Profile by Mike Terry & Photography by Da Ping Luo
Many Front Runners will tell you that their lives revolve around the NYRR racing schedule. AJ Stachelek is one athlete who’s given that hyperbole a whole new meaning. On New Years Eve 2011, AJ was toeing the start line at the Emerald Nuts Midnight Run in Central Park. He’d negotiated with NYRR to have his gender switched from female to male on January 1, 2012. AJ had been Amanda Jane for 31 years and tonight he would be re-born as Anders Jasson. As AJ crossed the finish line shortly after midnight, he turned to his Front Runner teammates and exclaimed, “Guess what, guys-that’s my last race as a woman!” From that moment onward, AJ began using the pronoun “he.”
Anders is a Scandianvian name that means “courageous.” Jasson is of Native American origin and means “wolf.” The combination isn’t coincidental. There’s a wolf tattooed on the backbone of AJ’s left shoulder. ”The wolf watches my back.” AJ explains, “Ever since I was young I was drawn to wolves. I had recurring dreams about a wolf visiting me-but instead of feeling terrified, the wolf made me feel safe.” It’s always been AJ’s totem animal.
In Native American tradition, the wolf is associated with qualities of loyalty and teaching. It fits that AJ moved to New York City from Northampton, Massachusetts in the summer of 2008 to pursue a doctorate in Education from Teachers College at Columbia University. He made the move jobless and penniless, leaving behind friends, a business, and the life he’d built in Northampton. AJ scraped by on a microloan from his parents for several months before finally securing a job at Teachers College and a small apartment for himself in Inwood. The Ed.D will be AJ’s fourth degree, after receiving a B.S. in Mathematics from UMass-Amherst and graduate degrees in Statistics and Math Education from UMass and Columbia, respectively.
It took AJ some time to fall into step with New York City. Commuting between Inwood and Columbia, AJ seldom ventured below the Upper West Side except for visits to Central Park and the LGBT Center in the West Village. The Park’s greenery reminded him of life in the Berkshires. ”I was terrified of the city but the Park was less scary-it made me think of home.” Mastering the MTA was also a formidable challenge. AJ remembers several inadvertent trips to Queens before realizing that the A and E trains, though both blue, go in very different directions above 42nd St.
So how did AJ discover FRNY? Quite reluctantly, by surprise. Front Runner Rachel Kliegman was one of AJ’s first friends at Teachers College. ”She was pretty much the only other girl I saw with ‘short hair’ at school.” Rachel urged AJ to attend a Saturday fun run but AJ was hesitant to take her up on the offer for fear that he wouldn’t be fast enough to keep up with the group. AJ began training in secret for his Front Runner debut on the treadmills at the Columbia gym. By January, he promised Rachel to attend a fun run once the temperature rose above freezing. AJ assumed that would buy him at least a few more weeks on the treadmills. But to his chagrin, the very next Saturday a warm spell hit the city and the temperature rose to 35 degrees. AJ held his promise to RayKay – and the rest is history.
AJ’s first Saturday was a little rough. Michele Nolan ran with him and remembers it vividly. “He wore sweatpants, a huge baggy sweatshirt, and ski mittens that were probably thick enough to climb Mount Everest.” But despite the wardrobe faux pas, Nolan saw a spark in AJ. “We completed our first lower loop just in time for breakfast and AJ remained positive about the possibility of improving over time.” During the next several months, AJ did just that.
After winning Newcomer of the Year in 2009, AJ called on his experience sprinting between bases as a softball player back in Massachusetts to develop himself into a formidable track athlete. AJ became so successful at the Armory and at the Out Games in Vancouver (winning 6 gold medals!) that he scooped up the 2011 FRNY Track Athlete of the Year award this past January.
As a Director at Large during 2011, one of AJ’s legacies was orchestrating FRNY’s first all-club bagel taste test. The test resulted in a permanent and “much needed” upgrade to the bagels served at Rutgers every Saturday morning after the fun run.
Since AJ and Front Runner Rachel Cutler fell in love, nobody has been surprised to see him competing in more multisport events. On finishing his first triathlon last year: “Oh, I fully blame Rachel and a 30-year-old crisis for that.” AJ never envisioned himself as a triathlete before attending the FRNY Multisport Kick Off on the day of his 30th birthday last spring. The Kick Off set fire under AJ to enroll in swim lessons, get a road bike, and register for the Long Branch triathlon that very same spring.
Behind the honor roll of athletic accomplishments, AJ’s lifelong turmoil with gender identity also came to a head. The more athletic success he experienced the more pain and embarrassment he felt looking in the mirror. AJ feared that coming out as trans would mean losing friends and the love of his parents. He credits the FRNY community and especially girlfriend Rachel Cutler for helping him build the courage to come out. ”Front Runners made me feel really safe-I’ve been able to take risks and trust that I’ll be okay.” Backed with financial and emotional support from the community, AJ went under the knife in San Francisco this past March to have his chest reconstructed to male. AJ’s parents and the Front Runners have continued to provide love and support. Since the transition, Rachel has noticed a new sparkle in AJ. ”I see him finding comfort in letting people know who he is, and more importantly I see him more at ease with himself.”
So where is AJ headed from here? Upward. Be on the lookout for AJ sporting his new body in the Park and in the pool this summer as he trains for his first half-Ironman distance triathlon in the fall. ”I don’t think there’s a ceiling,” he concludes. ”And if there is, I’ll just grow horizontally for awhile, until I find a new place to grow upward.”