Sports

With his transgender identity public, skier Jay Riccomini finds success on and off the slopes

PARK CITY, Utah — One of freestyle skier Jay Riccomini’s priceless life moments came this year in Switzerland, when he was recognized on the podium for a third-place finish in a major global competition.

It was a breakthrough performance — and the announcer used his correct pronouns.

“I just thought, ‘It took some time to get there. But we did it,'” he said.

On July 20, 2021, Riccomini, then 17, announced on social media that he was a gay transgender man who would from then on use the pronouns he and him. “I want the world to know who I am and who I’m meant to be so I can pursue it openly,” he wrote.

Now 20, he is on top of the world: In January, he placed third at a World Cup slopestyle competition, an event that features skiers spinning and flipping down a mountain slope filled with rails, bumps and jumps. He also finished third in two other events last season, giving him a third-place finish in the overall slopestyle standings. He was recently promoted to the U.S. Freeski pro team. And he’s being mentioned as an Olympic hopeful for the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games.

As part of his transition, Riccomini underwent top surgery more than a year ago to create a masculine appearance. But he has decided to put off taking testosterone until his career is over, to stay in compliance with the regulations. He still competes in women’s events, and will continue to do so if he makes the Team USA roster for the Olympics.

Riccomini says he has received nothing but support from the freestyle skiing world since he announced he was trans.

“I thought I was going to have to give up my hopes and dreams,” he said. “People rose above my expectations, for sure.”

But he also acknowledges that the road to becoming Jay Riccomini was neither smooth nor straightforward.

“It’s not a linear line. It’s a freaking roller coaster through it all,” he told The Associated Press recently, in one of his first interviews with a national news outlet.

SILENCE, SECRECY AND DEPRESSION

From a young age, even before he realized what it was, Riccomini began experiencing gender dysphoria, when a person’s gender identity doesn’t match their sex assigned at birth. But he kept it secret.

The mountains provided both a refuge and an escape. Growing up in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania, he spent many winter weekends with his brother at Tussey Mountain, which featured a terrain park loaded with jumps and rails.

On numerous occasions, his family also traveled to Copper Mountain, Colorado, where coaches at Woodward, a training ground for kids interested in action sports, recognized his talent.

But not being able to share his secret weighed heavily on him, and ultimately led to such a severe depression that even the mountains couldn’t save him. His parents didn’t know the depths of his struggles, either.

“I just wanted Jay to be happy, and Jay was unhappy for so many years,” said his mother, Andrea. “That’s been the hardest part for me, that he was unhappy for so long.”

Rock bottom came at 17, while Riccomini attended a winter sports school in Park City, Utah. He missed classes. His grades suffered. And in perhaps the most worrisome sign that something was wrong, he was often absent from the terrain park, one of his favorite spots.

“When people saw that I wasn’t there, they’re like, ‘Where are you?’” Riccomini recounted. “I was depressed. I wasn’t eating. It wasn’t good.”

Even when he had a memorable moment — finishing 18th in his World Cup debut in Aspen in March 2021 — he wasn’t able to truly celebrate. It was under his old name. Every time someone referred to him as “her,” it gave him anxiety.

“I just felt like I was going to throw up,” he said.

FINALLY BECOMING JAY

He decided to take action.

First, he told a close friend he was trans. Then, he changed his pronouns on his Instagram bio to “they/them” and told more teammates and friends. Not long afterward, while out skiing, he came up with a new name.

“I was like, ‘Should I call myself Jake or Jack or Ace?’” he said. ”I thought, ‘Jay — Jay is perfect.’ It’s just easy” — and it happened to echo his father’s middle initial, J.

Teammate Colby Stevenson began calling him “Jay-Bird.”

“I like that,” Riccomini said. “I really like that.”

With his name in place, Riccomini went public on Instagram, writing that he was “over constantly feeling trapped in my own body.”

The announcement set him free, transforming his anxiety into hope and happiness.

“Seeing him happy,” his mom said, “is priceless.”

OFFICIAL RECOGNITION

At a World Cup event in February 2023, the International Ski Federation used Jay Riccomini’s new name in its results for the first time.

“It is our duty to do everything within our reach to ensure he feels included and respected in our competitions,” the federation’s integrity director, Sarah Fussek, said in a written statement to AP. “As the institution that represents snow sports around the whole world, for all, we have a moral obligation to do so.”

U.S. Ski & Snowboard has also expressed its support. “His dedication to the sport has resulted in a number of podiums at a young age,” Sophie Goldschmidt, president and CEO of USSS, said in a statement. “We know that he will continue his success on the world stage throughout the upcoming years.”

LEADING THE WAY FOR OTHERS

Riccomini’s mission now is to open doors for other transgender athletes and to inspire them the way he has been motivated by others.

“This young athlete has fought for and has earned with his results the right to be seen,” said Rook Campbell, a trans athlete and professor in areas of advertising, sports, globalization and media at the University of Southern California. “Visibility is powerful.”

As difficult as his own journey has been, Riccomini knows it is even harder for transgender women. After swimmer Lia Thomas became the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship, World Aquatics effectively banned transgender women from competing in women’s events. World Athletics, the governing body for track and field, has done the same.

Transgender girls are also banned from competing in girls sports at the high school level in numerous Republican-led U.S. states, where some lawmakers argue that they have an unfair strength advantage over cisgender girls. People on both sides point to limited research to back their opinions.

Thomas is someone Riccomini looks up to — he even wrote a paper about her experience for a civics class.

“I can’t imagine the toll taken on her mental health,” Riccomini said. “She’s just amazing.”

Campbell said it is sometimes easier for transgender men to speak out and gain acceptance than it is for transgender women. He said he thinks it’s “great to use that privilege.”

“I just wish it was broader,” he said.

As happy as he is, Riccomini realizes his transition won’t be fully complete until he can take testosterone, something he knows will help ease his gender dysphoria. But for now, just being recognized publicly as Jay is good enough.

“When people call me ‘he,’ I get this warm feeling in my stomach,” he said. “This overwhelming wave of happiness that flows through my body, knowing everyone sees me now for who I am.”

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