Mother and daughter Cynthia and Margaret Monteleone share a deep love of running and competition. But after they both ran against biological men in track events, they knew they needed to do something to defend their right to a level playing field.
“I think everyone should compete,” Cynthia Monteleone said. “I think all athletes should compete. There is no banning anyone. But that being said, there needs to be a distinction to keep the sport fair and to keep biological women advancing in the opportunities available to them.”
Monteleone is a World Masters Athletics track athlete and also coaches girls track at the middle school, high school, and elite level in Maui, Hawaii. In 2018, she faced off against a biological male during a track competition in Malaga, Spain. About a year and a half later, her daughter competed against another transgender athlete during her high school track meet.
“I was a little bit disheartened,” Margaret Monteleone said of placing second to a biological male in her high school track meet. “I'd worked so hard through the whole year, just training for this first-ever meet [of] my season. … I could have gotten first in the heat, and it was really disappointing to me to see my hard work pay off just for second place.”
Now, the mother and daughter are speaking out in defense of female athletes and their right to fair competition. They join the “Problematic Women” podcast to share their experience running against biological men and how they are advocating for the future of women’s sports.
Also on today’s show, we discuss why athlete Gwen Berry turned her back on the U.S. flag during the national anthem at the Olympic trials.
And as always, we’ll be crowning our “Problematic Woman of the Week.”
Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by track athletes and mother and daughter, Cynthia and Margaret Monteleone. Ladies, thank you so much for being here.
Cynthia Monteleone: Aloha. Thank you so much for having us. We really appreciate the opportunity to speak up and use our voices.
Allen: It's a real privilege to talk with you all. As you say, “Aloha.” You're down in Hawaii. I'm a little bit jealous of that.
Monteleone: Mahalo! We're so fortunate to live in such a beautiful place.
Allen: It is gorgeous. Well, I want to begin by asking you to share a little bit about your own passion for running. You're both track athletes. How did you become so interested in running and become athletes?
Monteleone: All right. So, I actually used to run everywhere as a child. My grandmother lived basically next door, about a hundred yards away in the Catskill Mountains in New York, and I would run to her house all the time. Anytime someone sent me to do something, I would be running. So, I really felt at an early age that I liked to run, and my daughter was the same way, I noticed, when she was growing up.
No one was asking her to do it, she was just doing it. And then my, let's see, I think it was like ninth grade. My [physical education] teacher, who also coached the track team said, it was about eighth grade, she said, “Oh, you should run track. You're a 400-meter runner.” And I tell her, “Wow, weren't you right? Because here I am, 45 years old, and I'm still a 400-meter runner.”
Allen: That is amazing. And that's not an easy race. I also ran track, and I know that the 400 is like the most brutal race to run because coaches are like, “Yeah, this is pretty much a sprint.”
Allen: It's a very long sprint.
Monteleone: Yeah. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to run the 400. I think there's a story about Usain Bolt [who] had a bet with his coach, like, if I could run fast enough in the 100, he wouldn't make him train for the 400, because nobody wants to train for the 400. But we like it. We like the hard work, and as a coach, I really like the lessons that the hard work teaches, and we can get into that.
But yeah, so fast-forward, I was recruited to run track in college, because I did very well in high school for my local community. And so, I was recruited to run at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, a Division I school. I ended up top five in the East Coast in the 500 indoor, which, you think the 400 is hard, the 500 is even harder.
And then just went on to have my career. I had three kids. And at age 40, my daughter said to me, “Mom, I want to run track in college on scholarship like you did. Can you train me for the 400?” And that's where our recent story began.
Allen: Yeah. So, Margaret, for you, what is it about running that you love?
Margaret Monteleone: I just really love how my training pays off, and I love going to races and competitions and seeing how successful I can be running. And it can provide me with so many opportunities like scholarships to college or even gold medals. I like traveling, and … just the whole sport is just so much fun to me.
Allen: Oh, that's so neat. Well, you all recently did a documentary with the Independent Women's Forum telling your story and explaining that you both now have competed in track events against biological men.
So, let's kind of begin at the beginning of that story. Cynthia, I know that you decided as an adult, “I want to begin competing again.“ And in 2018, you actually qualified for Team USA at the World Masters Athletics Championship in Spain.
Before you went and before that competition, you found out that you were going to be competing against a biological man. What were your thoughts when you learned that news?
Cynthia Monteleone: Well, I was just really curious as to the fairness of it. And I started to investigate the rules that were in place, and I found the testosterone requirements, but whenever I asked who was either checking on this, or who was deciding these rules, I would sometimes at first get some interest, and then it was swept under the rug. It was no, no, we can't talk about that.
And I really felt like the people I was talking to, they were also curious, and then they were being told to be quiet about it. That was the feeling I got. So, when I got there, I was expecting answers, and I still had no answers as to what the fairness of this was and how they were going about checking if it was fair, which of course, it doesn't even matter about testosterone, because it's still not fair.
