Chris Mosier strides out in Olympic Trials 50K race walk in Santee.
Chris Mosier strides out in Santee 50K, the first out trans athlete to compete in a U.S. Olympic Trials. Photo by Ken Stone

Awaiting the starting gun last Saturday in Santee, Chicago’s Chris Mosier knew something was wrong. His right knee was hurting.

But when 15 men strode into the 7:04 a.m. fog at the U.S. Olympic Trials 50-kilometer race walk, Mosier was among them.

After two of the 40 laps — 1.55 miles into the 31-mile race — he rounded a turn and stopped.

A meniscus tear, he told judges.

Few noticed the 5-foot-9, 135-pound athlete calling it a day. But a New York Times story three days later confirmed history being made.

“By starting the race, Mosier became the first transgender athlete to qualify for and participate in an Olympic trials in the gender with which he identifies. He is also the first trans man to compete with men at that level,” wrote Talya Minsberg in the Times.

Mosier, wearing the blue-and-green of Nike, was sixth when he passed the 2.5K mark in 14:31, the first of four entrants to drop out. (One was disqualified.)

“So it was either push through — and honestly, for what? I knew I wasn’t going to win the race; I knew I wouldn’t be top 3 — or live to race another day,” he said by phone Friday near Chicago.

But being the first trans man to make an Olympic Trials was big.

“The timing actually couldn’t be better … for me making this moment in history,” he said, noting the politics surrounding transgender athletes and people in general.

“Right now, there are nine states that have bills on the table that want to prevent high school transgender student-athletes from competing in the gender with which they identify,” he said. “It’s a really important moment for me to have this platform to be able to speak out against those bills and to share how important sport has been in my life.”

Mosier qualified for the trials Oct. 20, 2019, in Hauppauge, New York, when he finished a 50K walk in 5:53:47 — later determined to be top 15 in the country. A longtime triathlete and duathlete who made U.S. national teams, it was his second race walk of his life — at age 39.

His first was just 5K.

The Northern Michigan University product conceded he was severely undertrained for that October race — his longest training walk before the 50K being 30K (18.6 miles). He’s run 60K (37.3 miles), but called that a “very different experience on your body.”

On Friday — the day after returning home via a “red-eye” flight — he said his knee hurts more when he walks than when he runs.

He says his surgeon has advised surgery, “but that’s what surgeons say,” Mosier said, laughing.

“My next step is to get a second opinion on that, and really figure out a treatment plan so that I can be in shape for the world championships in the … duathlon in the fall,” he said.

In 2015, he lobbied the International Olympic Committee to loosen its rules for transgender athletes, which then required surgery below the waist. With new rules, he was able to compete in the International Triathlon Union Sprint Duathlon World Championships in Aviles, Spain, becoming the first known transgender athlete to vie for a world title.

He was 28th out of 48 in the 35-39 age group sprint.

During the 2016 Rio Games, he was in a Nike commercial and was the first transgender athlete featured in the ESPN The Magazine body issue. In 2018 and 2019, Mosier was in Nike’s “Be True” TV spots.

Nike | Unlimited Courage | Chris Mosier from saraphillips on Vimeo.

He co-founded transathlete.com in 2013, only three years after starting his female-to-male transition, and was named to the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.

He says he was in the “first wave” of athletes to apply for drug exemptions for transgender men — having a doctor justify his testosterone use.

Despite such notoriety, he came to Santee flying “under the radar.”

“I honestly think [USA Track & Field] just didn’t know about me because I’m a new member — as of just a couple months ago,” he said. “It probably didn’t register with them until after the fact.”

He didn’t want to send a press release, attracting a bunch of TV cameras — “no need to roll through there like a celebrity.”

His support team in Santee was his wife, Zhen Heinemann, who works for the city of Chicago. Also present was fellow race walker Pablo Gomez, who took fifth in the Santee 50K in a personal best 4:45:23 — at age 48.

Mosier credits Gomez for his being there.

While training and coaching at EDGE Athlete Lounge, Mosier said Pablo one day asked him: “Hey, have you ever thought about race walking?”

Mosier says he laughed and shrugged “nope.”

“He said: ‘I really think you can do it. You might be pretty good at it,” Mosier recalled of Gomez, whom he called a rock star in the tightknit race walking community. “And that is kind of all it took.”

Gomez gave Mosier some beginner lessons and a book.

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“He’d check in on my form. He kind of mentored me through this process — let me know when races were,” he said. “He’s been at all three races that I’ve done.”

After dropping out of the Trials 50K, Mosier joined the Gomez support team at the customized drink station entrants passed every lap. Mosier also cheered on new acquaintance Matthew Forgues, the gay athlete who took second Saturday (displaying a rainbow flag along with Old Glory).

Six days later, Mosier acknowledged he would face a challenge that morning.

“I’ve been battling knee pain for quite a while actually,” he said — trying to train through it. “The excitement of being at the Olympic Trials made it really challenging to make that decision that I wouldn’t continue on with the race.”

Turns out Gomez needed him at the end — when Gomez collapsed, totally spent.

“I caught him … after he crossed the finish line,” Mosier said.

Mosier, who travels the country advocating for trans athletes and telling his story to various paying groups, says his main athletic focus is getting his leg back to health and making sure he’s able to continue to perform at a high level.

“And that will really be the determining factor of what happens next,” he said.

Having caught the walk bug, he says he hopes to do race walking the next four years and see where that takes him while continuing the duathlon, “which I think will be perfect cross training for race walking with a little bit of running and cycling. I’m confident I can fit those two things together.”

“Transition for me is a lifelong process,” he says, “and I’ll be taking testosterone (weekly) for the rest of my life. … And every year I need to get a therapeutic use exemption under the policies of both the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and WADA.”

Transition didn’t make him taller, he jokes.

“I’m a pretty skinny dude,” he said. “I’ve always been very lean and muscular. There’s really not huge differences in me and my body throughout the last 10 years. I didn’t take testosterone and Hulk out.”

He says he has no concerns about being flagged for doping — “It will never be a problem for me.”

But he’s acutely aware that society has a problem with male-to-female transgender people.

“The fact that I’m a trans man, competing with men, in sports, is not nearly as big of a deal as any transgender woman who wants to compete with women,” Mosier said.

Though trans man Pat Manuel is a professional boxer — and many prep and college trans men do sports — “you don’t hear about them because no one sees transgender men as a threat,” Mosier says.

But while advocating for trans women is crucial, he also wants to show trans boys and men that they, too, can compete at an elite level. He aims to be a “figure of hope for trans kids who are being told by the government that they are not worthy of basic human rights of dignity or of respect.”

Will Mosier be back for another Santee 50K?

“I don’t hate the 50K,” he said. “I’d like to give it another shot. Hopefully … I’ll see you out there in a year or so.”