For most of her life, sports was a sanctuary for Patti Dawn Swansson, a place where she could be among friends.
Often picked on by bullies because of her petite size, Swansson turned to sports as a refuge. Those who bullied her soon found she was a talented athlete in both hockey and baseball, and left her alone.
That interest took her into the newspaper business, where she wrote sports, and eventually became a sports editor and columnist for the Winnipeg Sun.
But for more than 50 years, she was living a nightmare: she was a woman trapped inside a man’s body.
“I knew from the time I was eight years old I was different,” says Swansson, 64, a Victoria resident.
She lived life back then as Pat Doyle, a rough and tumble sports editor, working in a world of macho professionals. “It was tough going into team dressing rooms to hear the language,” she recalls. “The contempt [athletes] held for gay people and for women. The misogyny was terrible.”
After several years, Swansson refused to do dressing room interviews and found her sources elsewhere.
Seven years ago, she became true to herself, beginning the process of gender reassignment. It started with hormone therapy and ended with surgery in 2009.
Swansson’s long struggle has a triumphal ending of sorts, at least in the newspaper world. Last month, she returned to Winnipeg as one of the inductees to the Manitoba Sports Writers Hall of Fame.
“The phone call came out of the blue,” she says. “I started to laugh because I’ve been out of the business so long.”
Swansson moved to Victoria in 1999 and toiled at a variety of jobs. There were cleaning jobs, work in an antique store and a brief stint as regional sports editor for Black Press, which included the Gazette.
The induction in the hall of fame is something special. “I just did my job, so to be recognized, it was lovely,” she says.
But to those who know her, Swansson did more than just come into work every day and do her job.
Swansson is one of the finest journalists longtime friend and former co-worker Dave Komosky ever came across. “Patti is very serious about the newspaper business. She has a really nice touch with words and humour,” he says.
Komosky, who first worked with Swansson in 1972 and was a coworker at both the now-defunct Winnipeg Tribune and the Winnipeg Sun, says there was no indication the sportswriter wanted to be a woman. “She seemed to like women. She had three wives and five kids over the years.”
Along the way, Swansson has had a huge influence on many people’s careers, in media circles from Toronto to Winnipeg, adds Komosky.
To Swansson, though, the biggest influence she might have is on a gay youth who has aspirations of becoming a sports writer.
“I don’t know a gay sports writer in Canada, male or female,” she says.
“For me to get this award is what it represents. I hope a gay youth reads about it, hears about it and can understand that if I can do it, then they can do it. They won’t have to hide in the closet any longer.”