The journey of Gabrielle Ludwig, one of the first transgender college athletes

This Women’s History Month, take some time to learn about some of the lesser known women who have changed the sport


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Gabrielle Ludwig in 2012

Adrienne Austin, Sports Writer

Support from peers or relatives can be the one thing someone needs to get through difficult times. Support is what got Gabrielle Ludwig through her season of highs and lows. As a transgender basketball player, Ludwig did not always find playing  to be easy. But she was supported by her team and coaches, which helped her succeed and make it through. 

Gabrielle Ludwig, who was born Robert Ludwig, started her journey in 1984 when serving in the military for eight years. After the Navy, Ludwig became a Scientist for Roche Pharmaceuticals. But this was just the start of a long road ahead. 

Ludwig always loved basketball and played in high school. She was even named an All-Conference and All-Star basketball player. Ludwig later used that experience to become a coach of a sixth grade AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball team. 

In May 2012, in Santa Clara, Calif., Ludwig met the head coach of Mission College Girl’s Basketball team, Corey Cafferata when he was the referee of her AAU girl’s game. After going back and forth, Coach Cafferata made the sarcastic comment “You know what, if you ever want to learn how to play ball, come to one of my practices and you can learn from me.” 

During this time, Ludwig was struggling with finding who she was as a person. Ludwig was going through a second divorce, suicide attempts and was failing to connect with her daughter. She was longing for something more in life and she thought joining the basketball team was the one thing she needed. 

Despite being 52 years old, and the season starting in a few weeks, she contacted Coach Cafferata about her interests in joining the team. After being hesitant at first, Coach Cafferata allowed Ludwig to join the team after realizing that her 6’6” height would serve as an advantage to the team. Ludwig then signed up for 12 online credit courses just in time for the season. 

Right away, Ludwig developed a special bond with her team. They were all supportive and respectful, and they even became good friends. The team had players from all different backgrounds and even had a player who was deaf. They could all relate to the common theme of not feeling accepted and the team was a safe place for many of the players.

In a 2012 interview with USA Today, she said, “This is my home. This is the team I fit in. I am that missing puzzle piece. It fits.” Ludwig’s teammates had her back during rough times, and their connection had positively affected their performance on the court. Additionally, Ludwig served as a second coach and was always willing to help the team out with their skills. Their teamwork helped lead them to a successful season. 

The Mission College official athletic site states that “Gabrielle helped Mission College win the League Championship title and in the 2013-2014 season. Gabrielle was voted First Team All-Conference player where she averaged 18 points per game and 20 rebounds per game.” Despite her age, she still gave it her all which led her to a successful season with the team. 

Despite the successes of the season and the love the team showed her, being a transgender athlete continued to be extremely difficult. Ludwig was victim to numerous harassing and cruel posts on social media, and even had spectators of the opposing team scream hateful words during games.

In a 2013 interview with ESPN, she describes one of these experiences. “I had brought my sixth-grade girls [AAU basketball team] to watch their coach play,” Ludwig said. “They had no clue I was once a man. I was just Coach Gabbi to them. But they sat behind one belligerent guy, who brought that to their attention. It was hard for them to hear that, and I had to explain to them when all I wanted to do was make it such an amazing time for them to watch a women’s basketball game.”

In this intense moment, Ludwig wasn’t alone. She had her coach standing with her and encouraged her to not let anyone get into her head. In moments like this, she remembered her coach’s advice. “Gabbi, you’ve been through so much in your life, you’re going to let a few boos and expletives from some drunks in the stands take away from what you and this team are doing?”

Even with the lows of the seasons, Ludwig described the 2012 season to ESPN as “the most awesome year of my life.” No matter the challenge, she believes it all was worth it. 

“I am making a difference in people’s lives,” she said, “and that’s all that matters, right?”