Interviews

Transgender Powerlifter Janae Marie Kroc Shares Unbelievable Story

World champion powerlifter Matt Kroczaleski came out as a transgender woman and rocked the fitness world. M&F was granted unprecedented access for a revealing feature in our October issue.

janae-kroc-split
Photography by Per Bernal

The double-edged sword is unique to her situation: The amount of muscle mass she carries makes her an anomaly even within the transgender community. Many transgender people struggle because they don’t conform to societal norms of masculinity or femininity. Being a transgender woman as imposing as Janae makes conformity to either sex all but impossible at the moment. 

“It’s funny. Whenever I see pictures of Matt, I always thought he looked small,” she says. “Whenever I see Janae, I think I look huge. I wish I had come to terms with this earlier in life. I’d look a lot better.” 

To understand how Janae pushed herself so far away from where she now wants to be, it’s helpful to get a picture of her early life. 

“I grew up feeling less than everyone else,” she says. “I was poor, and we were white trash, and I knew it. I felt like I had to beat everybody. As a guy, the only way I’m comfortable is being top dog. Part of it was the chip on my shoulder. Part of it was compensating for the feelings I had inside.” 

matt-kroc

Matt was born to conservative Catholic parents Jerry and Diane Kroczaleski and grew up in the woods outside Sterling, MI. Alongside his two brothers, Kurt and Chris, he lived in a mobile home so dilapidated that you had to watch your step in the hallway or risk hitting a rust patch and falling through the floor. 

Jerry heated the trailer with a homemade woodstove fashioned out of a 55-gallon oil drum. A few times when he couldn’t afford firewood, he sent his boys into the woods to gather sticks. Five hours of gathering was worth about one night of heat. Jerry drank heavily and worked a collection of odd jobs with a business card for all of them except his most lucrative revenue stream: growing and selling marijuana. Oftentimes, he’d stumble home drunk, having abandoned his car on the side of the road with no recollection of where it was. He once tried to add wood to the stove when he was in this state, passed out midway through the process, and nearly burned down the house. 

“He was a smart guy who wasted a lot of talent,” Janae says. “Alcohol and pot were his self-medication. I couldn’t tell you how many cars he wrecked. He’s lucky to be alive.” 

Matt started lifting weights at the age of 9. When he picked up his first dumbbell, there was a thought, a faint hope that gaining muscle could change how he felt inside. 

“Even at a young age, you know that something like that isn’t going to be received well,” she says. “I was terrified at what people would think. I hoped for a long time that this would go away, and so I ran with the whole lifting thing.” 

On the one hand, Matt hoped to change. On the other, he was fascinated by strength outside of what it meant to his transgender identity. Lifting weights was a pleasant escape. Dad was stringy and unathletic and by nature, Matt was, too but training changed all that, and every rep took him further away from Jerry. Matt excelled in sports, particularly wrestling and football, and wasn’t tempted by Jerry’s habits. 

“I think he resented the fact that I was a jock,” Janae says. “He told me that I was worthless, that the only things I was good for were eating, sleeping, and shitting. He’s sober now, and we’re actually on good terms...I doubt he remembers much of what he said or did.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Matt joined the Marines as soon as he was old enough in 1991. Almost immediately, the muscular, intimidating “Kroc” became the drill sergeant’s dream recruit at boot camp in San Diego. When other recruits fell out of line or lagged behind in PT drills, the drill sergeant would pit the weaklings against Matt in hand-to-hand combat. To embrace the role, Matt “greatly overcompensated.” 

“I was the first person to jump on anyone else for being the least bit feminine,” Janae admits. At the time, it was easy to rationalize the behavior because Marines are training for life-or-death situations. Still, there was more to it than that. “Deep down inside, it was me that I didn’t like.”

matt-kroc-janae-kroc-bill-clinton

Scoring nearly perfect in all his reviews, Matt was selected for presidential security and for a time worked security at the United Nations. By this point, he was well-liked by the other Marines, and social settings made it harder to keep Janae repressed. The guys in his unit asked typical guy things—like how many women he had slept with. “I told them the truth, that I was a virgin,” Janae says. “No one believed it. They thought it was my line.”

At the UN, Matt and his unit had to work closely with the liaison to security, whose assistant turned out to be a blonde bombshell out of central casting. Every man in the unit hit on her aggressively, but she gravitated toward the quiet guy who was always in the back of the room.

“On the last night of the detail, she invited me up to her room,” Janae says. Miffed at Matt’s lack of advances, she joked that he could leave. “I got up and left,” Janae says. “I had no idea what to do.” 

He craved intimacy and had no way to express it. He loved women but couldn’t imagine “being a man” with them because he had always felt that his penis “didn’t belong” on his body. By the time Matt married his first wife, Patty Stoll, in 1996, he figured out that to be with women sexually, he had to imagine himself as a woman. Before he came to that realization, frustrating scenes like the blonde in the hotel room played out over and over, taking a toll on his psyche.

The gym was the only mainstay in his life that never let him down. He’d break into the on-base gym in the middle of the night and train for hours, attempting max lifts with no spotters. 

“I’d put myself in do-or-die situations,” Janae says. “I’d get a one-rep max on the bench that was an absolute grinder. One more pound and there’s no way I would have made it...That saying that you’ll never feel more alive than when you’re close to death, that certainly holds true for me.”

Patty knew about her husband’s true identity as a transgender woman from the beginning. She tried to understand and be supportive but eventually asked him to stop talking about it. A born-again Christian, she believed transgender thoughts or feelings were sinful. Keeping everything repressed, Matt went back to school to become a pharmacist, had three boys with Patty, and threw every ounce of spare energy into powerlifting. 

In 2004, Matt was diagnosed with testicular cancer, news that elicited new thoughts of wanting to transition. “I actually hoped the cancer would spread to the other testicle and even to my penis,” Janae says. “That way they’d have to remove everything, and it wouldn’t be my fault for changing. I knew better. I knew the cancer didn’t work that way, but I still thought about it.” 

Initial blood work during cancer treatment yielded another surprise. “All my hormone levels were in between male and female,” she says. “I assumed that I had naturally high testosterone because of how far I had made it in the lifting world. But it turned out my levels were naturally low, and then even lower after surgery. My estrogen levels were high. My prolactin levels were three times what a male’s are supposed to be. I also had an undersized pituitary for a male. My body was in between both worlds.”

She points to this fact to help dispel a common misconception about transgender people—that trauma can create transgender feelings.

“I could talk about androgen receptor density in the hypothalamus gland and the studies that have been done there, but the simplest way to put it is that transgender people—the areas in our brains that dictate identity are analogous to the opposite gender,” Janae says. “It’s genetic. There’s a lot more to it, of course, but if you boil it down, it’s the same as having green eyes or black hair. It’s not a psychological thing.”

After surgery to remove the cancerous right testicle (today she is cancer-free), Matt began taking anabolic steroids so he could continue competing. Contrary to popular belief, Janae says she had never taken any performance enhancing drugs until that point.

“Being a competitive lifter, obviously steroids are always a temptation,” she says. “But I competed for a decade and had never touched a thing. I was 32 years old and qualified for the Arnold drug-free. I squatted 900. I was benching more than 500 and deadlifted 716. I was drug tested I think five different times and of course passed all of them.” 

Emboldened by her brush with death, Janae decided to reveal her true self to her sons when they were aged 2, 4, and 6. She went into her bedroom, changed into a dress, high heels, and a wig, then opened the door to show her boys. 

Pages
Comments