Editor’s Note: This article contains mention of eating disorders and depression.
When Schuyler Bailar joined Harvard Men’s Swimming and Diving, he became the first openly transgender athlete to compete on a men’s team in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and would become the only to compete all four years. Schuyler addressed coming out, swimming at a competitive level, and embracing his identity at All-School Meeting (ASM) on Monday, January 11.
When Bailar reached middle school, he found himself most comfortable presenting as a “boy-ish, masculine stereotype.” Assigned female at birth, Bailar struggled with his gender identity and suffered bullying from his classmates.
“I was assigned as female at birth. I was supposed to be a girl, and because I didn’t look like a girl, I was bullied constantly for looking different, for acting different, for never having enough friends that were girls, and for only playing with the boys. That was really stressful for me. I was never ‘girl’ enough to be considered a real girl, and I was never ‘boy’ enough to be considered a real boy,” said Bailar.
In high school, Bailar excelled in both competitive swimming and his academics. According to Bailar, however, his successes in the pool and the classroom allowed him to ignore his ongoing struggle with identity.
“I was getting a 4.0 G.P.A. I was getting recruited to swim at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Princeton. We were making national records on my swim team at the time. I was swimming more than I had ever swam before,” said Bailar.
Bailar continued, “I had gotten my Harvard acceptance, and they were recruiting me to swim, and I was really excited about that, but through most of high school, I was absolutely miserable. I felt so sad, so lost, so disconnected from myself all the time, but instead of taking any time to figure out what that meant to me, I thought, ‘I’m getting the A’s. I’m getting the medals. What does it matter if I’m miserable?’”
Halfway through high school, Bailar had broken three vertebrae in his back, preventing him from doing what he loved most: to swim. According to Bailar, his time spent out of the pool opened a void, and he began struggling with an eating disorder, depression, and his general mental health. Bailar encouraged the audience to seek help if they or someone they know is suffering with their mental health, as he did during his junior and senior years of high school.
“By the time I got to my senior year, though, it was clear that I wasn’t getting anywhere [with therapy]. My therapist actually stopped me. ‘I think you need more help. I think you need to take a whole gap year off because you’re not ready for this. You need to take care of yourself before you’re too distracted with school and swimming to give therapy any time.’ And I went, ‘You want me to put my entire life on hold for therapy?’ I had never been taught to prioritize my mental health, but I also felt like I had been banging my head on the wall for so many years being miserable, and I thought, ‘You know what, maybe this is worth that risk.’ So I decided to take that gap year,” said Bailar.
During that year, Bailar spent time at the Oliver Pyatt Treatment Center in Miami, Fla. After his treatment, Bailar was able to say to himself and his therapist that he was transgender. According to Bailar, while that realization initially came as a relief, it complicated his future as an athlete.
Bailar said, “I had been recruited to swim for Harvard’s women’s team, and I’m sure you all know this, but gender is really important in sports, especially in swimming, where there isn’t a gender neutral uniform behind which I could’ve hid… When I figured out I was transgender, I had a very huge fear that I was going to lose everything. If I tell [my coach Stephanie] that I am transgender, there is a very real likelihood that I lose her. Maybe I lose my team, my teammates, swimming, Harvard. Do I want to take that risk?”
“Then I thought to myself that I spent all this time trying to be honest with myself that I think I actually owe it to myself to be honest with my coach. So, I hesitantly said into the phone, ‘Steph, I’m transgender, and I don’t know what that means right now about sport. All I know is that I want to swim,” continued Bailar.
Offered a spot on both teams, Bailar had a decision to make. With support from his coach, he eventually decided to embrace his identity and join the men’s team.
“The women’s coach, Steph, who was walking me through all of this, called me into her office and said, ‘Schyler, I think you know what you want. The reality is that you’re sitting at the edge of a cliff, and you actually have a safety harness on and you just need to jump. You need to take this risk. We’re here, we’ve got you, it’s going to be ok, and I think your heart knows what it wants. We’re all just waiting for your mind to catch up. So take that jump. Take that risk.’ I knew she was right… I sent her an email that night that said, ‘I think I’m going to take that jump.’ And so I did,” said Bailar.
In 2019, Bailar rounded off his college career with the team’s third-fastest 100-Yard Breaststroke time that season. His final time in the event placed him in the top 34 percent of all NCAA Division I swims for the season. During his time at Harvard, Bailar won three Ivy-League Championship rings, with the team placing eighth at the 2019 NCAA championships, its highest ranking since the 1960-61 season.
For Emiliano Caceres Manzano ’22, Bailar’s story allowed him to reflect on the experience of transgender individuals and consider how to approach difficult conversations.
“I learned a lot about specifically the trans experience, or specifically [Bailar’s]. He gave me a chance to really slow down and think about that particular experience, but also in a broader way, I learned so much about how to be a better person, how to be a more patient, thoughtful, and kind person when having difficult conversations,” said Caceres-Manzano.
Hannah Ono ’22, a member of Andover Girls Swimming and Diving, appreciated Bailar’s openness and willingness to take risks.
“I really admired [Bailar’s] risk-taking. I think he had no idea what would happen, especially since he was sort of a pioneer in that aspect where he was trying something that had never been done before. I think he really inspires me to take risks on my own. Even if I doubt myself, it’s all part of the process” said Ono.
Concluding his speech, Bailar hoped his story might help others struggling with their identity. He encouraged students not to let others restrain them from being who they truly are.
Bailar said, “This is why I share my story. It’s to prove the possibility that you can be who you are, whatever that means to you. It doesn’t have to be LGBTQ. Of course, it can mean that, but maybe it just means something that differs from what people expect from you, your parents, teachers, friends, peers, teammates, media, society. You can be something that differs from what they expect from you. You can hold that difference in your identity and also do what you love. Your identity does not ever have to hold you back from your passions.”