By Dan Woog
David’s father was an academic, so the family moved often. Whether in California or Nova Scotia, though, sports provided a great way to make friends. David was “pudgy and klutzy” as a child, but in high school he discovered football and wrestling. Playing linebacker was fun, but grappling really drew him in.
He worked out, lifted weights and molded his body to a masculine ideal. In 1979, at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, he became Canada’s Maritime Provinces 158-pound champ.
He married, had a teenage son and embarked on a successful, lucrative career in information technology.
But even those accomplishments did not fully satisfy David. He’d always been masculine – never effeminate or girly – yet he never felt he fit in.
In 1999, he came out to his mother as transgender. She was stunned.
The realization was almost as stunning for David. “My sense of myself as an athlete had been the biggest part of my identity for years,” he – now Donna Rose – says. “There had been two seasons in my life: wrestling, and getting ready for wrestling.” It was hard to let that go.
“I love the sport for all it taught me about discipline, and pushing boundaries,” Donna says. “You stand there alone as an individual, before and after the match. The mat is a very lonely, unforgiving place.”
Not unlike growing up feeling conflicted about your own gender.
Donna understands now that wrestling gave David an outlet for the aggression he felt. Football and wrestling are, she notes, “tough, physical, violent sports.”
David, she says, “made sure that the part of me that was Donna never expressed itself.”
The Internet helped Donna express herself. She met other people like her, learned about transitioning, and realized that being transgender was not “a sentence to unhappiness.”
Taking hormones was scary. “I couldn’t hide anything anymore,” she says. “This was real. It was a hard time. I loved my wife, my son and my life. But that wasn’t real.”
When Donna transitioned, her concepts of masculinity and femininity were “very traditional,” she notes. Along with all other signs of David, she got rid of her muscle mass. “I trained to be Donna for years. I wanted the slender build and feminine physique I thought was ‘ideal.'”
When she started to date women, though, several were attracted to her shoulders. Slowly, Donna recognized that she did not want to “trade one closet for another.” Today, she says, she appreciates who she was, and what she did in the past. She looks forward to the future “without apology.”
And she’s wrestling again.
Donna wanted to wrestle as far back as 2005. But there was no place to do it. She had not been on a mat in 25 years. Her body was much different – as was her gender. And she was “significantly older.”
The following year, she attended the Chicago Gay Games. She learned about an upcoming tournament in San Francisco. It was another life-altering experience.
“I was 46, 47 years old,” she recalls. “All my strength was gone. It was like starting over. I was bruised, I felt bad, but the enjoyment was still there.”
She won a gold medal – though that was not the point. “I wasn’t out to prove anything to anyone,” she says. “This was just for me.”
But she was once again hooked on wrestling. She set her sights on the next Gay Games.
Women’s freestyle wrestling has a maximum weight of 72 kilograms (158.75 pounds). Donna got down to her college weight. To find a coach and training partners, she had to drive clear across South Carolina.
And she worried about coming out all over again, to coaches and fellow competitors.
At the U.S. Open women’s freestyle championship in Cleveland last year, she planned not to self-disclose. She was not ashamed, but she feared that an announcement would “overshadow everything.” She did not want attention – just the chance to compete.
Yet word got out. “My sport handled it very well – it was all low-key,” Donna says. She does not know if the reason was respect, or embarrassment.
Donna does not wave a rainbow flag. “I’m not here to make a political statement,” she says. “I just want to live my life.”
It’s a life that includes the U.S. Olympic team trials in Iowa next April. “I’m 50-plus years old,” she notes. “There aren’t many wrestlers my age. I go onto the mat, hope for a good showing, and look forward to shaking hands at the end, knowing I did my best. I appreciate everything I’ve got now.”
Which includes the chance to train and compete in a sport she loves. The opportunity to try out for the Olympics. And the experience of doing it all as the gender she was meant to be all along.