Powerlifting champion Janae Kroc on the long journey to Transformer

by Andrew Parker

Powerlifting champion, former U.S. marine, and parent of three Janae Kroc is no stranger to hard work and adversity, but Canadian filmmaker Michael Del Monte’s documentary about her, Transformer (opening theatrically in Toronto on Friday, October 19), focuses on a lifelong struggle for the former “alpha male” to embrace her true identity.

For decades, Janae Kroczaleski was one of the most celebrated powerlifters in history. Then known as Matt, Kroczaleski was often seen as the manliest man in the room. Matt was the elite athlete, physical specimen, and imposing presence everyone on the circuit wanted to emulate. But Kroc had been closeted when it came to expressing his true sexuality. After Instagram posts and whispers on YouTube outed Kroc as being transgendered, Janae made the decision to fully transition from her previous life and into womanhood. The decision cost Janae nearly everything. She wouldn’t be able to train the way she once did while transitioning. Her small town parents refused to understand or accept what Janae was going through. Janae’s sponsors practically dropped her on the spot. About the only thing that didn’t sour was her relationship to her three sons, who remained supportive and loving throughout the process. Today, Janae has come out on the other side of the ordeal a stronger woman, offering professional and moral support to anyone who might find themselves in similar situations, with Transformer documenting the hardest and most emotional steps along her life’s journey.

We had the pleasure of catching with with Janae Kroc this past spring when the film made its premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, where it picked up an emerging filmmaker award for Del Monte and the festival’s coveted audience award. We chatted about how Transformer documents the emotional and physical process of transitioning, the burden of professional expectations, the relationship she has with her kids, and how she hopes the film can guide people in similar situations.

Not to jump right to the end of the film out of the gate, but was the decision to transition harder to make than the actual physical transitioning? I think that both would be hard, but in completely different ways.

Janae Kroc: Oh, yeah. I was definitely struggling a lot more pre-transition. I was in a lot more physical and emotional pain. There were definitely fewer moments of personal happiness that weren’t fleeting in that time. It’s not to say that there weren’t happy times in my life. The birth of all three of my boys and the time spent with them are certainly things that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The championships that I won and all the things I’ve accomplished were wonderful. I’m generally a positive person. I’m usually easy going and happy-go-lucky if you talk to me, but what people didn’t see and didn’t know was that I was carrying a huge burden around for literally decades of my life that no one really knew about.

I was talking about this with some of my friends last night. I would almost always walk into work with a smile on my face, asking everyone how they were doing or what they got up to, but during the entire commute to work, I’d be bawling my eyes out. Then at the end of the day, when it was time to go home, it would be the exact same way. No one knew the struggle I was going through because it was the one thing I wasn’t being open about.

It’s difficult to be open about these things when you’ve accomplished the things that I have on a professional level. Even if you have this internal struggle, your external appearance and accomplishments brand you as some sort of alpha-male. On top of that, I was coming from a small hometown where people saw me as a hometown hero. I was a world champion powerlifter. I guarded the president during my time in the Marines. When you come from a small town, people hear that stuff. There was a poster of me hanging up in the high school. I felt like my family and friends had put me up on this pedestal, and the more success that I had, the bigger that pedestal became, and the harder it became for me to talk about this struggle I’d been having. I got to a point where I was afraid to let everyone down. I was afraid that by being honest about what I was going through, that I’d somehow disappoint them. I was so concerned about the feelings of others. Everyone thought that I was so awesome and that I could do anything, but I was always thinking about how they never knew at all what I was going through on the inside.

It’s hard to start coming out. You’re terrified of the reactions. I felt like I had so much to lose. And I did lose a lot. My major sponsor dropped me. I ended up losing my job. There was a lot of adversity to go through, but those bumps in the road are nothing compared to the mountain I had to overcome to get to this point. For anyone trying to live their best lives and be honest to themselves, there’s going to be adversity. The journey is always worth it, if you’re being honest to yourself and putting yourself first. The process of transitioning is difficult, but it’s also rewarding in and of itself.

Visibility is so important. I’m a naturally open and honest person, so I can instantly recognize that it might be easier for someone like myself to do something like this. I also realize that I spent so much of my life not being myself. When I was trying to figure things out, and I was trying to find other people like me with similar experiences, it was hard. I grew up in a time and a culture where there wasn’t anything like the internet to turn to and not a lot of information.