Then, I was basically told that I shouldn't speak up, really, for my own safety, I should stay silent. So, I said, “Nope, that's not going to work for me. I'm going to continue to speak up because I want answers.” And my job is a metabolic practitioner, and so I'm constantly reading science.
I actually read about 50 medical journal articles or science articles per week minimum. And so, I'm familiar with the endocrine system and hormones, and the science of it. And so, I knew that something was up. Why were these decisions being made when, clearly, biological males have an advantage over females that's not based on testosterone?
So, yeah, I was very confused as to why no one was giving me answers and why they were telling me to be quiet.
Allen: So, what was the result of that race back in 2018?
Monteleone: Oh, that's a great question. I remember when I first started speaking up about this, it was back when I was still on Facebook. I'm not on Facebook anymore. But I had mentioned like, “Hey, women deserve a fair playing field.” We've always been very compassionate to all athletes involved, and so, I always keep things pretty “stick to the facts,” like women deserve a fair playing field, and some psychologist, I believe, had commented, “Well, you're just mad because you lost your race.”
And I said, “Well, I'm sorry you didn't get the memo. I actually didn't lose. I beat this individual by a few tenths of a second, but that doesn't mean it's not an issue, because then that individual came back six months later and stood on the podium for a medal that my teammate could have gotten, and the prize money that comes with it.”
There are so many opportunities that are lost for these women that are competing, and that was a much shorter race. It gets very complicated in the way that people think, “OK, well, just because you won, then it's not an issue.” But then, of course, it's an issue because it's what we call comparably gifted and trained.
For instance, in the state of Hawaii, in 2019, in the 400 meters in high school, there were about almost 700 participants for the boys' 400. About 350 of them could beat the state champion female—350, OK? So, that means that my lesson to my girls that I coach that hard work pays off, that lesson falls apart because quite literally a mediocre male, like right down the middle, mediocre, could beat a state champion female.
And what if then they start training and then they're beating the most elite females, basically? A high school boy could beat the most elite female athlete in the Olympics. So, it just really doesn't make sense. So, just because I may have won my particular race to someone who may have not been conditioned for that race, then that doesn't mean it's not an issue, because then they came back in a shorter race where they definitely used, I would say, their hip structure, body structure, that sort of thing, to win that race.
Yeah, so the critics will pick one side or the other to argue: Either you didn't train hard enough, or it's not an issue because you won, but you can't have it both ways.
Allen: No, you can't. Margaret, you have personal experience with this as well. You're in high school at a private school in Hawaii, and you competed also against a biological man. Tell me about that experience.
Margaret Monteleone: My freshman year of high school, at my first-ever high school track meet, I competed against a biological male in my race, the 400-meter dash. I knew this individual had definitely an advantage. They were physically bigger and stronger. And when I stepped on the line to run the race, I could tell that it was completely unfair.
I ended up coming in second in my race, and it was super-disheartening for me and my teammates. One of my teammates even said, “What's the point of doing track anymore? There's just no point if I'm just going to be displaced by this individual, who's very much stronger than me and has an advantage.” So, I thought it was definitely unfair, and I thought it would be a lot more fair if we had a fair playing field.
Allen: Yeah. By how much did that biological man beat you?
Monteleone: Three or four seconds, I think. You could definitely tell.
Allen: Yeah, which, for those who aren't familiar with timing in track, that is a massive amount of time in a 400-meter. That is very, very significant. Do you remember at the end of that race, Margaret, what was going through your head?
Monteleone: I was a little bit disheartened, because I'd worked so hard through the whole year, just training for this first-ever meet, my season. And I just remember that I could have gotten first, and I could have gotten first in the heat, and it was really disappointing to me to see my hard work pay off just for second place.
Allen: Cynthia, I know it's one thing to experience this yourself to compete against a biological man. It's another to watch your daughter compete against a transgender athlete. What were you feeling? What were you thinking when you saw Margaret lose to that biological man?
Cynthia Monteleone: You know, the first thing I thought, in my eyes she's clearly the winner, but the second thing I thought was we need to just keep speaking up about this, because this is not right. And I talked to some people about filing an OCR complaint—Office of Civil Rights—and I was told you can't file a complaint. And I want to be really clear with your listeners that if someone tells you you can't file a complaint, they're wrong. Of course you can file a complaint, but that's the type of pushback that I immediately was getting even, in regards to her running: “You can't file a complaint.”
Of course, I can file a complaint. I'm a citizen. I have a right to file a complaint. So, I did, and it took all the way from February until November for them to come back with the decision that because that individual went to a private school, it wasn't the jurisdiction of the Office of Civil Rights.
So, what had happened is, all of the departments, whether it's the [Hawaii High School Athletic Association] or the [Maui Interscholastic League] or the Department of Education, which oversees the [Maui Interscholastic League], so, it really was their jurisdiction, they all kept throwing the ball to the other person.
And so, this is what we're seeing, because nobody wants to address it, and nobody wants to be at fault for something. But what they don't realize is that us women are going to keep speaking up about it, and they are going to be at fault for discriminating against biological women.
