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The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper

The Playing Field: The Battle Over Transgender Athletes. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired May 12, 2024 - 20:00   ET




There's a heated battle across the country right now over transgender girls and women, and if states have the right to bar them from sports unless they compete with boys and men. The laws on this differ from state to state. And at the elite levels, each sport makes its own rules on who can participate.

Over the next hour, we'll take you behind this emotional and politicized issue and how the controversies affecting the lives of athletes around the country.


EMBER ZELCH, HIGH SCHOOL SOFTBALL PLAYER: Around fifth grade I think is when I started to noticed. I didn't exactly fit who everyone thought I was. I always felt trapped trying to become her. The first time I felt that I truly belonged was playing on the girls' softball team.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Ready? One. Going out the middle. Nice job. Ready?

E. ZELCH: I was horrified a few months later when I found out that that might be taken away.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come get it. Good job, Amber.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: An Ohio bill that would ban transgender athletes from girls and women sports is moving through the statehouse.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The debate about trans athletes has exploded in the political arena.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This legislation takes this supportive environment away from kids who need it.

NIKKI HALEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I mean, the idea that we have biological boys playing and girls sports, it is the women's issue of our time. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I am sympathetic to trans teams. I'm more

concerned about girls. Female victory matters and fair competition matters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go, Ember. Go, go, go, go, go.

COOPER: Twenty states have already passed some form of ban on trans student athletes.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kansas lawmakers vote to ban transgender athletes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Should transgender women be allowed to compete in women's sports?

GRAPHICS: Ohio. October 2022.

E. ZELCH: Ohio's process as of right now is that you either have to have been on hormone replacement therapy for a year and/or you have to have a doctor's note saying that you qualify. That can mean that they have to send in your bone density, your weight on a charge in comparison to CIS girls of the same age, your height in comparison. It's anxiety inducing because every time I never know if I'm going to be approved or not.

MINNA ZELCH, EMBER'S MOTHER: I will never forget the day that I got the e-mail that she had been approved to play. my mom came into my room and she was crying and I asked her what was wrong and she said that I was approved to play.

E. ZELCH: My mom came into my room and she was crying, and I asked what was wrong, and she said that I was approved to play.

M. ZELCH: She just looks at me with tears in her eyes and I'm crying and she's crying. And we're hugging each other.

E. ZELCH: I said the state agrees that I'm a girl. I think I kind of almost just blacked out because it was so amazing. For me it's allowed me to make a lot of friends. It's allowed me to have a place where I can feel safe and be myself, and it's not questioned even if you're getting things thrown at your head.

GRAPHICS: In February 2020, Ohio Republicans introduced the Save Women's Sports Act, which would ban transgender athletes from teams that align with their gender identity.

E. ZELCH: When Ohio's trans athlete ban was first introduced, I was the only trans high school athlete, female athlete in Ohio.


M. ZELCH: She looked us in the eye and said, mom, dad, I'm it. If I don't speak out, who will?

E. ZELCH: Hello. I am Ember. I am a trans athlete. I am a senior. I used to perform in theater and I loved it. But when my voice started to change, I stopped. I actually decided to learn ASL because I didn't want to speak at all. I hated my voice so much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like your voice.

E. ZELCH: Thank you very much. I also had wanted to play in sports, specifically softball. And it was incredible. I was treated just like everyone else. But I found out that the state was actually trying to take away my ability to play on a girls' team.

These are high school athletes. This is not about winning. For me, it's about being on a team. It's about being able to relax, not focus on other political policies, not focused on the world, for just a few hours. Every person deserves that right. Thank you.


GRAPHICS: New Jersey. November 2022.

MEGHAN CORTEZ-FIELDS, COLLEGE SWIMMER: The water has just been such like a safe place for me. Just hearing the sounds of the water, that's my time with God. There's no one else in just like being able to converse with myself, it just feels correct.

