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Laurel Hubbard, transgender weightlifter, faces climb to qualify for Olympics

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New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, entered to compete in the world championships super heavyweight division in Thailand on Friday, would not qualify for the Olympics if the field was determined today.

But she’s not completely out of the running to become the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the Games.

Hubbard, a 41-year-old who lifted as Gavin Hubbard in men’s competition before transitioning in her mid-30s, got a late start in weightlifting’s new, three-staged Olympic qualifying process.

She came back from an April 2018 injury that she believed would be career-ending to remain Olympic eligible by the slimmest margin. All Tokyo Olympic hopeful lifters must compete at least once in each of the three phases of Olympic qualifying. The first phase was from Nov. 1-April 30.

Hubbard had not competed in phase one before entering the Arafura Games, a multi-sport event held in Australia’s Northern Territory. On April 29, one day before the end of the first Olympic qualifying window, she took three snatch attempts and failed at all of them — “bombing out,” as they say in weightlifting.

Hubbard received zero Olympic qualifying points, but she had technically competed, which kept her Olympic eligible. A lifter’s top points score from one meet in each of the three phases, plus their next-best overall score, are combined to make up the Olympic qualifying rankings.

She has since completed lifts, winning Oceania’s Pacific Games in July. But she goes into worlds ranked 33rd in the Olympic qualifying standings in the 87+kg division. Only 14 weightlifters will compete in Tokyo per division.

However, Hubbard may only need to pass one lifter on that ranking list by the cutoff date of April 30, 2020. The top eight lifters in the standings on that date, maximum one per country, will qualify for Tokyo. After that, each continent gets a spot. Oceania counts as a continent in these terms.

Currently, a Samoan is in seventh place in Hubbard’s division (but fifth when taking out countries with multiple athletes), which would mean automatic Olympic qualification. After that, Oceania’s spot would go to an Australian ranked 22nd. Hubbard is the next-highest ranked lifter from Oceania in 33rd place.

A strong performance at the world championships would obviously do Hubbard a lot of good. Before the arm injury, she earned silver at the 2017 Worlds with a total weight of 275kg between the snatch and clean and jerk.

The Australian ranked ahead of her — Charisma Amoe-Tarrant — lifted a total of 246kg at the same competition that Hubbard won in July with a 268kg total. But, unlike Hubbard, Amoe-Tarrant actually scored points in the earlier first phase of Olympic qualifying — 432.4134 to be exact — and has a 281-point lead on Hubbard going into worlds.

“[Hubbard] has a shot, but I’d say she’s got an uphill climb,” USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews said. “If she can medal [at worlds], then, yes, absolutely she’s a contender. I cannot imagine a circumstance where she medals in this world championships. Top 12, yeah, maybe.”

Seven lifters set to compete Friday have a higher total lift weight entry than the 275kg that Hubbard hoisted at 2017 Worlds. Olympic qualifying points are determined not by placement, but by lift weight.

New Zealand’s weightlifting federation declined comment last week and said that Hubbard and coaches were unavailable for interviews. Her being eligible to compete is a sensitive topic in weightlifting.

She gave multiple interviews to New Zealand media in December 2017.

“Obviously the policies that are being put forward by organizations like the IOC [International Olympic Committee] and the IWF [International Weightlifting Federation] are evolving, and perhaps they may change after I’ve competed,” Hubbard said following her 2017 World silver medal. “But I would ask people to keep an open mind and perhaps look to the fact that I didn’t win as perhaps the evidence that any advantage I may hold is not as great as they might think. I may have started competing [as a woman] in the last 12 to 14 months, but I started training years and years and years before that. To be honest, I had to wait until the world changed before I could really compete again, and I’m grateful that it has. … The rules that enable me to compete first went into effect in 2003, were known as the Stockholm Consensus of the IOC. But, I think even 10 years ago, the world perhaps wasn’t ready for an athlete like myself, and perhaps it’s not really now. But I got the sense at least that people were willing to consider me.”

Per the IOC, athletes who transition from male to female are eligible to compete, without surgery, if their total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months.

An International Weightlifting Federation official said that the organization recently held a medical committee meeting where transgender eligibility rules were discussed. Any possible deviation from the IOC’s policy would likely not be made until after the Tokyo Olympics.

At the 2017 Worlds, the only woman to beat Hubbard was American Sarah Robles. Robles’ coach said then of Hubbard, “Nobody wanted her to win,” according to Reuters.

Robles and her coach declined comment through USA Weightlifting for this story.

“As far as I’m concerned, if she meets the rules, she’s able to compete,” Andrews said. “I do believe that more research needs to be done. What’s severely lacking is real academic research into the effect of a transition on a power sport. By which I mean does the transition from one gender to the other have more of an effect on a sport such as weightlifting, track and field, cycling, triathlon or swimming than it does on, say, archery or shooting, where there’s less physical power involved in your action.”

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

MORE: Simone Manuel’s experiences shape her voice for change today

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Collin Morikawa jumps into projected Olympic golf field

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Collin Morikawa would not have qualified outright for the Tokyo Olympics had they been held this summer. Now, after winning the PGA Championship, he is third overall in global qualifying for the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Morikawa, a 23-year-old who took the same number of PGA Tour starts to win his maiden major as Tiger Woods (29), went from an alternate for the expected four-man U.S. Olympic team to No. 2 among Americans in the early qualifying standings, according to golf rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter.

Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are the other Americans in qualifying position, according to @VC606.

Morikawa, whose father is of Japanese descent, turned professional in June 2019 and made his first 22 cuts, a feat bettered only by Woods.

The 23-year-old could become the youngest U.S. Olympic male golfer since 1904 (important note: golf was not part of the Olympic program from 1908 through 2012). Come next summer, he will still be younger than all but seven men from the Rio Olympic golf field of 60, according to Olympedia.org.

Olympic golf qualifying standings will fluctuate significantly. There are five major championships left in the qualifying window, starting with the U.S. Open in September and finishing with next summer’s U.S. Open, both airing on NBC Sports.

How tough will it be to make the U.S. Olympic team? Consider that the three Americans to win majors in 2019 — Woods, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland — are currently not in Olympic qualifying position.

The U.S. has seven of the top nine in the Official World Golf Ranking, which is calculated differently than Olympic qualifying.

MORE: Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?

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