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An American Hero: 40 years after gold, Jenner comfortable in her own skin

Forty years after winning decathlon gold as Bruce Jenner, Caitlyn Jenner is the most famous transgender person on the planet—and at last comfortable in her own skin.

This story appears in the July 4–11 edition of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

“C’mere.”

From a tall, upholstered stool in the kitchen of her hilltop Malibu home, Caitlyn Jenner stands and smacks my shoulder with her right hand while swiveling her chin toward a hallway. Her shoulder-length brown hair flips hurriedly across her face, as if in pursuit. She takes a few long strides, turns left and walks through her bedroom-sized closet, into the bathroom and to a vanity, with two stacks of lightbulbs flanking a mirror. She bends to open the middle of three drawers, where a white plastic, zippered cosmetics case decorated with a pattern of a woman’s lips sits on top. She snatches the case and tosses it onto the vanity and retrieves the item below, a wooden box stained dark red, wrapped in a brown leather sleeve and embossed with the logo of the 1976 Summer Olympic Games.

“Here it is,” says Jenner. “In my nail drawer. That’s what you can say: It was in the nail drawer.”

Jenner has been performing in public for much of her adult life; she understands the impact of spoken words, the way they make some people smile and others seethe, the way they peel back layers, eliciting affirmation or exposing intolerance. Most of her words do this, especially now, as do most of her actions, including drawing breath.

The 66-year-old Jenner slides off the sleeve and flips open the lid, revealing the gold medal she earned 40 years ago for winning the Olympic decathlon, with a score that would be competitive for a place on the 2016 U.S. team to be selected this week. (Think about that.) The medal is imperfectly round, with rough, sculpted edges, nestled in felt and attached to a metal chain. It’s the same chain that was draped around Jenner’s neck on the night of July 30, 1976, at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, the same medal that Jenner lightly kissed before turning and seeing the American flag raised and hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Now as quickly as she had retrieved and displayed the medal, she snaps the box shut, wraps the sleeve around it, drops it back in the nail drawer and sets the plastic case on top.

Jenner has a complex relationship with the medal in the bathroom, in the drawer, in the box beneath the plastic case. It commemorates extraordinary work that allowed her to withstand the pain of what is now called gender dysphoria but then was seldom talked about at all.

“The decathlon,” she says, “was the perfect distraction.”

A decathlon victory is a rare achievement—there are only 22 Olympic gold medalists (12 American)—but to Jenner it can at times feel insignificant. It represents one of the greatest moments of her life, yet her life is different now. “Sports. It’s not real life,” she says. “You go out there, you work hard, you train your ass off, win the Games. I’m very proud of that part of my life. And it’s not like I just want to throw it out. It’s part of who I am. What I’m dealing with now, this is about who you are as a human being. What did I do for the world in 1976, besides maybe getting a few people to exercise a little bit? I didn’t make a difference in the world.”

The medal has been sometimes in a drawer and sometimes in a safe, but never on display. Years passed when she didn’t even look at it. “The medal,” says Jenner. And then she shrugs. “It was great for the kids at show-and-tell.”

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It’s true: the Olympic Games are play, and life is real. A medal rewards great achievement, but ultimately it’s just a paperweight. But. But. But: What if there is no medal? If there is no medal, a 26-year-old athlete named Bruce Jenner, who presents and competes as male (but even then, and long before, feels strongly that he is female), does not leave Montreal famous, does not get stopped on the streets of New York City for autographs, does not become a (useful) broadcaster and (painfully bad but well-paid) actor, does not become comfortably wealthy (and eventually not, and then wealthy again). If there is no medal, Jenner probably does not, after two divorces, marry Kris Kardashian in 1991 and become a player in one of the most popular reality television series in history. If there is no medal, Jenner does not, at 65, attract an audience of more than 17 million for a prime-time special in April 2015 when she announces to ABC’s Diane Sawyer that she will soon complete the transition to living as a woman; and does not, two months later, pose languorously on the cover of Vanity Fair in a corseted silk bodysuit and on the day of its release accumulate more than one million Twitter followers in four hours—faster than President Obama, the previous record holder. If there is no medal, she does not launch her own reality series on E! network last July, I Am Cait, which details her life in transition.

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If there is no medal, Caitlyn Jenner almost certainly does not become the most famous transgender person in history. She does not become a towering (literally, 6' 4" in heels) public figure who both unifies and polarizes (even within the trans community) while spurring discussion of gender issues in ways that no one else has. She has used her celebrity—earnestly, sometimes naively, on a steep learning curve, with millions watching—to help the 700,000 trans men, women and children in America who battle not only intolerance but also suicidal thoughts, depression and poverty at staggering rates and who are just gaining a foothold in society. “I feel like, now, nobody can say they don’t know a transgender person, because she is that famous,” says Chris Mosier, 35, a transgender male triathlete who represented the U.S. at the world sprint duathlon (cycling and running) championships last month in Spain. “She has brought about this awareness among people who are attuned to pop culture and media. Challenges that trans people face have really come to light since she’s come out.”

If there is no medal, she does not affect the lives of thousands of families trying to find their way in a trans world that many scarcely knew existed. Says Dr. Johanna Olson-Kennedy, adolescent medicine specialist in the care of gender nonconforming children and transgender youth at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, “For parents who are scared or nervous about having a child come out as transgender, it suddenly feels like they’re not the only one, because they remember Caitlyn from the Olympics, and this is real. And for the kids, if they know Caitlyn at all, it’s from the Kardashians, but for them, their life is impacted by their parents’ being more open to their journey. It’s a lot easier for them if they have affirming and supportive parents.”