Last season was just really difficult for many reasons because I was on the men's team, but I started to live socially as Meghan and then I started hormones in the summer of 2022.

This is a day in the life of a transgender athlete and today is me day.

So I just wanted to share a little snippet of my life and that I go to class, go to lab. But I also go to the pool twice a day, and some hard.

Continue to get loose and get ready for me. I went to the locker room to go hit on my PT tape on my boobs because I still can't cover the girls up.

Wearing a men's suit, having to take my breasts, even just competing against men.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cortez-Fields, separating himself.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: And it starts to hurt more because a physical part of you is dying and melting away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cortez-Fields looking to finish strong.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: I believe I needed to sacrifice being trans in order to swim. I was like, I just -- I have to but like I just couldn't anymore. I want to switch teams and my goal is to compete on the women's team. Their regulations for a trans athlete is having a very low testosterone, under 10 nanomoles per liter for a year.

Hi, mom. How are you doing today?

MELISSA MUELLER, MEGHAN'S MOM: We got Texas cold. I was going to put a sweatshirt on. How are you?

CORTEZ-FIELDS: But I did just see my results.

MUELLER: You did?

CORTEZ-FIELDS: Yes. Unfortunately, they're not where I want them.

MUELLER: But at least your testosterone is down, right?

CORTEZ-FIELDS: It stayed the same which is --

My goals and aspirations, you know, kind of hinging on this one result, something I have no control over at all.

I'm still going back and forth whether or not I want to up my dosage or not. Dr. Kopan said the more you increase estrogen dosage like it could be like, you know, tenderness in breasts, but I haven't felt that in a while.

MUELLER: Well, and that's your call, sweetheart. I just want what's safe for you.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: While I'm active I have no history of clotting.

MUELLER: But you might do, though.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: It's cold, what do you expect? What do you expect? You're more than welcome to give me greasing money if you want to support that.

MUELLER: Well, I see you charging things on the card so --



MUELLER: Bye, baby. I love you.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: I love you, too. I'll talk to you later.



MARSHI SMITH, 2005 NCAA CHAMPION: The NCAA championship is the fastest short-course meet. The school record at the University of Arizona in the hundred backstroke because a 52:83 so that's how I chose 52:82. I thought I want to break it by 100th of a second. At the start of the season I typed up on my computer 52:82. I wrote down my splits, how many kicks I was going to take off of each wall, and so when I actually touched the wall and did it in a 52:82 I was shocked.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Marshi Smith of Arizona. 52:82.

SMITH: There was a lot of suffering and sacrifice. But on the flip side, there was accomplishment, and then recently, like everyone in the world, I started hearing news about Lia Thomas competing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Lia Thomas, formerly competed as a member of the University of Pens Men's swimming team.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Completing 34 months of hormone replacement therapy. Far beyond the 12-month NCAA requirement to compete on the women's team.

SMITH: Watching Lia Thomas compete in the 500 freestyle was really devastating because -- sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The swim records set at the Ivy League Championship by the University of Pennsylvania's Lia Thomas.

SMITH: Everybody knows this is not right and it's unfair. And I felt like I was witnessing women shriveling up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did Lia Thomas break a rule?

SMITH: No, Lia Thomas didn't break a rule.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't care what surgeries they have, I don't care what they inject into their blood stream, they don't belong in women's sports.

SMITH: In swimming you intimately experience the difference in biology. You can feel the profound difference in even the wake of a male teammate next to you.


I quickly began to understand that we needed an organization that could advocate for a female protected category and sports.

GRAPHICS: Nevada. July 2023.

SMITH: I am headed to the Vegas airport right now. We are throwing an international women's sports summit for my non-profit independent counsel on women's sports. We don't have to tell people we're judging how you want to live your life. We are trying to educate sports policymakers on how to write policy.

I think time is of the essence right now because policymakers in various sports are making decisions today.

