MISSOULA — For the first time in 16 months, June Eastwood will step to the starting line of a college cross country race Saturday.
But in a way, it'll also be the first time June Eastwood has ever have done it.
And when she does at the Clash of the Inland Northwest in Cheney, Washington, history will be made.
Eastwood, a redshirt senior at Montana and native of Belgrade, will be the first known male-to-female transgender athlete to compete in an NCAA Division I cross country race. For three seasons, she competed as Jonathan Eastwood on the men’s cross country and track and field teams before redshirting last year to make the transition.
As her first race nears, Eastwood’s story has exploded across the country.
“I guess you could say I’m a little bit excited and nervous at the same time,” she told the Missoulian/406mtsports.com. “I’m excited because I haven't competed in 16 months and now I can compete and it’s going to be awesome to get back into a race.
“On the other side of things, I’m a little nervous for the reaction to however I perform because there will be negative things regardless of whether I run well or poorly. I took a year off and trained and I’ve been thinking about Saturday and that race and what that means for so long. It’s here now so it’s sort of the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Montana Griz Cross Country/Track athlete June Eastwood will become the first EVER D-1 transgender athlete to openly compete in her respective sport. I followed the former Belgrade state champ throughout the summer to bring you her story. Here's a little sneak peak.— Shaun Rainey (@ShaunRainey) August 23, 2019
PART 1 pic.twitter.com/dkM4fT4z1k
According to letsrun.com, to be eligible, Eastwood "must undergo one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment," so she redshirted her senior year. During that time, she took testosterone suppression pills and estrogen pills.
She takes each pill twice a day and will have to take some form of testosterone suppression and estrogen for the rest of her life.
Not surprisingly, the NCAA rules regarding transgender athletes are relatively vague. Eastwood said she didn't have to be cleared; rather she was given a rundown of guidelines.
She added that her medical work was through the university and a team doctor, so the NCAA could check her medical records to verify compliance.
"It was just like a, 'Is this person following NCAA protocol?' Which, we are, so that was the check," she said.
Eastwood said she began medically transitioning to a female at the end of her junior year. But her social transition, she said, began in the winter of her sophomore year.
She ran the entire junior season on the men's roster but was open with her teammates about her looming transition.
"It's a tricky situation that has benefits on both sides and there's also issues on both sides that need to be addressed," UM track and field coach Brian Schweyen said. "We've just been trying to address those as we go and make sure that everyone is as comfortable as they can be and that it is as fair as possible for everyone involved."
The biggest hurdle, Eastwood said, was getting ready to compete again — as June Eastwood.
"In that first couple of months, some of the most significant changes happen so it was like waiting for most of those significant changes to stop happening so I could just figure out where I was," she said.
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Throughout the process, Eastwood said her male and female teammates have been completely accepting.
"Initially with the men's team when I was out then it was very overwhelmingly positive and they treated it as 'you do you'," she said. "I definitely feel like the women's team has welcomed me with open arms and have been so compassionate and caring and have treated me just like any other girl on the team.
"It's so nice to have them realize that what we're sharing is this running thing and in doing that we can focus on other things just like any other cross country team."
Naturally, there are varying opinions on Eastwood's transition. Some people have suggested she's making the transition to win races.
"What I would say is, there's so much emotion that goes into transitioning and becoming the person you are that I can't fathom that anybody would possibly want to do this just to win a race," Eastwood counters. "It seems so small and non-substantial compared to the emotional aspect of it."
For that reason, Schweyen said his concern has been her well-being.
"When this arose, we've had a lot of conversations over the last few years with Jonathan and there were some struggles with Jonathan and now you know why," he said. "So I think when this did happen, and now talking with June, I don't think it was a big surprise. For me, it was a relief for June.
"Without anyone going through what she has gone through, no one knows what that internal battle is. So when someone finally is able to do what they feel so strongly about, for me, that's relief for that individual."
Eastwood admitted she is working through the media attention. Basically overnight, she went from no one knowing her story to seeing it everywhere.
The challenge now is to block out the noise while making time to answer questions when needed. That, and keeping the relationships with people who are close to her.
"Just this week I've started to figure out how to draw some boundaries," she said.
Eastwood was a decorated distance runner coming out of Belgrade. A 2015 graduate, as Jonathan Eastwood he won the Class A state cross country championship as a senior and also swept the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter titles. Eastwood still holds the boys Class A 800 record from 2015.
Eastwood told the Chronicle it was about fifth or sixth grade when she began "questioning her identity."
She expected backlash competing as a woman after posting impressive times in high school and college on male teams. She knew developing a thick skin was important.
"It's been a lot easier to deal with that sort of stuff now than it was before transitioning when I was competing in men's divisions as a now trans woman with my teammates and my teammates knew and they treated me that way," Eastwood said. "It was a lot harder going into those races because I felt like I had to compromise a little bit of myself for running. I'm really glad I don't have to do that anymore."
Schweyen told Eastwood he wants to meet with her twice a week to ensure she's handling the attention.
"As this moves forward, that role certainly has to increase from my standpoint," he said. "We're trying to figure out as best as we can to do what we feel is right and proper for everyone and make sure that June definitely is taken care of and that her mind is in a good place."
Said Eastwood: "It doesn't seem like it would be as feasible or possible without the support of those sorts of people like Brian and many of those other really supportive, close teammates and friends."
And on Saturday, for the first time, she will be able to feel like herself on a cross country course.