Photos by Katie Zeilstra Photography
When Derek Brougham was a member of the University of Ottawa’s varsity track and field team, they regularly searched for scholarships for queer athletes. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t find a single one.
Brougham, who uses both he and they pronouns, is no longer on the team. “I never felt like I quite fit in. No one was ever rude to me, but there was a certain sense that I was being tolerated rather than accepted and celebrated.”
Retirement is one of the most difficult things an athlete can experience. Unlike an office job, an athletic career can become someone’s social life, form of exercise, job and escape. So what happens when athletes no longer compete? “[Track] was really such a huge part of my identity for so long that when I retired I wasn’t fully ready to give it up,” Brougham says.
Post-retirement, athletes must bridge the divide between who they were while playing sports and who they are without sports. For Brougham, this period of seeking led to his eventual foray into drag. “Representation is one of the most important and impactful ways to make change,” he says. “To me, drag is just the queerest part of queer culture, so I thought it made sense to do that and bring it to sport.”
Brougham brought drag “to sport” by merging their love of track with their interest in drag. They named their alter ego Deca Thlon, an ode to their chosen track event. Thlon made her debut as a drag performer in June 2022, during Pride Month.
After years of being out and encouraging various organizations to support and engage with Pride, Brougham decided it was time to do something about the utter lack of athletes. So in her first month of work, Thlon collected all of her booking fees and tips to put toward a queer athletic scholarship. “I decided that I really wanted to make that change and offer that to someone,” Brougham says.
It was their first month doing drag, and they didn’t know how much they’d make. Their goal was to raise $500. They ended up exceeding their own expectations and making enough for two scholarships of $1,250 and $500 respectively. Those were awarded to Johnathan Frampton, a Nordic skier at Queen’s University, and Sienna MacDonald, a combined-events athlete in track at the University of Calgary.
Brougham plans to award scholarships again during this year’s Pride Month. June 2023 will be Thlon’s one-year anniversary as a performer, so she wants to throw a big celebration with the proceeds going toward her scholarship fund.
To Brougham, this marriage of interests represents taking up space and serving as a beacon for other queer athletes. Growing up, they remember seeing very few openly 2SLGBTQ+ athletes to look up to. “I can’t think of a single queer, gay or lesbian athlete that I could point out,” he recalls.
“I always found myself relating to women athletes more because it’s more about talent than just the brute strength in men’s athletics, which is not something I always associated with.”
Deca Thlon’s drag balances strength and femininity. She loves performing to Taylor Swift songs and even hosted a four-and-a-half-hour T. Swift-inspired show in the lead-up to the artist’s latest album release. Thlon also makes costumes for herself and other queens in the city, incorporating her love of sewing into her newfound art.
But the culmination of Deca Thlon’s mix of athleticism and drag, aside from her scholarship, is the monthly show she hosts at a local rock climbing gym, where Thlon scales climbing walls while performing songs like Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb.”
“[The] rock climbing drag is just the coolest thing in my mind—it just feels perfect because of what my drag is and what I’m trying to do,” Brougham says.
Moving forward, he hopes to encourage others to find themselves in similar ways by offering bigger scholarships to queer student athletes and increasing the number of scholarships available.