When I first went to college, I went to the library and checked out every book that I could about transgender people and what it means to be transgender. That was back in the 90s, and there was still very little literature that I could find, and few people that I felt like I could talk to or turn to. What they had was mostly stuff that had been written from outside the community, and most of it was wildly inaccurate. It was so hard to find information, and I always think back on that as the reason why I need to be open and honest about my journey. I want to help other people understand. I know what it’s like to grow up with all these feelings, and to feel totally alone in the world. And in being visible, it doesn’t only help people who are going through what I went through, but it also helps to educate people who don’t understand. I think that’s equally important.

What you just said says a lot about the burden of expectation, which I think a lot of people feel, and it goes beyond just people who are transitioning. It can apply to all forms of sexuality, mental health status, physical ailments. What did you learn through your journey about overcoming that burden of expectations en route to becoming the woman you are today?

Janae Kroc: I felt so much expectation, but you’re absolutely right. Expectation can really hold an enormous amount of sway over people, and while some of it might be healthy, it can also force people into corners that aren’t exactly healthy. My natural compulsion is to always put other people’s feelings in front of my own, so that made my struggles even more difficult, but in my story – even though being transgender and a muscular athlete at the same time might make things a bit more obvious – I want people to be able to confront the things that we’re all afraid of sharing with others. Many of us, myself included, are always going to be afraid of what people think or how they react. I think my story is something that can be related to if you’re transgender or not, or if you’re an athlete or not, or if you’re a parent or not. We struggle with expectations from parents, co-workers, and friends all the time. We fear their reactions. We fear that we’ll be treated differently. Although my transitioning is something that can be physically seen and is openly obvious, the whole process definitely makes you empathize more with people who might not be going through the exact same thing, but who are struggling to be open with the people closest to them.

You love what you do, and something that you said before that hit home with me as someone who suffers from depression, is having that love for what you do, but crying on your way to work everyday. That’s something I can absolutely relate to. But did that love for your work make the decision to transition more difficult? Did your work stop being fun because you couldn’t be yourself?

Janae Kroc: You know, that’s a really good and complex question to think about. It definitely did when it came to my powerlifting career. On one hand, I thought that transitioning would keep me from having everything I could have, and on the other those accomplishments wouldn’t mean as much if I couldn’t be myself. You definitely start to wonder if there’s any point to what you’re doing.

On a professional level, I accomplished the main goal that I had spent decades trying to achieve, which was getting the world record in my weight class. I did get that, but towards the end of my powerlifting career, I was struggling with wanting continue down that path and focusing on any goals beyond that. Around this point, a lot of my friends and training partners were beginning to know about my feelings. The choice ahead of me was if I wanted to keep going and set new goals for myself or if I wanted to finally transition.

It became a long back and forth, and both were going to be a lot of work. Transitioning into womanhood and starting female hormones would greatly impact my strength because my body wasn’t going to be used to all of this new input. I knew that my competitive career was likely going to be over, but at the same time, there was that expectation we were talking about before. It was a non-stop back and forth. On one hand, I wasn’t ready to be done yet, but I had to come to terms with the fact that things weren’t going to be the same once I transitioned, and that I had to be ready and prepared to walk away if it came down to it.

But by the point in my life when I transitioned, I realized that I accomplished the biggest goal I had set for myself, and you can’t see not going further than that as a letdown. I was a success as an athlete. I mean, you can always get stronger, or go faster, break more records, or train harder, and that’s a journey with really no destination. At the same time, it’s so difficult for a hyper-competitive, elite athlete with the mindset I had to walk away from that. Competition was my drug. That was my high. Other than my boys, that was the thing I always clung onto. It was the most rewarding thing I had in my life. There was no point in my life where I felt more alive than I did when competing against the best of the best in the world. To give that up causes just as big of a crisis of conscience.

Now, I’m coaching other athletes, but it’s still difficult. (laughs) Whenever I travel to a competition, it reignites that fire. I want to compete again. At the same time, I competed for over two decades and struggled through a lot of injuries. I have no regrets, but balancing the transition process with the life of an athlete was extremely difficult.

During the transition process, I’m sure there are still some things that people would like to keep private, even for someone as open as yourself. Did having a camera around you at all times and documenting the process help to keep you open and emotionally honest to everyone around you?

Janae Kroc: Honestly, before that point I spent so much of my life hiding things that I was ready to just be open about it. The point of transitioning for me was always about being open and honest. It was about feeling personally relieved that I could finally be the person I knew I was. I’m not someone who feels good hiding anything. People might see this film and think, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe she’s sharing all of these things.” But for me, how do you educate and help people understand if you’re still hiding stuff? When I was trying to figure things out, that was always the most frustrating attitude to encounter.

