By Ryan Dixon | Photography by Tagwa Moyo
By Ryan Dixon | Photography by Tagwa Moyo
Canadian discus-thrower Ness Murby's quest to become the first openly transgender Paralympian

On April 11 of this year, a very pregnant woman and a blind man were putting in work at Burnaby Central Secondary School. The day was actually Eva Fejes’s due date, but there she was running through as much of their usual training regimen as possible with husband Ness Murby as the pair worked toward his second Paralympic Games and first as an openly transgender man.

Murby competes in F11 discus. Because he’s blind, he requires a sports assistant, a role Fejes has filled for years. If you saw Fejes guide Murby into the stadium at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, you might have assumed that to be the extent of her duties. The scene at Burnaby Central, though, illustrated the fact it takes both people to form one athlete at his best. Even at full term, Fejes didn’t miss a beat during a session that started under an already warm mid-morning sun. She and Murby warmed up by kicking a soccer ball with a bell in it back and forth as they jogged across a soccer field. Next up, a game of catch with a 10-pound medicine ball.

There’s a javelin run on the schoolgrounds, as well as a discus cage, its metal fencing enveloping two throwing circles. Fejes didn’t actually throw the discus on her due date — as Murby notes, heavily rotating your upper body isn’t a great idea when you’ve got a pregnant belly — but, despite a background that’s more bookish than sporty, she learned to throw the disc so she could understand the technique and provide insight when Murby performs his craft. “She videos [every throw], watches them in the moment and after,” Murby says. “She’s able to recognize, ‘Okay, your left foot isn’t twisting, you need to land it faster.’”

It’s hard to imagine two people more intertwined than Murby and Fejes, and in the past 10 months alone they have met some huge moments together. Late in 2020, Murby went on the Five Rings to Rule Them All podcast and publicly came out as a transgender man. Five days after Fejes was collecting discs off the spring grass in Burnaby, B.C., she was bringing baby girl Zehb into the world. And of course, being new parents added another wrinkle in their quest for Tokyo, as Murby continued on a path toward becoming the first openly transgender person to compete at the Para Games.

Navigating all that — and more — has required everything two tough-minded people can muster. But for the 35-year-old Murby, specifically, advocating for himself and overcoming obstacles has been a lifelong endeavour. Born in Melbourne with limited vision that deteriorated until he was completely blind by his late teen years, Murby has frequently butted up against the limitations other people foist upon him. In the process, he’s never lost his quintessentially Aussie “give it a go” spirit and now, as he charges into new life chapters, it’s more vibrant than ever.

Murby and his wife, training partner and sports assistant Eva Fejes share a laugh while holding their infant daughter, Zehb.

It’s early August and the Games — slated to begin August 24 — are on the immediate horizon. During a video call from his home in Vancouver, the animated Murby is in the middle of the frame while Fejes can occasionally be spotted over his shoulder with Zehb cradled to her chest. Discus is actually Murby’s second-best throwing event, but since javelin is not offered for the blind at the Para Games, he narrowed his focus three years ago. While he’s spent much of 2021 chasing a spot in Tokyo, his pursuit has not been free of reservations. Murby used to live in the city. Just knowing that so many Japanese people aren’t on board with hosting the Olympic or Paralympic Games has made him wonder if, in some way, he’s betraying a community he used to be a part of. The pandemic raises other issues. Of course, COVID is a concern for everybody, but the possibility of being isolated is more unsettling when you’re blind. He also feels some uneasiness about social mores in Japan. “They do not have LGBTQ+ rights at a standard that is, to my mind, reasonable and safe,” Murby says.

Competing in a place where he feels threatened is not an abstract concept for Murby. In 2015, when he and Fejes were relatively new members of the Canadian squad, they were thrilled to head to Qatar for the World Para Athletics Championships. Team Canada opted to hold its pre-event training camp in the United Arab Emirates. When Murby and Fejes arrived at their room and got settled, Murby flipped on the television. “The first thing on the news is a man in his 60s is being lashed for home-brewing beer [in Dubai],” Murby says. “What I suddenly realize — I turn to Eva and say, ‘We’re in a country where it is illegal to be homosexual.’”

“Neutrality is not actually neutrality. When someone says they’re neutral, what it means is they’re not taking responsibility for the decision to not get involved.”

Murby recalls fear gripping them as they took steps to make sure they were not seen as anything more than an athlete and sports assistant. When Murby took Fejes’s arm for guidance, he made sure to grab her elbow rather than her hand. Every morning they rustled up the sheets on both beds in their room to hide the fact only one was really in use. At a time when Murby should have been able to focus exclusively on training, he was burning reams of mental energy tamping down these anxieties.

