Soren Stark-Chessa, center, of Maine Coast Waldorf leads the pack at the start of the Class C South girls’ cross country championships Saturday in Cumberland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

CUMBERLAND — A 15-year-old runner on Saturday became the first transgender athlete to win a regional high school cross country championship in Maine.

Soren Stark-Chessa, a sophomore at Maine Coast Waldorf School in Freeport, won the Class C South girls’ title at Twin Brook Recreation Area, completing the 3.1-mile course in 19 minutes, 17.78 seconds  – a minute and 22 seconds faster than the runner-up.

“I think I came out a little strong but just kept pushing through it and I’m happy with it,” Stark-Chessa said of her race.

Last fall, Stark-Chessa competed in the boys’ division in the C South race, also at Twin Brook, finishing 14th as the fastest freshman in 19:36.01.

This year’s Class A and B South regional championship races were also held Saturday. Overall, Stark-Chessa was the fourth fastest in the girls’ races. Running faster times were Class A champ Samantha Moore of Portland (18:41.63), Class A runner-up Addy Thibodeau of Bonny Eagle (18:47.66) and Class B winner Cary Drake of York (19:09.78).

In the Class C race, Stark-Chessa went to the front quickly and ran with a serious, focused expression. She was often cheered on along the course by shouts like, “C’mon Soren.”


“That felt really great,” Stark-Chessa said of the support. “I’m super happy to have my family here. Just awesome to see them on the sidelines. That just makes me really happy.”

Stark-Chessa led by about 20 seconds after a mile and had increased her lead to 53 seconds just past the two-mile mark. She continued to extend the margin over the final mile. Waynflete sophomore Grace Alexander placed second in 20:40.29. Winthrop senior Haley Williams, the runner-up as a sophomore and junior, finished third in 20:59.11.

Williams said she knew second place would be her best possible finish this year, “because as you probably know there is a runner that identifies as female, and they were running the boys’ race last year, and they decided to run the girls’ race this year. And it’s really, it’s very upsetting to me because I’ve worked my butt off all year.”

Williams added, “I want to say I’m totally supportive with everyone being whoever they want to be, but I feel like when you put people born male in girls’ races, it’s just genetically unfair.”


State law is clear Stark-Chessa has the right to compete as a girl.


The Maine Human Rights Act, as amended in 2021, states that the opportunity to participate in “all educational … and all extracurricular activities without discrimination because of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, a physical or mental disability, ancestry, national origin, race, color or religion is recognized and declared to be a civil right.” The law further states it is unlawful to “deny a person equal opportunity to athletic programs” on the basis of “sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The Maine Principals’ Association, the agency that oversees high school sports in the state, no longer plays a role in deciding which transgender students can compete in athletics. The MPA voted in April to end a decade-long practice of requiring a hearing before its Gender Identity Equity Committee. The purpose of the hearing was to confirm that a student’s gender identity had been consistent and that allowing a waiver would not create an unfair or unsafe competitive situation in athletics.

Between 2013 and 2023, there were 57 hearings, and all transgender students were granted waivers by the MPA. The Maine Human Rights Act, however, superseded the MPA policy, so the committee was disbanded this spring. Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA, said in an email that his agency “is committed to working with schools across the entire state to ensure that Maine State Law is followed.”

The issue of whether transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in sports has become a political flashpoint across the country. In the past three years, 23 states have passed laws that restrict transgender students from participating in sports. Here in Maine, two bills in the state legislature in 2021 sought to ban transgender girls from competing in school sports, but neither bill succeeded. Advocates for transgender rights say these efforts simply seek to discriminate against an already vulnerable community.

Soren Stark-Chessa approaches the finish line as she wins the girls’ Class C South cross country championship on Saturday in Cumberland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

While Stark-Chessa is not the first transgender athlete to compete in Maine high school sports, her success is the most notable.

On Oct. 11, she won the Western Maine Conference Invitational in Standish in a time of 19 minutes, 16 seconds. In that race, Stark-Chessa beat York’s Drake, the defending Class B state champion, by four seconds. Stark-Chessa demonstrated her strength over the final 200 meters with a powerful closing sprint.


After winning Saturday’s Class B South race, Drake said she had liked having Stark-Chessa in the conference meet.

“Having competition in the conference meet was great,” Drake said.


After placing fifth on Sept. 30 at Belfast’s Festival of Champions, an invitational race involving teams across New England and the Canadian Maritimes, Stark-Chessa drew the ire of some outside the local cross-country community who believe there is no place for transgender athletes in sports. Outrage over her performance made headlines in newspapers such as the New York Post and London’s Daily Mail and was featured on a segment of TV’s “Fox & Friends First.”

Gia Drew, executive director of Equality Maine, said such energy and anger is misplaced.

“Really, attacking a (teenaged) kid is reprehensible and mean-spirited,” she said. “I think there are bigger concerns facing our world than teenagers running in a cross-country festival.”


High school athletics, Drew said, ought to provide “a place for young people to gather, do their best and practice teamwork. Life is hard enough. Being a teenager is hard enough.”

On Saturday, there was no evidence of protest or negativity directed at Stark-Chessa. Several longtime cross country observers noticed a greater police presence on the course, both in the start-finish areas and out in the middle section.

“We normally staff this event. We’re here to ensure a safe and orderly event,” said Cumberland police Chief Charles Rumsey.

Madison’s Leah Harper, left, and Maine Coast Waldorf’s Soren Stark-Chessa take off from the pack for an early lead near the start of the Class C South girls’ cross country championship in Cumberland on Saturday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It is unclear how many transgender athletes are competing in Maine high schools or across the nation.

“We’re really not hearing states reporting that numbers are increasing. Nor are we hearing states interested in tracking transgender participation,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the CEO of the National Federation of State High School Associations. “What we are seeing is an increase in state legislation.”

Most of that legislation is written explicitly to ban transgender female students, working on the basis that a person born male, particularly one who has gone through puberty, has physiological advantages.


Niehoff said outright bans fail to recognize the potential benefit an already at-risk population could derive from participation in education-based athletics.

“Let’s remember who we are talking about, what are the issues these kids are facing, and then let’s look at education-based athletics,” Niehoff said.


The 2021 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey conducted by the state found 3.6% of Maine school students, or 1,997 of the 55,490 students in grades 9-12, identify as transgender. That represented a significant increase from 1.6% (about 900 students) in the 2019 MIYH survey

Transgender youth are significantly more likely than their cisgender peers to have been bullied at school, to have experienced physical and sexual violence, and to suffer from depression. In the 2019 survey, 52% of transgender students reported seriously considering suicide in the previous year, compared to 15% of cisgender students.

Most coaches and athletic administrators contacted by the Press Herald before the race declined to speak about Stark-Chessa’s success this fall. One who did is Waynflete Athletic Director Ross Burdick, who is also the Western Maine Conference’s cross country liaison.


“As an athletic administrator, we want to support all student-athletes and encourage participation,” Burdick said. “Though I’m sure there are some people that struggle with transgender athletes, I’m not one of them. And in our conference, we’re supportive and inclusive.”

Next up for Stark-Chessa is the Class C state championship meet in Belfast next Saturday.

There, she will face two-time New England champion Ruth White of Orono, who won the Class C North race Saturday. The three class champions at the state meet plus the next 22 fastest runners from all classes qualify for the New England Championships, also in Belfast on Nov. 4.

Asked if running at New Englands was a goal, Stark-Chessa said, “That’s what we’re training for. That’s what I’m hoping for. It would be really, really cool.”

Staff writers Lana Cohen and Glenn Jordan contributed to this report.

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