Harvard welcomes NCAA's first openly transgender swimmer

Schuyler Bailar

Courtesy of Schuyler Bailar

Most soon-to-be college students find themselves worrying about the transition from home to college, but Schuyler Bailar found himself making a more challenging transition — from a woman to a man.

Bailar will make history as the first openly transgender swimmer in the NCAA as he starts his first semester on the men’s swimming team at Harvard University in the fall.

Realization

Two years ago, Bailar was recruited by Stephanie Morawski, Harvard's head women's coach, like every other student on the women’s team. Bailar was exactly what Morawski looked for in a swimmer: a fast breast stroker, with a strong academic record.

But by April of his senior year, Bailar realized that he needed to figure some things out.

“She called me up and told me that she was struggling with an eating disorder,” said Morawski. “She said that it would probably be in her best interest if she were to take care of this before she started college. So she wanted to have a gap year. I was in full support of that. I figured she knew herself best and we would be looking for her a year later to join the team."

By the fall of 2014, Bailar contacted Morawski once again to tell her that Bailar was actually transgender.

“Schuyler just simply said, ‘I’m transgender, I’m still planning on swimming for the women’s team. I just feel more comfortable as a male.’”

Transitioning

Bailar soon realized that it was going to take more than the appropriate pronouns to feel like a man.

“First Schuyler was saying ‘I just want to be Schuyler’ then moving to ‘well, I would prefer to be spoken to with male pronouns,’ to ‘I’m considering to having a top surgery, which is having my breasts removed,’” said Morawski. “At some point along the way, it just didn’t seem that Schuyler was going to be able to truly be himself at Harvard without fully being male.”

From there, it was a process as Morawski and Bailar worked together through Bailar’s transition.

Head to Head

According to Morawski, a transition such as this could have also put swimming competitively in jeopardy, causing Bailar a lot of stress. Logistical questions such as which type of bathing suit Bailar felt most comfortable wearing were difficult to answer.

So Morawski met with Kevin Tyrell, the head coach on the men’s team, to see what direction the coaches should take from there. The coaches then met with Bailar telling him that he could pick swimming for the men’s team or the women’s.

“It didn’t take too long to get to the point where I said ‘hey I’d really like you to be apart of my team,’” said Tyrel, the men's coach. “After that, it was a process of Schuyler taking time to reflect on if this is something that he wanted to do at that point.”

One of the aspects of the decision that Bailar needed to weigh was his path to victory. If Bailar were to stay on the women’s team, he would have likely broken records due to his prowess in the sport. But by joining the men’s team, Bailar would have to sacrifice the opportunity of breaking these records as his racing times rank lower on the men’s team.

Once Bailar visited both teams’ events during Harvard’s prospective students day, however, Bailar told Tyrell that he wanted to join the Men’s team.

Moving Forward

After recruiting Bailar onto the men’s team, Tyrell had meetings with the team to see how they felt about their new teammate.

“I was amazed in both the Captains meetings and the meetings with the full team that the conversation lasted about 30 seconds. I took a couple minutes to go through Schuyler's background but then they just said, 'Can Schuyler keep up in practice?' 'Cause they want to do well as a team and win. But after that it was 'Let's welcome Schuyler' and 'How can we make Schuyler feel comfortable?'" said Tyrell.

And while Bailar might not be breaking records on the men’s team, Tyrell says he’s happy to have Bailar on the team.

"It'll be a lot of fun," said Tyrell.

A version of this story first appeared on WGBHNews.org.