Murby and Fejes are by no means the first people to feel threatened as a result of decisions made by global sporting bodies, but Murby believes their experience underlines the need for organizations to more carefully consider the wellbeing and safety of every athlete in their midst. What’s necessary, he believes, starts with widespread education about the challenges LGBTQ+ athletes — along with every other marginalized group — face. It requires organizations to be public in their support, and to embrace actions over platitudes and changes instead of promises. It also means putting to bed for good the oft-stated argument that national and international sporting organizations are supposed to stay out of the political fray — a position Murby has little time for. “Neutrality is not actually neutrality,” he says. “When someone says they’re neutral, what it means is they’re not taking responsibility for the decision to not get involved. Because it is a decision.”

Speaking up for himself and others is nothing new for Murby. His father, Stephen Murby-Wright, saw empathy-driven action right from the start. “A real concern for others, a defender of the underdog, particularly,” Stephen says of his son. “[Especially] those who were marginalized or discriminated against or bullied — which is amazing because I think Ness came in for a fair amount of all of those things in his life, as well.”

Ness and Stephen are part of a loving, intellectually curious family that spent significant time in different parts of the world. Ness’s grandfather came to Australia from Britain as a teenager and family ties led to Murby living in the U.K. for a couple of years when he was a small child. Stephen performed a variety of roles in the education sector around the world, largely with undergraduate institutions, and Murby spent three years in Hong Kong — ages six to nine — while his dad helped establish a funding stream for the Open Learning Institute of Hong Kong. As a six-foot-four Aussie, Stephen already stood out in the stuffed streets of the city and his fashion choices purposefully accentuated his visibility. “He would wear, like, a bright red jumper — had the great elbow pads on them — or this jumper that had very brightly coloured geometric shapes on it,” recalls Murby. “He was very recognizable. I knew that was my dad. So when you’re walking through — you can imagine — crowds in Downtown Central, Hong Kong, I was always able to find my dad. So I was never afraid of letting go of his hand or being in public because I felt safe, and safety is something that breeds confidence.”

Murby carried an air of self-assurance into adulthood, and took it with him all over the world. He lived in Canada for about nine months when he was 18, and moved to Japan in his early 20s. Based in Tokyo, Murby and his guide dog, Verdi, toured around together, forming an incredibly close bond as they both unlocked their new surroundings. Having previously played goalball — a sport for the visually impaired where teams with three players per side hurl a ball with bells embedded at opposing goals — in Australia, Murby inquired about getting on a squad in Japan. Because it was the goalball off-season, a friend told him there wasn’t much happening on that front before asking if powerlifting held any appeal. Something about the idea lured Murby and he began firing off emails to find out if there was a place that would take him in.

Murby played international-level goalball in Australia and still holds three powerlifting world records. Since making the jump to athletics, he's won Parapan Am and world championship silver medals.

It turned out there was an opportunity to lift at a gym about a 90-minute train ride from Murby’s place in Tokyo. At his first session, just before his 23rd birthday in the fall of 2008, he worked with an accepting instructor who didn’t hesitate to tutor a blind foreigner who more or less walked in off the street. On the trip home, some quick internet research returned the fact Murby’s new coach, Hisako Yoshida, was actually a legendary able-bodied powerlifter in Japan. The work he did with Yoshida unlocked something in Murby, who considers that period, which stretched from from 2008 to 2011, as the real jumping-off point for his career as a high-level athlete. “It was about challenging yourself: what you put in, you got out,” he says. “That not only resonated with my athletic goals, but also my core values.”

Working with Yoshida wasn’t the only life-changing connection Murby struck in Japan. He and Fejes taught English for the same employer. While Murby had accessible technology on his personal laptop that allowed him to do the job, the one thing he couldn’t do was tap into the school’s server to get the names of the kids he’d be teaching on a given day. That being the case, each morning another member of the faculty would pop into the classroom to tell him the students’ names and what the lesson was. Then Murby would be good to go. “There I am sitting at my office, Eva — late as usual — comes running in, flustered, writes down the names, says, ‘Here you go,’” Murby recalls of their first meeting. “Before she gets to the door, I’m like, ‘So, I’m blind. Would you mind reading what’s on that piece of paper?’”

Upon hearing those words and realizing there was a guide dog under the desk, Fejes went a bit ashen-faced. But their clunky first encounter was no impediment to a friendship that blossomed into something more after a few months. The couple adored Japan, but ultimately decided to leave following the terrifying Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami that ravaged Japan in 2011. Tokyo was rocked with seemingly endless aftershocks — 100 per day at one point — and soon came under threat from the radioactivity generated by the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Verdi was so traumatized he refused to leave his bed for 10 days. Under those difficult circumstances, the pair began weighing options. Canada ultimately won out over Australia because it was home for Fejes, Murby had previously enjoyed living there and the country was more progressive in terms of LGBTQ+ rights. (Australia didn’t legalize same-sex marriage until 2017.)

“I’m most proud Ness has remained true to himself.”

