Getting back in the boat

Getting back in the boat

After this story was written, Portland television station KGW profiled Ryan.


It's just after 9 a.m. on an overcast Tuesday during winter break at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Ryan LaVigne, a sophomore on the rowing team, is alone in the erg room, a space in the Zehntbauer Swimming Pavilion basement with 15 rowing machines, getting set to row a "5-by-15," five pieces, or reps, of 15 minutes each.

Wearing a gray long-sleeved shirt, black pants and pink Nike shoes, Ryan stretches using a white bar, twisting from side-to-side, preparing for a fifth straight day of voluntary training. Normally preferring a machine on the more dimly-lit left side of the room, Ryan needs to use one near the room's single window because it's the only spot where a silver flip phone gets service. As a resident advisor, Ryan needs to answer should it ring.

In fact, one of those calls delayed today's training. Ryan had been starting workouts earlier in the day since returning to campus two weeks earlier than the scheduled end to winter break. RA responsibilities are part of the reason, but rowing is certainly the other. With no access to a gym while away, Ryan's times haven't been satisfying since returning to campus. Using a section of paper towel dispensed from the machine near the doorway, Ryan covers the rowing machine's time display.

The pieces begin and Ryan makes the workout look routine. Training for the resumption of rowing competition this March, the first-year collegiate rower looks comfortable, which makes sense because she says she feels at home in the erg room. It's also where she feels safe.

Ryan is transgender, and in her second year overall as a Lewis & Clark student. This past fall term marked her return to rowing, a sport with which she's had a profound relationship, and that's provided immense meaning in her life.

"I rowed a lot in high school. It got to the point of six days a week, twice a day. It was absolutely what I loved doing. Everything I did outside of school was devoted to rowing."

In addition to her genuine love of the sport, rowing became a way to cope with Ryan's feelings of gender dysphoria, which she describes as the condition of feeling one's emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be different than to one's assigned sex at birth. But while the sport helped her mentally, Ryan eventually overtrained and became injured. During her junior season, she was advised to quit competing.

A year later, as a senior, Ryan finally took the advice and stopped rowing. The break ultimately helped her beyond just physical recovery.

"I had a lot more energy and I wasn't constantly ignoring myself. I realized pretty quickly, I'm really not male. I became a lot more aware of who I was and how I needed to be treated to feel safe within myself and around others."

The need for safety, plus its academic offerings, brought Ryan to Lewis & Clark. Along with coming out to her family shortly before arriving on Palatine Hill, Ryan's first day presenting herself and openly telling others that she is a woman was day one on campus.

During her freshman year, her physical routine dramatically changed.

"That was a pretty big shock. I didn't go the gym and hardly exercised at all the first year. I vastly cut down on food, all to help pass more and be accepted more as a woman. It was really detrimental."

Things changed when Ryan was accepted to be an RA for her upcoming sophomore year, and through a peer, her old ally rowing came calling again.

"During RA training, my friend Clare started talking to me about rowing, and I realized how much I missed it. My freshman year had thrown me into quite a bit of turmoil: to stop exercising, to be in a new place and to be presenting as a new gender. To start doing something like rowing, that I really love and care about, has really helped solidify my identity."

Above: Ryan is third from right in a Lewis & Clark boat at October's Charlie Brown Regatta

The NCAA has a clear policy on transgender student-athlete participation. In Ryan's case, as a trans female, she can start competing on a women's team after "completing one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment." Ryan was cleared prior to the start of this past fall term, and was in one of the Lewis & Clark women's team boats at October's American Lake Fall Classic.

"I was petrified going in. I was scared about how people would look at me. As soon as the race started, all of that left. The only thing that mattered then was getting the boat from point A to point B as fast as we could. It was really incredible being able to push all of that fear out. After the race, it reminded me how much purpose rowing gives me in my life. You get out what you put in."

So, Ryan is in the erg room for the fifth straight day during winter break. She's putting in the work to try and be the best she can be for her teammates, and for herself. Ryan says being transgender isn't just one body type doing one specific thing, and it doesn't mean you have to stop doing something, especially something you love. For Ryan, that's rowing, and it's part of her identity. She's a woman, a collegiate athlete, a resident advisor, and a Lewis & Clark student.