Even when I talked to other transgender women about their transitioning process, I could sense that there were a lot of things that they didn’t feel comfortable talking about, which i completely understood and sympathized with, but while I respected that, I still had all these questions with few people who were willing to answer them or engage with them. I know it’s easier for me to talk about these things than I think it would be for a lot of people, but I hope that the film can help people who might be inclined to answer some of those questions to start helping and speaking up for people that might be struggling. That’s so important.

In the film, your love for your kids comes through wonderfully. What was it like to have them alongside you and becoming a part of a film like this?

Janae Kroc: I’m just lucky to have three amazing boys. I know that every parent says that or feels that way, but I really love them. They’re amazing. And it was totally their decision if they wanted to be a part of the film. I said to them that I had agreed to do this because we have a close bond and they should know what’s happening with me at all times. I told them about it, and I said that everyone thought it would be interesting and important to have them be a part of it, but I never said that they had to do this or that it was expected of them in any way. The boys basically looked at me and each said, “If this is a story about your life, then we have to be in it.”

They felt it was just as important, and as a family we understood that there’s this narrative surrounding transgender people that have children where uneducated people automatically assume that the relationships are estranged or that somehow the person transitioning is a bad parent or that the kids are always upset. Our situation was nothing like that. My boys have always been the most supportive people I’ve had in my life. We felt it was important to share that and show people that it is possible to have close relationships. The kids don’t have to be upset. You can still be an amazing parent. Being a parent and being transgender aren’t exclusive to each other. We know that we might be an exception in some ways, but we wanted to show how close we are and how special that bond it.

You transitioned while you were at the top of your game in one of the most hyper-masculine athletic professions there are, possibly outside of actual blood sports like boxing or MMA. Do you hope that by documenting your transitioning that you could be helping people in similar fields to come forward and share their stories, or to feel comfortable transitioning themselves?

Janae Kroc: You wouldn’t believe how many people have contacted me from those exact fields. The thing is, there’s always this assumption that confuses gender, sexuality, and identity, and they all unfairly get lumped in together. You can be a boxer, MMA fighter, wrestler, powerlifter, whatever, and we know that you don’t have to be male or straight to do any of those things. When I was a powerlifter, I was seen as the alpha-male of whatever room I was in, but I never felt that way on the inside. When I was in the Marines, my commanding officers would always bring me out as an enforcer whenever things were getting out of line. I was the recruit the other recruits were afraid of. I don’t think you have to be a straight, white, male to fill that role if you’re being true to yourself. I would always joke that while I wasn’t a boy, I was really good at being one. (laughs) The most alpha men and women you can think of in sports might be going through these challenges of identity that you’d never expect by looking at them. I’ve gotten so many messages from people thanking me for sharing my story from either the sporting or military world who thought they were alone. I felt so alone growing up, and I don’t want anyone to feel the way that I did because these feelings are more common than anyone knows.

Whenever the conversation comes up about how many trans people there are in the world, I always feel wary. The truth is that we have no idea how many trans people there are in the world because so many of us are still in the closet. It’s impossible to put a number on it. There are so many people fighting through fear and discrimination because there’s so much to lose. Until we’re in a world where no one ever feels pressure to hide who they are, and they’re free to be who they want to be, we’re not going to know how many people are struggling. The more stories we share, the closer I think we can get to that point.

Before we go, I know I’m the last person you’re talking to today, and I just wanted to know how you’re doing and what you’re doing these days. I can imagine that talking about something so personal and emotional for twelve straight hours can be draining, so I wanted to end with something positive.

Janae Kroc: (laughs) I’m really great! And thank you for asking. I wish more days of these interviews ended like that. (laughs) I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. I’m still evolving, and there are still things that I’m learning about myself everyday. There are still some things physically that I want to do, and I’m moving in the right direction on that. I found a new job as a pharmacist about a month ago, so I’m working at a hospital now. On the side, I’m coaching a bunch of athletes and writing a bunch of diet and training programs. I’m going around speaking at universities and colleges about gender and sexuality. Of course, I’m spending a lot of time with my boys. Life is good now. I have no complaints. I might be a bit busier that I have been, and I’m not sleeping as much as I would like. (laughs) But I feel fortunate for all these opportunities, and thankful for making all the decisions I had to that got me to this point. I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer to wait. You always wish you could have started younger, but hindsight is always 20/20, you know? I’m just glad that I did it and life is good.

Transformer opens on Friday, October 19, 2018 at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto. It airs in Canada on Documentary Channel on Sunday, November 18 at 9:00 pm.

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