In a 2006 article, the Deseret Morning News declared a 6’2”, 170 pound, Mountain View High School Orem senior as “Ms. Basketball” for the year, after being the first Utah player to be named a McDonald’s All-American, signing with Stanford, breaking the state’s blocked-shots record, and leading their teammates to a region title and second-place finish in the 5A state tournament.
The newspaper wrote about how “little girls were telling her they wanted to be like her someday.”
Fourteen years later, that athlete stood on a platform, ready to compete before 3.8 million viewers in the Titan Games, hosted by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. This time as Mitch Harrison — the first transgender man to compete on the show.
The stories from magazines across the nation may now be writing how transgender people may want to be like him someday.
Raised in a conservative LDS family, Harrison says his life growing up was good.
“My upbringing was rather positive,” he told QSaltLake. “My dad left the picture when I was quite young, but my family was incredibly tight-knit, which made up for a lot.”
The youngest child in the family, or the “caboose kid,” as he says it, he was always on the receiving end of praise and attention.
“This eventually led to a lot of expectations being placed on my shoulders, though,” he said. “It was evident early on that I was a talented athlete and being born into the [LDS] church meant those religious standards and expectations would always be there as well.”
His older sister Kara became his basketball coach and biggest cheerleader.
As Harrison got older, his feelings on his gender identity and sexuality came into conflict with LDS Church teachings — those which his family ardently believed.
“It became more problematic once I hit high school when accolades started to pile up, and the internal conflicts with my sexuality and gender identity intensified,” he said. “There was a lot I was expected to live up to, and it was difficult to escape the disappointment as my repressed emotions began to surface.”
Kara became Mitch’s primary advocate through those struggles.
It was at this time that he was being recruited by college basketball teams.
Harrison had played 94 games in their high school career, scoring 1,682 points, 1,053 rebounds, and 463 blocked shots — a record at the time.
Harrison was named an Adidas All-American twice, a Street & Smith’s All American twice, and was invited to participate in USA Basketball’s developmental festival.
“It’s just my life,” Harrison told the Deseret Morning News when asked what it was like to have hundreds of college coaches emailing, calling, and writing. “Sometimes it seems surreal, and a little overwhelming, but I know I’m getting an opportunity not a lot of players get. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”
“I’ll always be grateful that I had family and friends who provided so much support while I navigated the recruiting process, and encouraged my choice to leave Utah for Stanford.”
At Stanford, Harrison had some girlfriends, who became the only people he talked to about his gender identity.
“I expressed some of my dysphoria with very few people who were close to me, namely my ex-girlfriends who got to witness my dysphoria firsthand,” he said. “Otherwise, I was not very open about it, nor did I fully understand it myself at that time.”
Harrison suffered from a torn ACL sophomore season, ending basketball at Stanford. They graduated and was able to transfer to the University of Utah, playing on the Women’s Basketball Team.
He then left for two years to play in Switzerland and Greece, but injuries ended that career.
Then in 2015, Harrison met Krista, who would become his wife two years later.
‘[Krista] was really the first person who was completely supportive of my gender identity, and had finally given me that safe space to be fully open about it,” Harrison said. “Thinking about actually transitioning didn’t come about until I was forced to retire from basketball due to injuries. Basketball was always my priority and it took a while for me to realize I was more than just a basketball player.”
He was concerned, however, about how his family and friends would react.
“I also was terrified about the consequences that I knew well enough would happen with my family and other close friends and family members,” he said. “My support system was already limited, and I was suffering a lot from PTSD just from being open about my attraction to women. But, as time went on, I started to realize that transitioning was a viable option and denying my happiness wasn’t worth the sacrifice any longer.”
He and his wife moved to Kenai, Alaska, southwest of Anchorage, population 7,778.
Mitch, now 32, is a personal trainer and security guard.
He said that the decision to compete in The Titan Games was “out of the blue.”
“This was out of nowhere, out of the blue and this is exciting,” Harrison said. “Who wouldn’t want to be on one of Dwayne Johnson’s shows, and being able to compete and compete for the first time as Mitch. It all fell into place perfectly.”
He was chosen to try out for the show in January and selected to compete.
His final battle on the show would be a tug-of-war-like competition where he was bested by a youth detention coach.
As Johnson pulled Harrison up from the mat after it was over, Harrison said to him, “Awww, I wanted to make you more proud than that.”
“No, no, no, no,” Johnson said as he locked eyes on Harrison. “I’m proud. I’m proud. I’m proud.”
Johnson later did an Instagram post praising Harrison.
“All I can do is tell @theiron_wolf, Mitch Harrison the truth — I’m proud,” he wrote. “Here’s a snapshot of what the world could and should be one day. Embracing, supporting and loving of all people. Good people just trying to live a good life and be the best versions of themselves they can be. Mitch, thank you for your efforts and especially, your trust. You epitomize a philosophy I try to live by daily, which is — the most powerful thing we can be is ourselves. Chin up, always. Love & respect —DJ.”
Mitch posted how stunned he was that his idol gave him praise.
“Man…where do I even start? Just, wow. I must be dreaming…” he wrote. “When I look back on my life up to this point, I think about all the time I spent wanting to make the people around me proud. It always meant just as much to do it for them as I wanted to do it for myself. For years, based on certain expectations that were placed on me, I felt like all I ever did was let those people down.
“Then one day during a time of feeling utterly alone, I realized that the only person whose approval mattered was my own. My whole life changed from then on out for the better. But, I couldn’t shake the feeling of wanting to hear someone I looked up to say ‘I’m proud of you.’ Who would’ve thought that day would come in such a profound moment, on the biggest stage, from a guy I couldn’t idolize more…
“Thank you DJ, for everything. Thank you for sticking your neck out for me and giving me a chance. Thank you for seeing me for me, no questions asked. Thank you for being my biggest cheerleader even though I came up short. Thank you for helping give trans athletes and the LGBTQ community hope for a better world. Thank you to @nbc @nbctitangames, and ALL the producers and people behind the scenes who treated me with the upmost respect and did such a phenomenal job telling my story. Just, thank you.
Harrison and his wife are currently working on opening their own businesses in Alaska.
“I’m also looking forward to any other opportunities The Titan Games may present,” Harrison said. “I’d love to be more of a voice for the LGBTQ community, be more active in the world of fitness and nutrition, and keep being an inspiration for trans athletes and the trans community overall.”
Meanwhile, back in Utah, most of his family have distanced themselves from him.
“Other than my sister and some distant family members, we are not on speaking terms,” Harrison said.
Harrison has posted heartfelt letters to his mother on Facebook the past two Mother’s Days. Last year’s was full of pain and anguish. This year, he spoke of forgiveness and unconditional love.
“Under the circumstances, loving from a distance is for the best, but I’m at a place where my door is open if a healthy relationship is ever possible.”