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'Just say Ashleigh': Sweet Home transgender athlete finds herself on the track

Ashleigh Lucina gets emotional thinking about her first track and field meet three years ago.

She was nervous, maybe even borderline excited, to see how she would do. It was a new sport for the then-freshman, who until that spring had always considered herself a swimmer.

The meet also marked a new beginning, a new step in her transition from Zachary Poydock to Ashleigh Lucina. As a transgender girl, she was still required to compete on the boys team. But there, in the meet program, was her name, spelled out just like everyone else's.

It said Ashley.

Ashleigh didn't care that her name was spelled wrong. She felt accepted. The Sweet Home track team had taken her in for who she was, and that meant the world to her.

The track is one of the places where Ashleigh says she feels most accepted. Here, she's just one of the runners, and growing up in a time when people don't always accept her for who she is, she appreciates that acceptance more than her teammates know.

Ashleigh is the first openly transgender student in Sweet Home school district, and she has become an advocate pushing for the changes she wants to see for her and transgender students who follow.

Because there is no national governing body with policy authority for high school sports, there is no universal policy for transgender high school athletes. Each state can create and enforce guidelines. In New York, the responsibility is passed down to each district, which has the power to decide whether athletes play on the team that matches their gender identity or the team that matches their sex at birth.

Ashleigh Lucina pauses to catch her breath on the pedestrian bridge over the I-990 at the end of an hour-long workout. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The transition

Ashleigh has always been an athlete. She began swimming when she was 10 and morphed into a distance swimmer, specializing in the 500 freestyle.

But then, things got complicated.

In eighth grade, after experimenting with different characters online, she realized she identified as a girl. After toying with different names, she decided on the first name Ashleigh and the last name Lucina. She plans to legally change her name when she turns 18.

Her transition began soon after. During her freshman year, she came out only to close friends and family. Her parents did not accept the news well, she said, and they do not support her transition. They declined to be interviewed.

During sophomore year, Ashleigh began to wear dresses and hair bows to school as she started to express herself. By junior year, she was completely out, and from her silicone breast inserts to shaved legs, she started to fully embrace her persona.

"I also felt like, 'This is the year where I finally don't care,' " she said. "People who didn't know were very few at that point."

Sweet Home principal Scott Martin describes Ashleigh as a "trailblazer," not for her athletic abilities but for her leadership skills on and off the track.

He said the school did not have any policies for transgender students because it had never dealt with a situation like this. But since he was hired at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, Martin has been meeting with Ashleigh to make sure she is getting the same experience as other students.

The school has given her access to a unisex bathroom and is allowing her access to female locker rooms this fall. Martin said Sweet Home looked to other schools for guidance on how to make everyone feel comfortable in the locker room and landed on hanging curtains to create private areas. These areas can be used by any students.

"Ashleigh has done an unbelievable job advocating for herself and has done a great job being a trailblazer in our school and paving the ways for others to come after her," Martin said. "We are really proud of her for that."

Two weeks into her first track season, Ashleigh told Brian Lombardo, who at the time was the track and field coach at Sweet Home, that she was transgender. While the rest of the team went through warmups, the two stood off to the side and talked.

Lombardo wanted to make sure Ashleigh was being treated fairly by her coaches and teammates at all times.

"To be honest, I thought we had a good, strong foundation of student-athletes who are caring, compassionate," Lombardo said. "While you're watching (the situation to make sure she's treated fairly), you're not overly worried, either. Just because the factor of who we have and the student leadership we had. …"

"Dealing with (Ashleigh) was just making sure she was comfortable and things were being done right. It is a different subject as of late and making sure we were talking the right way."

Ashleigh Lucina runs with a teammate. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Conflicting policies

New York has a set of guidelines but no formal policy for transgender athlete participation. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association created its guidelines in 2015 and published a revision in 2017. The guidelines leave the decision up to each district.

The students must file a petition, with consent from a parent or guardian, to the school or district if they wish to compete with the gender that is different from the one on their official school registration. After the ruling, the student can challenge the finding by petitioning the state. According to the guidelines, the district has the right to review the gender placement of the athlete after every season.

There are more than 600,000 high school athletes in New York, and NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas said the guidelines were created to help member schools.

"To create a steadfast rule would be difficult, to try to create a rule that would encompass all kids in some specific way," Zayas said. "This guidance gives the schools something to work off of as they are trying to determine the needs of the individual students."

Ashleigh has not submitted a petition to compete with girls, largely because she struggles to decide whether it is fair.

At this point, she said, has not taken any hormones or had any reassignment surgeries. She would also have to get permission from her parents.

"I feel it's a little bit unfair that I have testosterone, but at the same time I know so many girls that can kick my (butt)," she said. "I'm not the best; I'm not the greatest. Even with testosterone, there are so many better people out there."

Chris Mosier, a triathlete and the first transgender athlete to make a U.S. national team, said a difference remains in how transgender female athletes are viewed.

