The Harvard Crimson men will open their season this weekend with a home meet against Bryant University, and the meet will also serve as the NCAA debut of Schuyler Bailar, the first transgender NCAA swimmer in recent history.
Bailar was orginally recruited to the Harvard women’s program out of the powerhouse Nation’s Capital Swim Club, and was a member of a national age group record-setting relay in women’s competition.
But last year, Bailar came out as transgender, and will officially make his freshman debut as a member of the men’s program.
We caught up with Bailar over the summer to talk about a swimming transition that doesn’t have many well-publicized historical blueprints.
Bailar said he originally planned to have “top surgery,” or the removal of breasts, because that would still allow him to compete with the women’s program.
“I was still pretty bent about swimming on the women’s team,” he said. “It was something that I’d worked really hard for, to be really good at swimming, and it was hard for me to think about it differently, to think about my wellness as opposed to the success in the sport.”
But eventually, Bailar came to the difficult conclusion that he wanted to make a full transition, adding hormone treatments and competing as a member of the men’s program.
“It was releasing a lot of old goals,” Bailar said, goals of being a top-level swimmer at Harvard and in the Ivy League. “But it was also opening up the door to sort of pioneering something that hadn’t been done before.”
The Harvard coaches were supportive throughout the decision-making process, Bailar says, going back to 2014, when he first told the coach who recruited him, Harvard women’s coach Stephanie Morawski, that he was transgender.
“She didn’t skip a beat,” Bailar said. “She was like, we’ll make it work. If you want to keep swimming, we’re going to make it work.”
And make it work Harvard did, as Bailar was offered a spot on the men’s team, an option Bailar officially decided on in the spring of 2015.
The challenge now transitions to the pool, where Bailar will have to fight to gain ground in a whole new realm of competition. A 1:03/2:17 breaststroker, Bailar would have been among the top swimmers on the women’s team, but will have some significant time to drop to compete in the men’s events.
“My goals are honestly just to stay healthy and keep on bettering myself in the pool,” Bailar said over the summer. Knowing the competition will be stiff, Bailar said he’s focused on improving times and catching the pack one swimmer at a time.
“I want to slowly pick people off,” he said with a laugh. “I’m starting at the bottom. Hopefully I’ll slowly just get faster one by one.”
Hormone therapy will help that charge. Bailar is taking testosterone to reach the level of an average male – the NCAA already has a system in place to govern the fairness of this, which you can read about in the NCAA’s handbook on transgender student-athlete participartion. Bailar’s testosterone levels are monitored regularly to ensure there are no competitive advantages over other men.
But the transition should help Bailar make some strength gains. This summer, he said he already felt stronger in the water, though he had been out of the pool for a period of time dealing with shoulder injuries.
“I feel like I can pull more water,” Bailar said, half-jokingly comparing the change to hitting puberty.
Watching Bailar’s times – and perhaps technique – change this season should be an interesting study in breaststroke between the genders. But more importantly, Bailar hopes it will be a help to others at different places in the same transition.
“It’s definitely humbling, it’s exciting, it’s overwhelming,” Bailar said of the media coverage his decision spurred. “But I made a very conscious decision at the beginning to be open about it.
“I decided, If I’m going to do this, I want people to know I exist. Not me, Schuyler Bailar, but me, a trans athlete.”
“Growing up, I had a lot of shame surrounding my identity, my gender, my sexuality, my personhood,” he said, noting that a lack of role models or “out” people in the public eye added to feelings of anxiety and self-hatred.
“Just knowing that somebody else is like you makes it a lot less lonely. And a lot more possible.”
In the meantime, Bailar is getting back to what brought him to the Division I level of athletics in the first place: swimming.
Harvard opens its season at home Friday night in its first-ever regular season matchup with Bryant. And with Bailar suiting up for the Crimson it’ll be a night of more firsts than just that.