GRAPHICS: Ohio. October 2022. M. ZELCH: In Ohio, a lot of the anti-transgender legislation really

started picking up dramatically September of 2022, and it started really with the state school board. The Ohio State School Board introduced a resolution that was basically targeting all LGBT students but in particular transgender students. To say things like students couldn't play on the sports teams of their gender identity.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're taking a day off school to speak to the Board of Education. What do you want them to hear?

E. ZELCH: Bottom line, this resolution puts high schoolers in danger. You are telling these schools that it is OK to discriminate against trans people. I mean, it's infuriating, but it's nothing new.

The fight over trans people being able to play sports represents for me being human. Not being demonized. It represents being able to be ourselves and be able to do something that we love.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are limiting testimony to three minutes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: New transgender surgery is a new modern lobotomy. We're just doing it all over again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Female athletes will be cheated of honors that they've earned.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We do not want to make the national news because one of our girls gets raped in the restroom.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please remember gender transition is an experiment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There are some absolutes. A boy is a boy and a girl is a girl.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My daughter is now in college under her male name. We don't affirm her because we believe in science and reality. We believe my daughter needs mental health care, not a chest binder or wrong sex hormones.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This proposed resolution includes false scientific assertions and attempts to require our district to discriminate against and endanger our LGBTQ Plus students.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These strategies of silence, censorship, and invalidation don't result in less queer kids. They result in dead or damaged queer children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One in five transgender and non-binary youth attempted suicide.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many lives must be destroyed before we allow people to be who they are? Do queer kids have a right to life?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ember Zelch, welcome. And you have three minutes, please. E. ZELCH: I know why you were doing this. You are afraid of me. I get

it. The boys at my school are afraid of me, too. My freshman year of PE, they chucked balls at my head as though I was a literal target. I was ridiculed, called the B word and the F slur. Luckily, I was given permission to change in the gender neutral bathroom. But imagine what would have happened if I'm -- if I was made to change in the boy's locker room.

Just the fact that this resolution is being considered sends the message to queer and trans kids that like me, that we are subhuman.

M. ZELCH: I would like to point out the girls at her school don't seem to be scared at all. She has been using the girl's restroom and locker rooms for five years and playing on their sports teams for two years and they don't seem to care less. But you are scared, and believe me, I'm the parent of a transgender child in rural Ohio. Our family knows fear. I have lived in fear, my husband and I, since our child first came out as trans because we knew that society would not be kind to her.


No one made them this way. And there is nothing we could do to change them even if we wanted to. It's just how they were born.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Four hours of testimony is just wrapping up --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We expect to have a vote sometime 6:00.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This body must take a stand on one of the defining issues impacting education today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Biden administration is threatening local control of its coercive approach to this issue, and that's the issue of gender identity, which has profound ramifications for the rights of parents and the biological girls in education and athletics.

M. ZELCH: I want to throw up.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About the only common thread I heard from people was these kids exist and there's been absolutely no discussion on what we can do for these kids, and that bothers me probably more than anything else on this whole discussions. And I did actually like to make a motion to refer this to executive committee.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I second that motion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If it goes to committee it's almost certainly dead.

M. ZELCH: Our hope was that being sent to the executive committee to study that the committee wasn't supposed to meet again, that that meant the resolution was dead for that year. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.



















UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On a vote of 12 to seven, the Shea Resolution will be referred to the executive committee for consideration.


M. ZELCH: Good job, my baby. Good job.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hey, you did it. You're good. You did it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a rare W for trans rights in Ohio.

M. ZELCH: Yes. Nice work. Just until the legislature reconvenes. We get to go through this shit all over again. Ready to go home? And yes, I will read you your homework in the car while you drive.

E. ZELCH: Thank you very much.


GRAPHICS: College Station, Texas. December 2022.

GRAPHICS: After seven months, Meghan is home for the holidays.

MUELLER: Saw your pictures.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: My pictures.