Allen: Why do you think that is? Why do you think that it has kind of become a game of pass the ball and no one's willing to actually step up and make some real calls on this issue?
Monteleone: My theory is that it's just become politicized, and it shouldn't be. And I'll tell you why it shouldn't be, because I know everyone I know, Democrat or Republican, doesn't matter the party, they all agree that this is unfair.
Polling suggests that, it's a very large amount, I want to say like 80 or 90% of all people, regardless of political affiliation, agree that we can't have this. They can't be in the same category.
So, I am just really concerned at how it's been polarized by certain associations and individuals, and this current administration has definitely polarized it by making their decisions and their policies. And it's unnecessary, because everyone agrees that this should not be happening.
Allen: Margaret, for you, have you spoken with your teammates about this issue? Is this something that fellow athletes at your school are talking about?
Margaret Monteleone: Yeah, I've received mostly support from my teammates and from everybody because some of them have had to run up against this individual, and they all know the struggle of having trained so hard and having your hard work pay off. And so, yeah, I've received mostly support.
Allen: That's really good. That's good news. And Cynthia, as you mentioned, you coach women really at all levels. What is the response from other women that you're working with? What are their thoughts on this situation?
Cynthia Monteleone: Hey, again, like, “Wow!” I coach everyone from high school athletes to Olympians, and today is actually a great day for me because I just had two of my clients this past weekend make the Olympic team. They both won.
Virginia Allen: Congratulations! That's wonderful.
Monteleone: Thank you. They both won first place. Not only did they make the team, but they won the national title. So, they're just powerhouse women, and they absolutely agree with me. And you know what? They both have different political affiliations and different beliefs about things, but they both agree that we cannot have biological men in the female category.
The other side will say … they used to have science as their argument and say, “Well, if you just change the testosterone, if you just change the hormones, then it's fair.” But now that they've realized that the science has come out that proves otherwise, that even after hormone therapy and after gender-reassignment surgery, that male-bodied athletes still have an advantage.
Now, their go-to argument is just, “We just have to call them girls, because that's what they want to be called.” Period. And no other arguments. And that just won't hold up. You know, that's not OK. We need to just keep speaking up, because that does not make any kind of sense. It's not commonsense.
And yeah, so I just encourage others to really use your voice, and you know in your heart and in your instinct what's right and what's not right, and that you should speak up about that.
Allen: Well, and like you say, this is a really challenging issue, Cynthia, and I think so many people are afraid to speak out on it. What would be your response to someone that says it's not fair to not allow a transgender athlete to compete with the gender that they identify with?
Monteleone: Well, to be clear, I think everyone should compete. I think all athletes should compete. There is no banning anyone. But that being said, there needs to be a distinction to keep the sport fair and to keep biological women advancing in the opportunities available to them.
And when you actually consider only the struggle of the trans athlete, you're really doing an injustice and discounting the struggle of the female athlete that's worked so hard to get to that place. Because again, you could work so hard to be the No. 1 state champion female, but 350 boys could take that place if they “identify” as a girl. I mean, that just doesn't make sense, because if you're No. 349, you're obviously not working as hard as that female.
Allen: So, what's your encouragement to other women or athletes who are either watching this issue or maybe experiencing a situation firsthand, where they're having to compete against a biological man? What would you say to them? What should they do?
Monteleone: I would say to those athletes, absolutely have compassion for everyone, and then make sure that you can use your voice and don't be afraid to use your voice, because the facts are there and commonsense and science is behind you. You have all of the support you need. You just have to use your voice, because if everyone keeps using their voice, then we will be heard.
Allen: So, what's next for you all? Margaret, let's begin with you. Do you plan on continuing to run, continuing to really speak out on this issue?
Margaret Monteleone: Yeah. I plan to continue to run. I plan to run in college. Hopefully, I can get a scholarship. And I definitely continue to plan to speak out on this issue, because I believe it's important for other young girls who might be in the same situation as I am.
It would be wrong of me to not speak out for so many other girls.
Allen: Yeah. That's very, very bold of you to do so. And Cynthia, are you going to keep running yourself, keep coaching?
Cynthia Monteleone: Yes. I will keep running, keep competing. However, I do have an issue with some of the associations allowing this to happen. At some point, I might just say, “Hey, I don't want to compete at the world level until you make a fair playing field.” I really feel kind of passionate about that.
I'll still run the No. 1 world time, as I have been, but I'm really getting a little disheartened and disappointed in the associations that are making these rules based on feelings and not based on the facts and science.
Allen: Wow! Well said. Thank you both so much for being willing to join the show, but also just for being willing to speak out. This is a very controversial issue, even though I think it shouldn't be—but it is. And it's incredibly bold of both of you to really be taking a stand and being willing to share your personal stories, so, thank you.
Cynthia Monteleone: Mahalo! We appreciate you.
Margaret Monteleone: Thank you.
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