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'Be myself': Growing training spaces for trans and non-binary fitness

Alex Jung was 15 when he quit swimming. It was a strange feeling of alienation at a school pool that stole his desire to show up again for a long time.
Club member Alex Jung rests at a break between laps during a swim session hosted by Toronto Purple Fins at Wellesley Community Centre Pool in Toronto, on Thursday, March 23, 2023. Toronto Purple Fins provides a safe gender-free environment for non-conforming people weekly on Thursday evenings. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin

Alex Jung was 15 when he quit swimming. 

It was a strange feeling of alienation at a school pool that stole his desire to show up again for a long time. 

"It's a common theme among trans and gender non-conforming swimmers not to make their way back to the pool if they didn't feel comfortable in their body," says Jung, a 28-year-old transmasculine swimmer. 

He says he used to feel body dysphoria while in the water and wasn't comfortable with people watching and with how swimsuits fit. 

Jung slowly found his way back to the water in 2018 and began instructing other trans swimmers. But, he says, it felt like a "lonely and challenging pursuit" without a community. 

Last year, he found a swimming community exclusively for trans, non-binary and two-spirit people in Toronto, where he could "build and share the work," Jung says.

Toronto Purple Fins has been hosting trans, non-binary and two-spirit people once a week at the Wellesley Community Centre since October 2021.

"There are queer swim clubs focused on LGBT and allies in Toronto. But when you think about the non-binary population, it was noticeable that they weren't in those clubs," says club founder Amber Hutchinson.  

Hutchinson, who has worked as a sports scientist and biomechanist with swimmers and cyclists for more than a decade, says she was aware that gender-diverse individuals are more likely to quit sports than others. So she started looking into what creating a "truly safe space" entails.  

That meant having an "other" gender category on registration forms, universal change rooms with separate stalls, co-operative lifeguards, mindfulness around gender pronouns and a free flow of communication with members. 

"There's a lot of intentional work behind making this safe space," Hutchinson says.

Hutchinson and Rachel McTier, a two-coach team, train at least 18 adult swimmers every Thursday evening. They also host drop-ins, provided they register in advance. 

Ry Shissleris a Purple Fins swimmer and founder of a Toronto cycling club for trans and non-binary people called They Cycle. They tearfully recall their first swimming experience with the swim club.

"Because everybody has shared experiences, I felt like I could just be myself. And at the end of the first session, I cried."

Shissler says they feel as comfortable at the pool as they are at home with their partner of 13 years.

Toni Harris, a transmasculine trainer in Edmonton, has recreated a safe space for trans and non-binary people three years after a queer-focused fitness studio where they worked closed in Alberta's capital.

Trans Formed, a free six-week program at Action Potential Fitness for gender-diverse people, was launched in January with 20 participants. 

"It is essentially about finding ways to move their bodies joyfully in a space that feels safe," Harris says. 

"We see a lot of rainbow stickers go up during the Pride month, but not a lot has been done to really make space safe and welcoming to queer and trans folks."

Trans Formed features non-gender-assigned washrooms and awareness of how medical history, like hormone therapy, may affect the physiological response to exercise, they added. 

The team at Every Body Stronger in Calgary has also been working to create a"brave space"for gender-diverse people, says trainer Ace Rodgriguez.

Soon after graduating from Mount Royal University's personal trainer program, the 27-year-old says they noticed no one was serving trans and non-binary communities.

"People often use 'safer spaces' as a way to show they're inclusive, but a space can never be surely safe."

Every Body Stronger "comes with a little bit of bravery and courage to want to be in a space like this," says Rodriguez.

The studio with two trainers has more than 60 clients, with at least a quarter being gender-diverse, says owner Geoff Starling.

"We got an inquiry from someone in rural Ontario," Starling says, adding the person was starting to "lean into (their) new identity as a trans female" and "couldn't find fitness businesses in Canada openly advertising a brave space."

Starling and Rodriguez say they see great potential in trans and non-binary fitness and hope there will be more trainers and businesses to serve the need.  

"People don't want to work with 'complicated bodies' that require a little bit more work, a little bit more thought," Rodriguez says.  

"There are definitely not enough (trainers for gender-diverse people). I would love to have more people on board."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2023.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Ritika Dubey, The Canadian Press