying to be someone who I just wasn't anymore. I set myself targets to try and keep me going, aiming for races in the summer, but this didn't help much.
I came out to a few people in this period, which helped, and allowed me to think about everything. It all went so incredibly well, and I was blown away by how supportive they have been. I'm incredibly privileged to have this network of people around me. I only wish I'd come out earlier.
I went back to Manchester in June and had a few good sessions, but I crashed and injured myself pretty badly on our first group ride back. I'm still recovering from that injury now.
Then, in mid-August, I was asked to attend a meeting by video call, in which I was informed that I was no longer going to be part of the Great Britain Cycling Team. The reason I was given was that I no longer had the potential required to remain on the programme. There had been no indication prior to this that I was going to be dropped.
I was really disappointed to hear this news, but I wasn't really able to process the information. The timing of their decision gave me less than a day if I was to apply to university. I chose to do that, and received an offer which I accepted.
Life after lockdown has taken me in a new direction. After leaving the cycling programme, I've come out to a lot more people, and I'm now living authentically at uni - I'm out to everyone that I meet here.
But something was missing, as I wasn't yet out in sport. Now, I am.
A chance to contribute
In my view, cycling still has a long way to go to represent all types of diversity. I would say that, in Europe, it's 30 years behind the wider community when it comes to equality and inclusivity. There's no out gay or bi male pro cyclist in the world tour peloton. The women's pro peloton is better in terms of LGBT+ representation, but it's woefully underreported on and doesn't get the coverage it needs or deserves.
There's such a long way to go in making sport, specifically cycling, more inclusive. We need to encourage more people from BAME backgrounds, more women, disabled people and LGBTQ+ people into cycling. It's still seen as the domain of white, middle-aged, middle class men, and it needs to represent the wider population much better, and be more accessible.
I hope that I can be a small part of changing the culture for the better and encourage people in the sporting world to fully be themselves. I also want to show that people shouldn't have to choose between being themselves and doing the sport that they love. Sport has to be for everyone, regardless of who they are.
To help achieve this, I'm going to be part of research into the effect that a medical transition has on athletic performance. This will, as far as I'm aware, be the first time that an elite-level international athlete has done this. I understand this will be extremely useful research. I really want to demonstrate what effect hormone replacement therapy has on the body, and how it massively changes athletic performance in multiple ways.
I know that people will have questions about fairness. I feel I have an opportunity to show that the existing eligibility rules for trans athletes in competition are appropriate.
Whatever level I'm riding at, I have such a passion for the sport that I love. Ultimately, I want to try to be the best possible athlete and individual I can be.
For those that know me, I'm still the same person. The difference is that now I'm being more true to myself. I hope that by sharing the story of my coming out, it helps someone else out there to be true too.
Story editor: Jon Holmes
Statements from British Cycling, Welsh Cycling, and LGBT+ Sport Cymru
"On behalf of British Cycling, I want to extend our full support to Emily. Coming out is a significant moment in her life which we celebrate with her, and we wish her all the best for the future" - Julie Harrington, CEO, British Cycling
"Welsh Cycling fully supports the decision made by Emily and we wish her all the best. We will support her on her journey as a cyclist, ensuring we take an athlete centred approach" - Anne Adams-King, CEO, Welsh Cycling
"I am delighted in how the LGBTIQ+ sector and sport sector have pulled together to support Emily. It has been a privilege to get to know Emily and her family during 2020 and I wish her every happiness for the future. I hope her story will provide real comfort to the LGBTIQ+ community that help is available for anyone in sport who is on their own personal coming out journey" - Michelle Daltry (Chair), LGBT+ Sport Cymru
Sky offers support for our viewers on a broad range of topics, including feelings of distress and despair, and gender identity. Find out more here.
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. If you'd like to inspire others in sport by sharing your own story of being LGBT+ or an ally, please contact us here.