MUELLER: I forget a lot of this stuff. My dad and I got married, you were 3. You refused to get into the tux.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: Because I wanted to be the flower girl.

MUELLER: Yes, the flower girl. I mean --

CORTEZ-FIELDS: I mean, hey.


MUELLER: These are when you first started swimming.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: Fresh (INAUDIBLE). This was my cap and stuff.


CORTEZ-FIELDS: This is when --

MUELLER: That was that.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: Wearing all those medals.

MUELLER: Cheesy smile.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: And this one I love as much as dad did.

MUELLER: Yes. I just think that that was really special, that dad was trying to -- not a guy who have a lot of words and sometimes you think he's kind of stubborn and hard-headed, but he has these moments of super sweet, personal compassionate moment.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: When I see these old pictures like in some of the younger ones, you know, I'm just a child. You know, when you're below the age of 5, you're just living life to the fullest.


CORTEZ-FIELDS: But like 5 on, I think I start to see like my trapped self.

MUELLER: If I could turn back the clock, I wish I could've done some things differently. I remember in my bible study, said I need prayers, my oldest came out as transgender and I just don't know what to do. And sin sit well with me, I feel like God may do you for you like we're not supposed to change any parts of ourselves. We're made -- like that's just in my mind. What I've always known.

And I probably said some hurtful things just because I'm scared. It's a fear. It's a -- I failed my kid. I didn't do enough. Why didn't I see this? Why didn't I do more? And for dad and I just it was a conversation that he and I couldn't have. Just a lot of why's, a lot of just questioning and not knowing and -- I call it a dark place for me like I didn't want to wake up. I didn't want to face the world. Because how is it is like, oh, my gosh, how am I going to tell her friends? How am I going to tell my Marine friends?


I lost my family. I lost a little boy -- like I accepted a little boy who wasn't macho boy, you know, and I remember (INAUDIBLE), you didn't lose a kid, you have a kid right in front of you. You have a choice. May not be what you want it to be, but you have a choice. And I had to choose. I had to choose. I wish I could bring everybody else, family with us here, to be in the middle but it's a choice.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: I appreciate that so much because I thought that it's you. Like I thought you would never come this far.

MUELLER: You know, I don't want to feel like I have to justify who you are and why you're making. It's done. You are Meghan and I love you.

We got to remind you, see your appointment. 11:30 a.m.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: I don't know. It just -- I can't wait to like see my license with my name on it. Just having that legal name change like I don't like really seeing my birth name a lot just because it reminds me of someone that was struggling, so like having it legally changed was like, I don't have to feel like I'm hiding.

I like, you know, I don't like opening my bank account, you know, because it has my dead name, things like that.


CORTEZ-FIELDS: Like I want to see for myself in everything.


GRAPHICS: Austin, Texas.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: Everything.



MUELLER: You too. Thank you.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: Thank you. It's so exciting. So now we just wait?


CORTEZ-FIELDS: I think we're good to go home.

MUELLER: Yes. That was it.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: OK. I'm sorry happy.

GRAPHICS: Independent Council on Women's Sports. July 2023.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi. Thank you so much for coming. Last year we only had about 75 people or so. This year we are anticipating a couple of hundred people. So we have psychologists, medical doctors, professors, attorneys and most importantly, female athletes themselves, discussing this crucial topic.

KIM JONES, ICONS CO-FOUNDER, FORMER NCAA TENNIS ALL-AMERICAN: Thank you all for being here. Please welcome our original ICONS Donna Dee Varona.

DONNA DE VARONA, THREE-TIME OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST: Thank you, Kim and Marcy. We have new a new challenge now. Males who identify as trans are insisting on playing in women's sports.

DR. LINDA BLADE, FOUNDER, NCAA TRACK AND FIELD ALL-AMERICAN: In 2015, the surgical requirement was thrown out by the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, and all the male athlete would have to do is self- declare as a woman and spend one year with testosterone levels lower two and maintain at or below 10 nanomoles per liter. Female athletes' right to fair and safe sport have been disregarded by the IOC. This mindset just has to change.

