Haley Daniels and her dad are in the midst of fulfilling lifelong dreams: the daughter’s to be an Olympian, and the father’s to live as a woman.
This month in Tokyo, Ms. Daniels will be among the first wave of women competing in Olympic canoeing, an event that had previously had been open only to men. The person she’s always known as her father will also be at the Games, officiating in that same Olympic sport.
Both parent and daughter will be blazing trails in Tokyo. Ms. Daniels lobbied for years to get women’s canoe into the Olympics. The 30-year-old from Calgary will compete in the adrenalin-pumping C1 slalom, paddling on an artificial white-water course in Japan, passing through gates while navigating fast-moving rapids in a race against the clock.
Ms. Daniels is also celebrating her father, who recently transitioned and now lives as a transgender woman named Kimberly Daniels. Kimberly, a long-time gate judge in canoe slalom who has officiated many international competitions, from world championships to the 2016 Rio Olympics, is believed to be one of the Games’ first transgender officials.
Family members are permitted to judge at the Games. In the slalom event, there are a number of judges on the course, as well as race video for official use.
“For any given gate, there’s about three to four judges that look at it from different perspectives so there’s really no ability for there to be a bias, even if my dad wanted to have one,” Haley said.
“I block their names out,” Kimberly said of how robotically she does her officiating job.
As Haley began competing in kayaks and canoes, both of her parents were supportive and involved. Her father, who preferred helping out rather than just watching, eventually got certified as an international official on slalom courses, part of a crew that scrutinizes to make sure athletes manoeuvre through gates properly and assess penalties if they don’t. If father and daughter were at the same event, they each had to focus on the course, rather than one another.
Haley earned a bronze medal in the C1 in 2015 when women’s canoe made its debut at the Pan Am Games. For years, she united with female canoeists around the world, pressuring the International Canoe Federation to give equal opportunities to men and women. After the Rio Olympics came news of inclusion for women’s canoe at the next Olympics, in both sprint and slalom disciplines. Haley was determined to compete in Tokyo.
When Haley and her younger brother Hayden were growing up, their family was always outdoorsy and into sports. Mom, dad and kids especially enjoyed canoe trips together, camping and hanging out with other families in the stunning nature of Alberta and British Columbia. Haley had no idea her dad wished to be a woman.
“I did not want to impact my kids and their journeys,” Kimberly said. “Or disrupt the family.”
Haley and her dad planned to unveil the transition after the Olympics, but felt it was too important to keep silent any longer. Her father had hidden the resounding feeling since age 7 of a girl living inside a boy’s body. For well over five decades, her annual birthday wish – to be female – grew stronger.
“I looked at it as a secret I was going to take to my grave,” Kimberly said. “I was working with a psychologist because I thought I could bury it, and the psychologist said ‘that’s not likely to happen.’ So then it was ‘let’s find out who you are.’ But it’s not strictly personal; it impacts more than just me.”
The marriage between her parents ended a few years ago. Living separately gave her father the space to explore life more fully as Kimberly. A secret that had been shared only with her spouse for so long was eventually soon shared with the son, as well. Kimberly waited longer to discuss it with her daughter, worried it would disrupt the canoeist’s competitive goals. Eventually they found a time in 2019.
“I was shocked at first,” Haley said. “Whenever there’s a change in life you have to adapt and figure things out, so for me it took a little bit of time to process. I want to be as supportive as possible because I want to maintain the great relationship I have with my dad. So it just took a lot of conversations, a lot of being completely open with each other.”
The daughter wrote down every question that sprung to her mind, those that popped up during long bike rides or training sessions on the water.
One of the most complex conversations was what the two adult kids should call their father. They still wanted to call her dad, a word that represented how this person shaped who they were. They ran through what they would do in public – could they call her “dad” in a store, or introduce her to someone they ran into? This made Kimberly uncomfortable. They tried out other names, but to call her anything else but dad felt like they were hiding something. They eventually agreed that dad and father were words they wanted to keep around.
“I’m six-foot tall, broad shouldered, so being called dad bothered me initially and would bring attention to me if we were in public,” Kimberly said. “But what my kids were internalizing is that it felt like I didn’t want to be their dad anymore, and I really do. So I had to listen to their wish, which was reasonable.”
They initially planned to announce Kimberly’s transition more widely after the Tokyo Olympics, to let both of them focus on their roles at the Games. Kimberly planned to officiate there last summer, appearing as the man everyone knew back then.
When the pandemic postponed the Olympics by a year, Kimberly could appear as female as she wanted at home, planning to keep her identity under wraps publicly. Yet as the canoeist recognized how happy her dad was while transitioning into a woman, she couldn’t bear the idea of Kimberly having to be a man again. Haley was proud her dad was a transgender woman and wanted to celebrate it instead of hiding it.
Haley was invited to do a photo shoot for athletes last September for Calgary’s Pride week, and asked her father to appear with her.
“I was like, ‘Dad, do you want to scream it from the rooftops with me?’ ” Haley recalled. “ ‘Like let’s control our narrative, like let’s go out there and together we can come out with who you are, and I believe we’ll have a positive response.’ ”
The idea of a big public announcement was scary for Kimberly at first. There was the matter of first sharing the secret with her 94-year-old mother. She, too, was supportive.
“My mother later thanked me for not coming out in my younger years, because it would have been difficult back in those days for myself, the family and everything would have gone extremely different,” Kimberly said.
“I have no regrets. I had 60 years of pretending to be a man, and I had a wonderful family and two amazing kids out of them. I look different and sound different now but I’m still their dad. Today I can be myself. I always had a male and female voice in my head, and I only have that female voice.”
Father and daughter did the photo shoot together, the canoeist in a Team Canada shirt and Kimberly with long hair, a skirt, bright-coloured blouse and the Olympic official’s jacket earned in Rio. The daughter proudly announced Kimberly on Instagram.
They say the reaction they got was overwhelmingly positive, from athletes, judges, friends, colleagues and sponsors who help fund Haley’s Olympic journey. The two have even been asked to lead talks that educate professionals about how to be an ally to transgender people.
When Kimberly’s birthday came around last November, the kids got her a cake with a single candle on it.
“It was your first birthday being who you’ve wanted to be your entire life,” Haley said, as both father and daughter teared up from the memory of that day.
Happy and proud, now they can both dream of new things to wish for.