"I think in sports and in life it is much more difficult to be a transgender woman than a transgender man," he said. "It really highlights the sexism in our world and in sports. Transgender girls have a much harder time than trans boys just getting access to sport, not even talking about competing, just getting the ability to participate is a really challenge for them. Anytime a trans girl or trans women wants to participate it becomes a big issue."

Ashleigh Lucina and some of her teammates during an informal workout. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Finding her way

The pool, once a place for Ashleigh to clear her mind, has become a place she dreads. Growing up, she wore a typical boys competitive suit, a tight knee-length jammer. During her sophomore year, she no longer felt comfortable taking her shirt off for practices.

She asked the coaches if she could wear a girls suit instead. They allowed it for practice, but it did not satisfy  regulations for meets.

For a while, things seemed to be getting better. But one day Ashleigh overheard a teammate say he wasn't comfortable with her doing that. She became self-conscious about the way her body looked and decided to layer a girls suit over the typical boys suit.

She envies the other girls who were born in the gender they identify with. She wants her body to look like theirs, and at the moment it does not. When she goes to swim the 500 free now, her top half will be exposed for five and a half minutes. That's not something she feels comfortable with, and she's anxious and afraid when she's at the pool.

Ashleigh still swims occasionally, but she now considers it more of a hobby.

"The people at swim are mildly supportive, too, but I've never really socialized with them much, and they all know me by my dead name," she said, a reference to her birth name. "We're not interested in the same things at all."

Running, on the other hand, has been the exact opposite.

She joined the team as a freshman, at first as a way to occupy her time after the winter swim season. Soon, she had a new group of friends and a place to go after school.

Jacob Weissenburg, who has gone to school with Ashleigh since elementary school and has run with her since she joined the team, said it was never awkward.

"It was a big thing and everyone talked about it (at first), but then we just decided to stick with her," he said. "We saw that it was hard going through it. I feel like the team helped her the most. Everyone on the team accepts her."

Ashleigh became a distance runner on the track, just like she was in the pool. Her cardiovascular strength transferred over, and she easily adapted to the workouts.

"She is very hard-working and is always trying to set herself apart," Lombardo said. "It's very hard to do work when not everyone is watching, and there was never an issue about her doing the work. She had a very fast development over the course of the past few years."

She's dropped 90 seconds in the two miles over three years. In cross country, she's consistently one of the top five Sweet Home runners and competes with the varisty team.

'Just say my name. Just say Ashleigh'

There's a countdown on Ashleigh's phone until her 18th birthday. That is when she can legally change her name from Zachary Poydock to Ashleigh Lucina.

Originally her plan was not to come out to her family, at least for a little while. But she decided to do it in the summer before her freshman year. She felt it was important to tell them what she was going through.

Ashleigh struggled to find a way to explain it. She landed on an illustration and drew a photo of a girl with light brown hair and a flowing dress. In the white space above the girl, she put different symbols to explain to her parents her new identity. There was the three-pronged transfer symbol and another to represent her sexuality.

"The reaction was 'What do you want to do?' and I said, 'Just use my name. Just say Ashleigh,'" she said. "They said, 'That will be difficult.' "

She said her relationship with her parents was at its worst her freshman year and reached a low point the day after her first homecoming. She had gone to the dance with friends in a dress, and her parents found out. They told her they didn't approve of her dressing as a woman, but she knew it was something she needed to do.

Their relationship has been rocky since that point, and she said they have raided her room on multiple occasions to get rid of her feminine objects. Ashleigh knows that if she orders something online she needs to mail it to a friend's house or intercept the package before her parents see it.

"While there is that schism between me and my parents, I do still very much value them and appreciate what they do, even if we don't agree on the major issue in my life," she said. "So while I do cut them out a lot of my life, I still do really appreciate what they have done for me and what they still do for me and all that they mean."

She still lives at home and plans to continue doing so, at least for now. Her goal is to go to the University at Buffalo, continue living in the area and use the student health insurance benefits from UB to begin her sex reassignment surgeries and hormone treatments.

Ashleigh Lucina runs with her teammates. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Embracing her role

Three years since her first track and field meet, Ashleigh is still there, working out on the track alongside her teammates.

It's 8 a.m. on a July morning and the cross country team is just beginning its workout. It's an unofficial practice, but an important one as the team prepares for its season.

The temperature is already over 80 degrees. At the front of the pack is Ashleigh, now a rising senior.

She never would have pictured herself in this position when she joined the team, but she's embracing her role now. There is no coach at these workouts, so Ashleigh and her fellow seniors are the ones leading the younger students through warmups.

With an earbud in one year — big band and jazz are her favorites — and her hair tied back into a loose bun, Ashleigh is at the center of the conversation. Although the team is divided into girls and boys teams when it comes to competition, all the practices and team activities generally are co-ed.

The girls team has taken her in as one of its own, even if she can't be on the official roster. She wears the same signature bow in her hair during competition and goes to the team bonding activities with the girls.

Ashleigh knows that she isn't the best athlete and that her competitive career will likely end when she leaves high school, just like many others. But her hope is that other transgender athletes will use her as an example and be able to find a place where they can be accepted and loved, just like she is on the track.

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