Murby was an accomplished powerlifter when he and Fejes moved to Canada. (Verdi could not be rehabilitated, but stayed with Murby and Fejes in retirement.) Murby started representing Japan at International Blind Sports Federation events around the world beginning in 2009, wore the Canadian colours in 2015 and still holds three world records. Along the way, he tried shot put, but the event never felt like a natural fit. A coach suggested he pick up javelin and discus, too, and javelin, in particular, struck a chord — it felt freeing to sling the spear and let it soar. Murby eventually took silver in the javelin at the 2015 Parapan Am Games and earned another second-place finish in the discipline at the world championships later that same year. The next summer, Murby and Fejes competed in the Paralympics in Rio and finished sixth in discus.

All this came after, Murby, Fejes and Verdi hiked up Japan’s Mt. Tenjo one night in 2010 so Murby could surprise “my lucky” with a proposal as the sun came up. Two years later, they tied the knot. “For a long time I felt like it was my special secret, knowing this person and all their potential,” Fejes says of her partner. “Then I realized it shouldn’t be a secret, [he] should be out there and we should all get to gain from that.”

As he looks forward to future events, Murby says it's "uplifting" simply to think of competing in the men's class. "It feels like I'm coming home."

In 2013, Murby had occasion to hear a talk by someone from QMUNITY — a queer, trans and two-spirit resource centre based in British Columbia. That day was the first time Murby heard the word “transgender” and the concept immediately resonated for a person who always self-identified as masculine. “I came home and I said to Eva, ‘I’m trans!’” Murby says. “It was this revelation.”

In recent years, Murby began sharing his truth with family members. Sources of joy are everywhere for Stephen when it comes to a son who has achieved so much. Ness’s personal journey, though, is what stands out most. “I’m most proud Ness has remained true to himself,” Stephen says. “Although not without his own dark nights of the soul — some of which I know, some of which I probably don’t. Despite all the normalization pressures of society, of worldview and of his own confusion, [Ness made] his way to being himself.”

Murby doesn’t view himself as a trailblazer in sport, but rather as one person taking his turn carrying the baton. He was inspired by able-bodied weightlifter and transgender woman Laurel Hubbard competing for New Zealand at the Tokyo Olympics, and thrilled to witness Quinn become the first non-binary and transgender person to win an Olympic medal as part of Canada’s golden soccer crew.

“The next time I am on that world stage we’re going for the men’s class and the male podium.”

Because qualifying for the Games — originally slated to be held last summer — dated back to 2019, Murby was competing in the women’s class. While he says it would have been “soul-sucking” to be introduced in Tokyo in a category incongruous with his gender identify, Murby was willing to take on that hurt knowing his mere presence would open doors to important conversations. Murby’s June toss of 29.72 metres was inside the world top-eight standard — the highest bar Athletics Canada asks its competitors to clear — but he also injured himself at that event, hampering his ability to improve it at future competitions. With such limited slots — AC could send just seven people across all athletics events in the women’s class — only those with the very best medal hopes were chosen to make the trip to Tokyo. Murby did his all to be there, but in the end came up a hair short.

There’s a mixture of disappointment and relief when Murby discusses being left off the squad, but it shifts to outright exhilaration when he talks about what’s next. Holding Zehb on his lap with Fejes seated to his left, Murby lets fly. “The next time I am on that world stage — the next time we are standing next to each other on the world stage — we’re going for the men’s class and the male podium,” he says.

Earlier this month, Murby notified all the relevant national and international agencies that he will compete in the men’s class moving forward. To date, no openly transgender man has competed at the Paralympics or the Para worlds (or the Olympics, for that matter). Murby plans to undergo hormone replacement therapy and because testosterone is a banned substance under World Anti-Doping Agency rules, he must apply for a therapeutic use exemption. (Male athletes assigned male at birth may also do this if they have low testosterone levels.) Murby expects his exemption to be granted any day now, thus providing him a full year to train ahead of the 2022 worlds in Kobe, Japan. “It’s going to be hard to make the team — like in a practical sense, it’s going to be damn hard,” says Fejes. “But how exciting and what an amazing thing to be part of this journey and see where we get to.”

Murby could have switched to the men’s class pre-Tokyo, but — for a variety of reasons — it was not a viable option. He says he’ll require close to a full year of hormone therapy to build up strength; switching classes last winter simply wouldn’t have given him enough runway. He’s more than ready for takeoff now, though. “When I think of Kobe, it’s uplifting. It feels like I’m coming home. I’m stepping toward that spotlight and I’m being seen for who I am, exactly how I’ve always wanted to be perceived because this how I’ve known that I identify. Instead of it being a dissonance of, ‘I know who I am and that’s enough,’ it’s, ‘I know who I am and I’m stepping toward the light as the person I am.’”

Photo Credits

Tagwa Moyo/Sportsnet (4)