As part of Transgender International Day of Remembrance on November 20, the Sliding Doors Therapeutic Day Rehabilitation Program at WRAD welcomed esteemed Australian athlete Ricki Coughlan as special guest speaker.

Now 62, Ricki was one of Australia’s first ‘out’ transgender sportswomen and agreed to share some of her story from the perspective of overcoming adversity as well as touching on her own past experiences with drug addiction and living in recovery.

Ricki is now a registered running coach and a yoga teacher. She also teaches Indian cooking. Ricki runs long distance most days, is vegan and an accomplished artist, an experienced environmentalist and qualified field ornithologist.

Ricki shared powerful messages of hope and self-determination; revealing a gift for overcoming adversity in the face of great challenges with respectful, humility and kindness to all those around her.

From the shock of being forced into accepted gender norms at age five when starting school, understanding at 10 that she was not alone in the world by feeling her gender identity was not as assigned at birth, through learning about hormone treatment options and making a clear decision to ‘live life as a girl’ – Ricki highlighted her gratitude for positive and caring people who supported her through the stages of her journey.

Ricki led her listeners on a vivid journey through decades laden with layers of difficulty, from the 70s when the term ‘transgender’ didn’t exist and labels on offer were either “mentally ill” or “pervert”; Ricki touched on a hedonistic phase of engaging in drug using attempts to ‘expand consciousness’ in a ‘noble journey’ seeking spiritual growth and awareness.

Quietly candid in relating each phase of her life story, Ricki noted that ‘all drug taking is abuse’ which “always has a physical and/or mental price to pay”, adding that what started with a higher cause developed into an addictive habit where “drug using patterns simply becomes part of who you are”.

Embracing the ‘New Age’ movement of the 80s, Ricki related her love of the natural world, explaining that she realised “I am a part of nature – why am I harming my mind and body?”  Musing that happiness is intrinsic – a place within from which we are able to connect to the outside world- Ricki commented that at that point she had an epiphany: “I was carrying around a lump of lead and I thought I am just going to put that down and pick up the gold instead!”

 Ricki decided the best way to achieve the new life she envisaged was to give up all addictive and harmful substances “None of it was serving me – I wanted more”.  A new routine of meditation, gardening, running and reading filled her life with positive activities and goals “Making no room for drugs!”

Embracing her whole new start in life as a healthy active woman, Ricki ceremoniously burned remaining items of ‘boy clothes’, cheerfully lamenting that her collection of now vintage music related t-shirts would probably be worth money today!

At a time when it was easier to set up bank accounts and there was less demands for identification ‘points’, Ricki launched herself as Ms Ricki Coughlan, found a job, had a ‘funny operation’ and increasingly immersed herself in the fitness world – becoming a noted 800m runner and recognised State level athlete with an opportunity to run in the Australian Championships.

In 1991 Ricki was just living life – with characteristic passion and gusto – the ‘transgender’ narrative faded into the background.

That changed dramatically with headlines appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald front page “Sex-Change Runner in Sydney”.

At the time Ricki was a gym manager, aerobics teacher and accomplished athlete. She recalls feeling genuinely fearful she would be thrown out of the sport she loved. While describing the tumultuous time which unfolded, (which included having to explain to gym staff, her partner’s family and all their friends that “That runner in the newspaper” was in fact her) Ricki highlighted her gratitude to Athletics NSW and Athletics Australia who reassuringly told her “athletics is for everyone”.

Despite falsely claiming to be a journalist leading a vendetta against her, brandishing a fake petition and starting a campaign calling for her to be thrown out of women’s sport; Ricki recalls vast positivity and support as she went through an intense media focus with her story on front pages of newspapers, as well as headlining news on Channel 7.

A period of testing and scrutiny ensued, with the eventual outcome including an official letter from the Institute of Sport, confirming there was ‘no difference between Ricki and the other female competitors she ran against’ and clearing her to continue to race in women’s sport.

Ricki become used to signing her autograph on newspaper headlines and sharing her story, including talking at schools and encouraging involvement in athletics. She soon found members of the transgender community were coming to her asking for help. People who had been oppressed, abused and disenfranchised were inspired and motivated by Ricki’s story.

Now working in sports administration, Ricki describes approaching the NSW parliament, asking for the right to have gender on birth certificates amended, leading to an Australian first when then Premier Bob Carr agreed it was a matter of equity and would be sorted for those who underwent surgery.

Continuing to explore and seize opportunities from the mid-90s, Ricki took up snowboarding, went to university and became a field ornithologist as well as opening a graphic design studio.

In 2011 Ricki noticed an increasing number of older transgender women making contact sharing their stories of frustration; seeking self-actualisation and validation. A new era seemed to be unfolding, with common language developing and talk of terms such as transition and transgender growing.

Ricki talks about the importance of leaving hate behind and building a bright new future – which she enthusiastically takes part in through roles such as Ambassador for Athletics Australia and Pride in Sport. Relating progress to learning to run long distances, Ricki acknowledged the value of baby steps and gradual development of change.

Encouraging everyone to embrace positive change and tear down negatives, no longer burdened by shame, Ricki emphatically states that everyone has greatness in them.  Inviting everyone to engage in the ‘four exchanges of love’ (gratitude, generosity, empathetic kindness and selfless service); Ricki also offered sage advice- that when your inner dialogue may be faltering and even steering in other ways away from positive goals…. which might lead back to bad habits – say “No- I’m going to keep going!”

“Focus on positive habits and every step becomes a positive affirmation as you grow to realise your own unique greatness.”

Ricki emphasised the importance of her personal paths of running and a healthy vegan lifestyle as keys in her own recovery from addiction and encouraged everyone to focus on positive self-belief.