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In the lobby of the JW Marriott in downtown Austin, people are buzzing about during a loud and gregarious happy hour at SXSW on a Friday evening. Meanwhile, headline-making, 19-year-old wrestler Mack Beggs has taken a seat on a couch. He looks relaxed.
If he seems comfortable in the frenetic scene, perhaps it’s because, for the past three years, he’s had to adapt to scenarios that would make most people uneasy. He’s already made global news twice for winning a pair of Texas state wrestling titles. He has also faced backlash from parents and state officials, become an unintentional symbol for trans rights, and received worldwide support from those who have never met him. Through it all, he said he’s “kind of a chilled-back dude, to be honest.”
Beggs first made news in 2017 for being the transgender boy who was forced by the state of Texas to compete in the girls’ state wrestling tournament. He didn’t want to wrestle girls because, again, he identifies as a boy. Many of the parents of the girls he had to wrestle didn’t want him to wrestle girls, either. But the state didn’t budge, and ultimately, Beggs complied. He won a state title in 2017 and another in 2018.
Beggs is a two-time state champion, but internally, he’s got plenty of conflict about the wins. He shares those feelings in ESPN’s 30 for 30 Short called Mack Wrestles, which was about to premiere at SXSW a few hours before he sat down with the Daily Dot at the Marriott on Friday. In the 25-minute documentary, he downplays his accomplishments to his enthusiastic father, and it’s evident that he feels both pushed and pulled at the same time.
“I still get upset about it sometimes,” Beggs told the Daily Dot. “Yeah, I won two state titles. But I identify as a dude. I couldn’t do anything about it. Technically, I did win but I didn’t win. It’s a fucked situation.”
Texas is one of nine states in this country that says an athlete must compete in the gender division that matches the gender stated on their birth certificate instead of how that athlete identifies. It’s an issue that hits at the core of transgender rights—recognizing trans people on their terms, treating them as humans with autonomy.
“Mack is a teenager who has been pulled into something so much bigger,” Erin Sanger, who co-directed the film with Taylor Hess, told the Daily Dot. “It’s a reflection of what’s going on our country right now and how it’s having a serious impact on kids.”
Beggs began the transition process in middle school in the small Texas town of Euless, first socially and then physically. His grandmother Nancy Beggs—who’s featured heavily in the film and who has a delightful story twist at the end—walked him through this journey and supported him every way she knew how. His entire family did too. But he’s still faced depression and even after winning a state title in his junior year, he said he had a difficult time during his last year in high school.
“During my junior year, my coach and my grandma were shielding me from a lot of it,” Beggs said. “I was so focused on wrestling 24/7.”
Ultimately, that’s how Beggs has seen himself: as a wrestler first and not necessarily as a trailblazing transgender athlete. But when Hess read an ESPN Magazine story about Beggs and did more research on him, she believed there was much more to his tale.
“We just felt super drawn to him and to this story,” Hess said. “We felt like it was an opportunity to tell a very powerful human story about Mack and his grandmother but also to penetrate what the nature of this law is and to get people to question their assumptions about why certain policies and laws are in place.”
Beggs seems to be doing pretty well these days. He’s wrestling other men on the college level as a freshman at a small university in the Atlanta suburbs. At 5-foot-2, he’s trying to bulk up to 125 pounds. He sheepishly says his GPA isn’t so great, but he’s working hard to raise it. He loves his college experience. He enjoys talking to people about his life and his journey.
“I’ll be talking with people and they ask what I do. I say, ‘I wrestle,’” Beggs said. “Then I’ll talk more about myself. That’s the main thing about myself. I wrestle at Life University. There’s really nothing special about it other than my story blowing up. I’m glad it did, but I just want to wrestle.”
With that, Beggs gets off the couch near the bar and finds his family again. The film is about to be seen for the first time, and it will reach millions when it airs on ESPN this fall. He’s relaxed and yet a little nervous—it’s that push and pull to which he’s become accustomed.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify Mack Wrestles is a 30 for 30 Short.
Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.