One of the greatest powerlifters in the sport’s history is pursuing the unfolding truth of herself.
The videotape tells the tale: Janae Kroc positions herself on the bench, wraps her fingers around the barbell, arches her back, takes a deep breath, and then completes five touch-and-go bench press repetitions.
Five perfect repetitions with 350 pounds on the bar, undertaken with such confidence that no spotter is used—this is an impressive accomplishment for any powerlifter.
“I’ve resumed my pursuit of strength and also feel great about how I look,” she announced in an Instagram post that appeared shortly after that demonstration.
None of this is by itself noteworthy. Many strength athletes, myself included, have performed exactly that lifting sequence. And in 2016, it should pass without argument that people can look great no matter their size or level of fitness. But Janae Kroc is no mere lifter or progressive beauty icon. For two decades, she was one of the hundred or so strongest people on the planet. She was, and remains, a legend in the strength community.
Yet her story doesn’t stop there: Janae Kroc — her surname at birth was Kroczalewski, but has been shortened — came out publicly as transgender in 2015. She did so partly in response to scurrilous online rumor-mongering and a YouTube video that purported to “expose” her, and partly because she no longer saw a reason to hide her truth.
Janae Kroc remains a legend in the strength community.
“It was really shitty for the YouTube guy to out anyone. That’s a horrible thing to do. But for me, the point I’m at in my life, it was almost good timing,” Kroc explained. “It was becoming more and more difficult to keep putting this off.”
Kroc, who was responsible for several innovations in powerlifting training, including the “Kroc” dumbbell row she performed at over 225 pounds for upwards of 30 reps, was open about her circumstances with colleagues in that community, including noted coaches Jim Wendler and Dave Tate. In that world, where “everybody does their own thing” in pursuit of extremely individualistic goals, as powerlifter Mark Bell told me during an interview last year, Kroc had a certain degree of latitude to be herself.
“I had started and stopped transitioning five or six times in the last 10 years, but I never really got that far with it,” Kroc said. “In 2014, I started hormones for about a week and then changed my mind again. I was walking away from a lot of stuff I had worked really hard for. That was difficult. And just being who I am with the lifting, being big, muscular, and strong, that was a part of my identity and it wasn’t an easy thing to just give up.”
Kroc’s decision to speak publicly about her transition has coincided with an increasing number of sports opportunities for transgender athletes. Athletes such as Shawn Stinson, who has won several FTM bodybuilding championships, and mixed-martial artist Fallon Fox, who boasts a 5–1 record in women’s mixed-martial arts, have raised public awareness and served as role models for others. Unfortunately, trans athletes also continue to face discrimination: Chloie Jonsson sued CrossFit in 2014 when the organization refused to allow her to compete in the women’s division of the CrossFit games, and, more recently, transgender wrestler Mack Beggs wound up winning the girls’ state wrestling championship in Texas after he was prohibited from wrestling other boys.
For her part, Kroc has decided against competing in powerlifting sports as a woman. “I think it’d bring a lot of negativity toward transgender athletes and to the powerlifting community, and that’s not something I ever want to do,” she said, though she hadn’t ruled out competing in triathlons and other endurance events. The International Olympic Committee rules, however, now allow female transgender athletes who have been on hormone replacement therapy for one year to compete in female competitions (sex reassignment surgery is not required). Josiah Ambrose, an official with the International Powerlifting League, has urged individual powerlifting federations to adopt similar standards.
Athletic concerns aside, the main reason Kroc vacillated over her transition was because she worried about how her three sons might experience the process. Kroc had explained her situation to them years earlier, but continued to worry about how adults and classmates might react. That said, the ex-Marine couldn’t conceive of “anybody confronting me to my face.”
Wild speculation on bodybuilding message boards had attempted to link the transitions of Kroc and Olympic medalist Caitlyn Jenner to steroid abuse. Kroc, a pharmacist, admitted that like many others in the powerlifting community, she had used steroids later in her career, but said the supposed correlation was groundless. “How could anyone even think that male hormones would make you want to be a woman? No, this is something most transgender people know at a young age.”
