27 November 2019

Sabreena Lachlainn's incredible transgender journey: Part 2

Earlier we published the first part of Sabreena Lachlainn's extraordinary story following her realisation at the tender age of four that she had been born in the wrong body. Here, she tells GEORGIE HEATH of the even greater challenges she faced in the women's American football game and shows the tenacity needed to realise her dream.

The turbulent career she endured in the military would have been difficult to trump, she might have imagined, but for Sabreena Laichlainn there were to be worse trials ahead.

And it was upon discovering a passion for American football that these tribulations were to be played out.

She had competed in High School pre-surgery, then post-surgery enjoyed two years at the women's side, the Detroit Predators. But It wasn’t until Sabrina headed to Northern Michigan University to study nursing that she discovered a women’s pro league and her footballing future began to develop.

Sabreena played football in High School before her transition

She was hesitant due to her trans status but persevered nonetheless, saying: “I was really afraid because I was entering new territory being a transgender female in a women’s league and I knew I was treading in waters that had never been trodden in before.

“There wasn’t any precedent for a transgender female playing in a woman’s football league so I had gone to the team owner and got with the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL) and we gave them all my information including surgical letter, hormone information, surgery, copy of licence and birth certificate to show that I had transitioned. This meant that if any opposition had issues, that information was available and we could prove that everything was above board."

What happened next, however, was something she had not prepared for.

"I was about 37 at the time after my second season while I was studying nursing. I was with the club and then during Christmas break I went home to see my mum and I was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance that I knew and thought was a friend."

As if summoning the courage to report the incident wasn't tough enough, the reaction from the police left her stunned.

"Law enforcement told me, 'You brought it on yourself and because you are transgender it’s your fault and there’s nothing we can do'. They had no sympathy for me. They didn’t do a rape kit or anything. They blamed me for what happened and it was very ugly. I eventually got past it but I should have pursued something against the police department but I was in too fragile a state to do anything about it.

"I ended up washing out of university. It was just too traumatic to establish my education."

The incident took its toll on her mental health and she was also put on leave from football and later retired because of it.

However, in a move that demonstrated her mental toughness, she came out of retirement in 2008 to fill in for injured players at the Columbus Phantoms. The team had been involved in an accident returning from a game and were granted permission to loan players so they could finish their season.

It didn't take long for the gesture to rebound and slap her once more in the face.

For it was now that Sabreena was to suffer the first of three horrific intentional injuries on the pitch.

“I got injured pretty badly in a game against the five-time World Champions the Detroit Demolition,” she said. “I knew the coaches on that team and one had put a hit on me because of my trans status. I had both my shoulders separated. There was talk I needed surgery on both of them and it caused me to retire again at the end of that season.”

She returned to the pitch again in 2010 to join the newly-established Detroit Dark Angels. Understandably hesitant, she wanted to prove herself again.

Attitudes towards her inclusion had not advanced much during her retirement however, when the West Michigan Mayhem intentionally broke her ankle during a game in June 2011.

The video footage had ‘accidentally’ been erased when a review was called for, but Lachlainn recalls it vividly. “I came through the line and one girl hit me low behind the knee and pinned my foot to the turf,” she said.  

“Another came in, put her helmet under my chin, flipped me back and snapped my ankle over the other girl.”

It was only in May 2014 when the attack was replicated by the Derby City Dynamite that Lachlainn listened to the sea of voices around her and called it a day.

Kicking off against Derby City in the game that ended her career

She predictably remained philosophical.

“It sucks that I went through that so many times but it was nice because it allowed other transgender females to join the league later on. Upon retirement she was approached by the leagues (IWFL and WCFL) to help write the transgender athlete policies, something she is particularly proud of.

“I helped them write a policy for their athletes so girls who were transgender would be allowed to play,” she said. "I’m proud of what I’ve done to get them to this stage even if it meant I went through that. It means a lot to me to do that and help give others that opportunity.”

Not one to sit around twiddling her thumbs, Sabreena’s plan to sail the world was already forming in her mind as she removed her football boots for the final time.

She recalls the two iconic women who inspired her to take on this challenge. It was at this time that Jessica Watson and Abby Sunderland were battling it out to be the youngest woman to sail solo around the world and Sabreena found herself captivated by the race.

Jessica Watson at the launch of her book in 2011 (PA Images)

It reignited a childhood dream inspired by watching a Saturday afternoon TV show called ‘West Wind’.

“The show was about a family with a sail boat who visited all these exotic places and I decided as a kid this was really cool and that someday I could do that. It was a dream I could chase but I didn’t know it would be solo and non-stop until I saw Jessica and Abbey go nose to nose,” she added.

She began her training when she joined the crew of Blair Arden with whom she sailed for a year before she joined up with Bradley Scott, a man she still considers a mentor.

Alongside Bradley Scott on his boat, 'Dreamcatcher'

Recalling her first outing with Bradley, she remembers him giving her complete charge of his 30 foot-boat, aptly named ‘Dreamcatcher.’

Tentative at first, her nerves were quashed when they returned to the slip and he said: “There’s no doubt in my mind that you can do this. Yes, there are some things that you can polish up but every sailor has that. I have no doubt you can pull this off.”

Bradley is still a huge part of Sabreena’s adventure which has been five years in the planning. She speaks in admiration of him, saying: “I still rely on him for advice and I know I can pick up the phone any time and talk to him. He's full of great advice and support and I couldn't do it without him. I actually don’t have a full-time coach I just have amazing people like Bradley that I can rely on.”

Her advisor is Jessica Watson’s old project manager, Bruce Arms, a record-breaker and one of the most respected sailors in the world.

“He owns the record to sail fastest non-stop around the continent of Australia [from where Sabreena will start her voyage].

Bruce Arms is considered one of the greatest sailors on the planet (Suzanne Arms)

The current record for a solo unaided, non-stop circumnavigation of the world is held by the late Guo Chuan of China, who achieved the feat in April 2013 with a time of 137 days, 20 hours, one minute, and 57 seconds. He was lost at sea in 2017 attempting to break the world record for the fastest trip around the world alone in a Trimaran Sailboat.

Sabreena has set her ambitions high and hopes to smash the record completing her trip in a time of 120 days. However, it is not just the clock that she will have to battle against. Other challenges lie in wait and the first of these is finances.

In order to break Gup Chuan’s record she needs an ‘Open 40’ boat, which cost between $125,000 and $200,000. This must then undergo a complete refit which can easily run to between $80,000 and $200,000, leaving her with potential costs over $400,000 before she has even flown to Australia to set off.

Sabreena is more than aware that the mental side of the endeavour is a bigger challenge but hopes her military training has prepared her.

"I like sailing alone but there are times when it’s gonna try me psychologically and test my mental capacity,” she said. "I think that my battles have also prepared me because I’ve had to do things and break ground a lot which has really toughened me up and made me believe I really can do this.

“If you have a dream and you believe in it and work hard at it, you can achieve it and nothing can get in your way. Don’t take no for an answer. I never did.”

Sabreena sports an Australian flag as an homage to the country she loves

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