Schuyler Bailar, first transgender NCAA D1 men’s athlete, shares his story
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Schuyler Bailar, the first openly transgender athlete to compete in an NCAA Division I sport, talked about the struggles of “fitting in” during a Steamboat Springs High School assembly.
The presentation was the kickoff to a week at the high school that will celebrate diversity.
“The student council, the inclusion group and the GSA (Gay, Straight Alliance) all worked on this,” said student Wren Requist. “I think that’s been a good collaboration because the student council runs a lot of things around the school, but they are also really very open to what I had to say and to our suggestions. I think it worked really well.
“I thought since Schuyler is really close to our age, it would be easier for him to relate to everyone. I’m hoping that what the school gains from this is more knowledge, and hopefully, just more understanding of transgender issues and what is happening in the world.”
One of the goals of Diversity Week it to educate people regarding different races, religions, genders and cultures. The idea, Principal Kevin Taulman said, is that by celebrating differences, people will gain a deeper understanding of each other.
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Requist said he suggested Bailar after watching his interview on “60 Minutes.” Requist said Bailar’s words were valuable when Requist, a junior, told his family he was transgender two years ago.
“My dad had always told me when I was little, ‘when you grow up, you are going to be this beautiful woman’ — all the girls are going to want to be you, and all the boys are going to want to date you,” Bailar said. “So I was like, all right I got to figure out how to become this beautiful woman … so I went to the girls section in like Target and bought girls clothing for the first time, I wore girls dresses, I wore makeup a couple of times. … I got all the affirmation that I was looking for. I got ‘You are so beautiful. You finally grew your hair out, you look like a girl again,’ and you know I thought this is what I was supposed to do.”
Growing up outside of Washington D.C., Bailar, too, struggled with his gender identity. As much as his family and society wanted him to be a girl, Bailar said inside things just didn’t feel right.
“When I got to high school, a lot of things changed,” Bailar told the Steamboat students. “Growing up I kind of just did what I felt was right for me. I wore the clothes that I wanted, I dressed the way I wanted, I acted the way I wanted and played with the boys the way I wanted to. But when I got to high school, I decided that I needed to be different — that I needed to be how everybody said I was supposed to be.
“Growing up, I did go into the girls locker room, I did go in the girls bathroom, but nobody ever thought that I looked like a girl,” Bailar continued. “So I was constantly yelled at in the bathrooms, I was constantly told to get out, and I had a lot of anxiety. I kind of just decided that that was fine, that that was how middle school was, but when I got to high school I was sick of it. I was sick of not having close friends because they didn’t understand me, and I decided that I was going to fit in.”
At first glance, it might seem like Bailar, who will be a junior at Harvard University this fall, wouldn’t have had trouble fitting in. He had had a 4.0 GPA in high school, and his accomplishments in the pool were equally as impressive.
“At the same time, during this period in high school, I was swimming faster than I have ever swam before,” Bailar said. “I was getting national records, and I was getting recruited by all the Ivy League schools.”
Bailer set a USA Swimming National Age Group record in the 400-yard medley relay at the 2013 USA Swimming AT&T National Championships with teammates Katie Ledecky, Janet Hu and Kylie Jordan, and Bailar’s 100-yard breaststroke at the 2013 NCSA Junior National Championships qualified him for the U.S. Open, the fastest national championship meet.
But as a high school junior, Bailar broke his back, and many of the issues that had been masked by his success in the pool came to the surface.
“The reality was, to the outside world, I was dong great, but on the inside, I was tearing myself up. All I knew was that I needed to get good grades and to swim fast,” Bailar said. “When I couldn’t swim, I feel deep into mental heath issues … by the end of my senior year, I put myself into the hospital, and my parents decided I need to go to a treatment center. I deferred to Harvard (where Bailar had earned a spot on the women’s swim team) and took the year off.”
During that time, he was at the Oliver-Pyatt Centers, a residential treatment center for eating disorders in South Miami, and it was there that Bailar was first able to talk about his gender-identity issues.
“I actually met another person like me, and that was a huge opening,” Bailar said. “For the first time, I was able to say to myself, and to other people, that I am transgender.”
And while this breakthrough was a relief for Bailar, it complicated his future at Harvard, where he’d earned a spot on the women’s swim team.
“The reality is that I’m an athlete,” Bailar said. “There are men’s teams, there are women’s teams, but there are no in-between team. That doesn’t happen. I didn’t want to lose Harvard, and I didn’t want to lose swimming. I ended up calling the coach at Harvard that had recruited me.”
Coach Stephanie Morawski’s first response was one of support for the young swimmer. She examined the situation and told Bailar that he was still eligible to swim for the women’s team as long as his transition didn’t include testosterone and fell in line with the other NCAA rules.
At first, this seemed like a good fix, but it left Bailar living a double life. Bailar and Morawski agreed this wasn’t the ideal solution for Bailar.
That’s when Kevin Tyrrell, coach of the Harvard men’s swimming and diving team, entered the conversation. After talking with the members of his team, it was agreed that he would offer Bailar a spot on the squad — a decision that would make Bailar the first openly transgender NCAA Division I swimmer in the nation.
Bailar admits that the decision has impacted his results — his times are good enough to win women’s races but his finishes in men’s races have not been as impressive. Bailar stressed that winning races has never been his motivation to get into the pool. He said he loves to swim and can’t imagine what it would be like not to swim at a competitive level.
Bailar has attended gender workshops at the YES! Institute in Miami, Florida, which he said helped him come to terms with his gender. Shortly after his discharge from the center in October 2014, he began transitioning. He underwent top surgery — a gender reassignment procedure — in March 2015 and began hormone replacement therapy in June.
The students at Steamboat Springs High School listened intently to Bailar during the assembly, asked him questions and then surrounded the star swimmer at the end of the presentation hoping to learn more.
“This kind of starts everything,” Requist said. “We will have different activities during the week, and Friday is kind of a summary of everything. I think this is a good way to start the week.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @framp1966.