Schuyler Bailar had two options: He could compete on Harvard University’s women’s swim team, excelling as a leading breast-stroke competitor, or he could join the men’s group in its quest to capture an Ivy League title.
The choice was difficult and emotional — and most certainly rare — but in the end, Bailar decided there was only one way to be true to himself. Next semester, when he arrives on campus, Bailar will train on the men’s squad, and his team believes he will be the first-ever openly transgender swimmer at a Division I program.
“It ended up being that I couldn’t lie to myself anymore and feel inauthentic anymore,” said Bailar, 19, of his decision.
Bailar, who grew up in Virginia, was first recruited to attend Harvard by Stephanie Morawski, head coach of the women’s swim team, in 2013.
But after battling deep depression and an eating disorder during his senior year of high school, Bailar determined that he needed to take a gap year and seek help, so he deferred the offer to swim for the Crimson.
Bailar said he spent months in a treatment center in Florida, and during that time came out as transgender.
“That was a difficult time for me, because I was really sick of not being myself, and that was driving me to the ground. At the same time, swimming is a huge passion of mine and leaving that would have been incredibly difficult for me,” he said. “I wanted to keep swimming, but I wanted to figure out how to transition, as well.”
Because of the support he has received from the coaches and his future teammates at Harvard, he’s now able to do both.
Bailar had kept Morawski apprised of what was happening in his life, keeping his coach informed about his plans to have surgery that would remove his breasts. Though Bailar initially planned to swim for the women’s team once he recovered, in February Morawski threw him a “huge curveball.”
“She offered me a spot on the men’s team instead,” Bailar said. “I was very taken aback, and I left the office in tears. It was an incredible opportunity, but at the time it threw my whole world into an imbalance. . . . It wasn’t an option that I had thought about.”
The “top” surgery was a major step in his transition, but the option to swim with the men’s team would also make it possible for Bailar to begin hormone therapy while continuing to compete.
“I decided I wanted to [take hormones] because I was still unhappy with my body shape to some extent,” he said. “Since I was going to be on the men’s team and taking it was an option, I didn’t see why not.”
NCAA rules allow transgender males — transitioning from female to male — to compete on men’s teams. Transgender males can no longer compete on women’s teams after they’ve undergone hormone treatments, however.
Morawski worked closely with Kevin Tyrrell, head coach of Harvard’s men’s team; in April they began making the necessary arrangements to secure Bailar a spot.
“We met and he asked me about how I coach, and what I look for in swimmers. We both looked at each other at the end of the conversation and said, ‘This sounds like it’s going to work great,’ ” Tyrrell said.
Initially, Tyrrell said, he felt bad about stealing one of Morawski’s top swimmers, but it was hard to mask his excitement about having such a determined competitor on his side.
“Schuyler has done the work necessary to earn a spot on this team. And as far as I am concerned, Schuyler is going to get treated the same as every other swimmer,” he said.
The men on the team were also accepting of Bailar’s imminent arrival.
“It was a 30-second conversation, and the team said, ‘Yes, absolutely, let’s have Schuyler be part of the program,’ ” Tyrrell said.
Bailar admits the decision didn’t come easily, and he was constantly grappling with what was ultimately a life decision. He also knows he will have to work harder to compete against men who generally clock faster times than female competitors.
But he hopes his story can help other people become comfortable with their own gender identity.
“I feel good about it,” Bailar said. “I’m doing me. And if it can help other people, fantastic.”Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.