RILEY GAINES, FORMER NCAA SWIMMING ALL-AMERICAN: A lot of world leaders the message that they're sending is that we as women don't matter. Our safety doesn't matter. Privacy, forget it.

When you have males who have gone through male puberty, it takes away that fairness. We can't neglect fairness and safety and hopes to be inclusive.

GRAPHICS: Research on whether transgender athletes have an advantage is limited. A 2017 Sports Medicine study concluded there is "no direct or consistent research" showing that transgender people have an athletic advantage.

DE VARONA: Some of you have been called names and canceled in a variety of ways. If you are a current athlete, you come here despite the trauma you endured when sports administrators try to silence you. Are we winning yet? 22 states now restrict female sports to just females at the elementary, high school and college levels.

We are working hard to persuade the administration and our members in Congress to establish federal policy or laws to keep female sports female.

[20:35:10] In June, a Gallup poll revealed that 69 percent of Americans believe female sports should be female only and I feel certain that ultimately we will win.




GRAPHICS: Ohio. December 2022.

E. ZELCH: I am not prepared for this.

M. ZELCH: We are. You'll be fine.

E. ZELCH: I know.

M. ZELCH: So this is just a Senate committee hearing today, OK?

E. ZELCH: Yes.

M. ZELCH: It's the athlete ban bill that passed the House back in June. We'll testify at the committee hearing.

E. ZELCH: Yes.

M. ZELCH: So maybe they can see, I don't know, the kids who --

E. ZELCH: That I'm a human person.

M. ZELCH: -- actually going to be affected by this.

E. ZELCH: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to call this meeting in the Senate primary and Secondary Education Committee to order. Up next is amended substituted House bill 151 and we do have testimony here.

M. ZELCH: You got this. All right?

E. ZELCH: Being a trans athlete isn't easy, especially when you have to try and prove that you deserve something as simple as the basic right to try out for a sport. Playing on our boys' team would be a lie. I would have to deny my truth to make other people feel comfortable. This is dehumanizing and unjust.

M. ZELCH: This is nothing more than a way for politicians to score a few political points on the backs of a handful of students who have been deemed expendable. My daughter is not expendable. Trans kids are not expendable. They are kids trying to find their way in a world that tears them down every single day.

MELISSA MCLAREN, OPPONENT: Children's hospitals are targets of bomb threats for providing gender affirming care groups, including the Proud Boys, some of them with guns showed up just a few miles away to protest an event sponsored by his school, held at a church because it involved members in drag.

RENE HICK, OPPONENT: This discriminatory bill denies an already vulnerable population of students. The physiological, emotional, and social benefits of participating in team sports.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And frankly, I just -- I can't imagine how exhausted they must be.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Thank you for your testimony. With that, that will conclude the third hearing on Amended Substitute House Bill 151.

M. ZELCH: So one thing I did for Ember this year is I took all of the ornaments that people gave us when she was a baby and without her knowing I managed to get the old names off and put the new name. For the last five years, she wouldn't allow any of her ornaments from her childhood to go on the tree and then she thought, was like, she actually went to (INAUDIBLE) on the tree so it was cool. OK. We have 26 minutes before session.

E. ZELCH: I have been exhausted all day just --

M. ZELCH: I know, I know. I'm so sorry you had to go to school.

E. ZELCH: I can't think about things without wanting to throw up so I'm just not thinking about things.

M. ZELCH: They all really want today to be their last day so they can all go home for the holidays, but --

E. ZELCH: So they're going to just shove it.

M. ZELCH: So they will probably just shove it through and then it'll go to the governor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Reverting to House Bill 151, is that correct? Without objection --

M. ZELCH: Ember is getting ready for bed and they just started debate on the athlete ban. And do you want to watch? And she's like, no. I cant. I need to step away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The chair recognizes Senator Antonio.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, Mr. President.

