CAMBRIDGE, Mass. » Schuyler Bailar was a star recruit for the women’s swimming team at Harvard University, a tough competitor with a shot at winning titles. But Bailar is opting to forgo such honors to join the men’s team instead, competing as the first openly transgender swimmer in the NCAA.
"It’s half terrifying and half exciting," said Bailar, a 19-year-old from McLean, Virginia. "I’m just kind of embracing it with open arms."
Bailar, an incoming freshman, came out as transgender this year after already being recruited for the women’s team. Initially he planned to stay on that team but had mixed feelings about it — he wanted to swim, but he also wanted to embrace his identity.
The Harvard women’s coach saw that Bailar was torn and helped orchestrate another option: In a surprise move, the university offered Bailar a spot on either the men’s or women’s team.
"I was blown away," Bailar said. "I had no idea how to respond."
On the women’s team, Bailar would have been a top athlete. He had hopes of breaking records and winning titles. In the world of men’s swimming, though, his times were far behind the best. It took two wrenching months to decide, but he finally dropped his competitive goals and joined the men’s team.
"I just want to be a boy," he remembers thinking. "I can’t live this in-between thing anymore."
By then, men’s coach Kevin Tyrrell had already gathered the team to talk about adding Bailar.
"We talked about how we’re all about character and values, and I kind of gave my two cents: If we’re going to say that we care about others, then this is something we should consider," Tyrrell said. "And basically all the guys said, within 15 seconds, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’"
Although Bailar is believed to be the first in swimming, athletes in other NCAA sports have come out as transgender in recent years.
In 2010, Kye Allums asked to be identified as a man while playing on the women’s basketball team at George Washington University. Keelin Godsey was already a national champion in the women’s hammer throw at Bates College before coming out as transgender in 2005.
The NCAA clarified in 2011 that transgender athletes can often compete on teams of either sex, depending on their hormone use.
For Bailar, joining the men’s team will bring obstacles. Beyond the daunting competition, he’ll have to adjust to a locker room full of guys, and he’s still getting used to wearing a men’s swimsuit.
But it’s also an immense relief, he said. Bailar has the chance to embrace his identity without losing the sport that was a bright spot during years of depression.
"Through high school I grew my hair out, I conformed, I dressed in the high heels to prom — and I was miserable," he said. "I did succeed in swimming because that was really my only outlet. That was the only place to put my passion into, because I didn’t enjoy much else really."
Among his accomplishments, he was part of a national relay record on a girls’ team, and he competed in the 2013 junior national championships.
He was recruited to Harvard during his senior year of high school but took a year off after graduation, in part to focus on therapy. That’s when he first came out as transgender.
"Once I was able to say that, a lot of things started clicking into place," he said.
Supported by his family and friends, Bailar started to transition. He had his breasts surgically removed and has started hormone treatments.
In the two months before swimming season starts, he’s training hard but tempering his expectations.
"My goal is just to contribute something to the team, and be a good teammate and a good friend. I have no idea what my body can do," he said.
But he’s already seeing physical progress and documenting it on social media. One post from last week includes a photo of a shirtless Bailar, flexing one of his biceps and giving a game-face scowl.
"Despite my face," he wrote, "I’m actually really happy these days."