Kroc does believe that there was a connection, at least in her case, between genetics and gender identity — though some in the queer studies community continue to debate this contentious point. “When I had testicular cancer, I learned that my hormone levels naturally fell between male and female, and my estrogen levels were high. My prolactin levels were three times what a normal male’s were supposed to be. My pituitary gland is unusually small for a male’s. My body was kind of in between both genders.”
In spite of that, Kroc remained obsessed with strength: not necessarily as an expression of a masculinity she couldn’t fully embrace, but as a means of advancement in powerlifting and bodybuilding. “I liked what steroids did for my performance, but I hated the secondary masculine characteristics, and it made my body more male in those ways. It made me hairier all over. I was never someone who had a lot of chest hair, and that stuff really bothered me,” Kroc admitted. “I started getting whole body laser hair removal years ago. Then I started losing the hair on my head. I didn’t like that, but it was part of the sacrifice to achieve the goals I wanted to achieve. Were I to do it over, I can’t say I’d do it differently.”
Since transitioning, Kroc’s strength has fluctuated depending on her diet and training objectives. Initial treatments with estrogen greatly reduced her strength; once upon a time, 350 pounds repped five times on the bench press would have served as a mere warm-up preceding much heavier sequences, but she got to a point at which she was struggling to bench 315 pounds. It’s a catch-22 for some transgender powerlifters: high levels of estrogen, which are sometimes used when a person is transitioning, can greatly decrease the benefits of testosterone — a muscle-building hormone which anabolic steroid supplementation is designed to increase. Kroc’s Instagram account, on which she identifies as “transgender/genderfluid/non binary,” offers a remarkable log of both her fluctuating moods and evolving exercise regimens. Discussions of “leaning up as much as possible” in order to better perform long-distance biking and running workouts are juxtaposed with selfies in which Kroc remarks on “everything I don’t like about my face, all of the masculine aspects…my square jaw, my large nose, and everything that says ‘guy’ to me.”
The act of following anyone on Instagram is inherently voyeuristic, but the accompanying captions on Kroc’s posts, particularly the detailed descriptions of her selfies, create an immediate sense of shared intimacy. My own life situation is unlike Kroc’s, but many of the emotions she has shared in concert with her selfies — worries about being unloveable, about being uncomfortable in one’s body, about (sometimes) hating one’s face — are universally relatable.
Kroc is candid about other aspects of her life, such as the voice feminization surgery she recently underwent in South Korea. This procedure, which thins the vocal cords in order to increase the pitch of the voice, left her “having dreams about accidentally talking or yelling and ruining [her] new voice.” Although not all transgender people choose to undergo such surgeries — and many cannot afford them — Kroc always emphasizes the personal nature of her “journey.”
“In my dreams I only desire happiness and a peace I’ve never known,” she writes, “but what exactly that looks like is still a dream I haven’t finished dreaming.”
‘In my dreams I only desire happiness and a peace I’ve never known.’
Powerlifting, particularly at its highest levels, is a sport dependent entirely on dreams of self-creation. The process of achieving these dreams is often painful — your joints tear, your body aches, and prolonged steroid use can cause your bad cholesterol to spike — and the rewards can be scant, sometimes nonexistent. The knowledge that someone has compiled a record “total” (i.e., the total weight lifted at a powerlifting meet across the squat, bench press, and deadlift) in their weight class, as Kroc had done at 220 pounds, will elicit little more than polite nods from people outside the insular community of knowledgeable lifters.
But the vocation does instill a particular mindset, one that can’t be easily discarded. The powerlifter never ceases in their self-criticism, nor do they let injuries and other setbacks interfere with their attempts to keep making progress. “You develop a mindset from decades of powerlifting that makes you think about the long haul and how everything can only advance gradually. You get a sense of where every part of your body is at any given moment,” fellow record-setting powerlifter Mark Bell told me.
The powerlifter advances incrementally along a haphazard highway that leads to true happiness, yet twists and turns in the road often cause an athlete to miss their appointment with the record books. Janae Kroc, one of the greatest powerlifters in the sport’s history, now pursues the unfolding truth of herself in a similar fashion. Her final destination may no longer be another world record, but she has graciously invited us to accompany her on the ride.