M. ZELCH: One of our state senators got up to speak and read Ember's entire testimony to the full Senate floor.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Some people that have never met me suggested I became trans to do better in sports. Now, why would I become trans in order to have every fight every day just to be perceived as who I am?

M. ZELCH: My kid's voice is on the Senate floor. That is another moment I will always remember and the thing is, is it's one I wish I didn't have to have. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She does not identify nor see herself as a boy

who wants to play girl sports.

M. ZELCH: And then, you know, they went on and on.

STATE SEN. ANDY BRENNER (R), DISTRICT 19, DELAWARE: And I think that would also put girls at a disadvantage. I think that's what this is about.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Maybe you're voting for this. You're voting for hate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do we want our girls playing against boys?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The question is shall the Senate amendments be agreed to? The House will prepare and proceed to vote.

M. ZELCH: They didn't vote until late in the morning, about 2:00 a.m. or something.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 46 affirmative votes, 41 negative votes. The bill has not received the required constitutional majority and has not passed and entitled.



E. ZELCH: Ultimately, the Safe Women's Sports Act it ended up not being passed.

M. ZELCH: We got lucky is really how it felt.

GRAPHICS: New York. April 2023,

CORTEZ-FIELDS: I have an endocrinology appointment with Dr. Kaplan, which I'm so excited about. I'm coming up on a year on being on hormone treatment.

DR. JULIA KAPLUN, ENDOCRINOLOGIST: It's good to check your heart and lungs. OK? I'm one of the few endocrinologist in this area who is treating transgender patients. All right here, deep breath. I have never treated transgender athletes before Meghan. I feel like it's on the rise, like the whole movement against transgender care.

Any pain over here? You're OK?


KAPLUN: Nothing, right? OK. You're ready? Let's go over your results and everything. First of all, how are you been feeling? How is everything?

CORTEZ-FIELDS: I mean, I did experience like a head injury while swimming. And I definitely think like just because my body was changing so much that it made me a little bit more prone to like having like -- like a torn muscle.

KAPLUN: Is your endurance any different? Like cardiovascular.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: I have noticed it's a bit different. I can't necessarily do what I used to do.

KAPLUN: Right. There's some change. Yes. I was looking to see if there's any changes like anemia or using -- but your levels are fine. And this is where the best part is for you, for your goal in terms of the testosterone. It's eight less than 10, which was your goal.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: I'm just so happy I got to that level, but I think it's a little too late because they would have to get it in like February to be on the women's team.

The NCAA's requirements on their Web site, I remember looking at three different types of regulations. They are always changing and difficult to understand.

KAPLUN: That's nanogram per deciliter.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: So I always assume those --

KAPLUN: That's the normal --


KAPLUN: I'm not sure how you convert the nanogram per deciliter to nanomole per liter. But --

CORTEZ-FIELDS: She was kind of confused and I was confused as well. And then in that we realized I've already been there.

KAPLUN: You're OK. You're qualified. You're at eight here.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: That's actually really exciting.


CORTEZ-FIELDS: I was just, you know, double-checking, you know, to see the NCAA guidelines for my testosterone levels to switch teams and it turns out that changed.

I just got my hormone results back. We can get my application sent to the NCAA to get reviewed so that I can hopefully for my first meet of the season I start on the women's team.

The most exciting thing happened today and we got the approval of NCAA to where I know officially I'm on the women's team. And it's probably one of the most exciting thing that's ever happened. And I just can't wait to swim with my team on my gender for the rest of my last season.


[20:53:04] CORTEZ-FIELDS: I'm on the women's team finally. This all feels like a dream to me. I feel like I just have to live in the moment. There's a lot of sounds going on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good afternoon, and welcome to Ramapo College for today's not conference swimming featuring (INAUDIBLE) University and your Ramapo College Roadrunners.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: And it echoes, but it's kind of a drowning voice and sounds around me. I tried to calm myself and occasionally I'll do a prayer to tell God that, you know, whatever happens it's in his plan. I pray that gives me the strength to do this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 200 butterfly. Take your line.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: Once I'm in that race, it's just I got to go. My mom would be proud of me. So no matter what, I will always try my hardest. I'm just afraid for the reception that I will get if I try my hardest in six feet. And I was afraid that if I was able to win, all of my success would be discredited because I was trans.

GRAPHICS: In February 2024, Meghan broke two school records and placed 2nd in the 100-yard butterfly at a championship meet, the last of her career.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: After transferring from the men's team over to the women's Meghan Cortez-Fields smashed Ramapo College's 100-yard butterfly record.

JOHN ROBERTS, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Like Lia Thomas gets into women's category and starts blowing records away.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And the woman who came second has to just accept it.

CORTEZ-FIELDS: Something has definitely become a battleground for this disagreement.


Trans people have existed since the beginning of time, but we win and it becomes an issue. I am beyond happy that I'm able to close up my swimming career as myself. I really couldn't have thought this for myself because it reminds me of a kid who struggled to be themselves. I'm not that kid anymore.

GRAPHICS: Nevada. July 2023.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hey, Mary, how's it going?

SMITH: Really good news. Last week with UCI Cycling, it's another international body that has recognized that fair competition is necessary for the female athlete. I'll take every sport that we can get.

I have young daughter who's just starting tennis and swimming. And so I think we want to see a future where women and girls can see themselves as a flooded champions like I had. I don't want the same for my daughter. I want more. We have to kind of tie everything in a bow legally and legislatively as well. So I mean, you know, it's a huge battle.

I think lawmakers are taking it more seriously. We're just trying to make that timeframe as short as possible.


GRAPHICS: In March 204, 16 athletes sued the NCAA for allowing transgender athletes to compete in college sports and use female locker rooms. The lawsuit is funded by ICONS.

GRAPHICS: In a statement, the NCAA responded, "While the NCAA does not comment on pending litigation, the Association and its members will continue to provide Title IX, make unprecedented investments in women's sports and ensure fair competition in all NCAA championships."

GRAPHICS: Ohio. July 2023.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Melanie, short. Eleanore, center. Ember, catcher. OK. Mercy is going to pitch. OK. You good though? OK.

E. ZELCH: I love to play catcher. It feels very powerful because you're secretly in control of the team. But like no one's looking at you. Everyone is looking at the pitcher.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Way to pop up there, Ember.

E. ZELCH: I can play brain games a little bit with the runners just to try and trick them and get them out. And that's really fun.

M. ZELCH: I see the joy on her face when she gets to play. For the last five years there have been very few moments when she's just been able to be a kid. It's so rare.

Let's go. Let's go. We got to bat. We got to bat. Here we go, Ember. You got it.

The fact that she can just fail and mess up, and get back up there and try again.

That is one of those valuable things about sports. One of her favorite moments and with her team this year was a game that they lost actually. They were down by a lot and they rallied. You can see they just gelled as a team. Everyone was focused and everyone was doing what they needed to do.

Good job, Ember.

And so that's been my favorite game.

Can we do a team picture real quick? Smile.

E. ZELCH: In the fall, I am leaving Ohio for college. I am actually foregoing a scholarship to any Ohio school because it's

not safe for me to continue to stay in Ohio. I want to play division three softball and I don't feel like I belong and I'm very ready to get out and escape.

GRAPHICS: Five months after Ember left for college, Ohio passed a law banning transgender women and girls from teams that align with their gender identity.

GRAPHICS: Ember now plays softball on her college team after meeting NCAA requirements.


COOPER: This debate is not expected to die down any time soon. So far at least 24 states have banned transgender people from competing on teams of their choice.

Thanks for watching THE WHOLE STORY. I'll see you next Sunday.