Schuyler Bailar’s story is inspirational – he gave up the opportunity to be an Olympic medalist to be true to himself. He was recruited to Harvard as a female, but has found peace after transitioning to male. I hope that over the next few years he achieves success in all areas of his life.
In 2016, the International Olympic Committee ruled that transgender athletes could compete without undergoing surgery. This policy made history in the sports world, welcoming a new generation of athletes into the Olympic family.
Schuyler Bailar is an athlete on the men’s swimming and diving team at Harvard University. This is his story.
Schuyler: I’ve just always loved being underwater.
Schuyler: When I jump in, the water’s always cold, and it kind of shocks my system into, like, being quiet for a second. Sometimes I just kind of stay underwater for like a second too long, and it’s always that kind of moment of, “This is the only thing I’m supposed to be doing right now. This is the only place I need to be.” That brings me a lot of peace, I think, that I don’t have in my daily life.
Terry Hong, Schuyler’s mother: OK, who wants tea?
Schuler and Gregor Bailar, Schuyler’s father: Tea, I want tea. I’ll have some, please.
Gregor: What kind of tea?
Terry: It’s green tea.
Schuyler: That’s when you took my braids out, right?
Terry: That was in West Virginia.
Gregor: Schuyler’s swimming started in the bathtub.
Terry: He was just always so comfortable in the water, and before he learned to walk he was swimming on his own.
Schuyler: I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of myself as a talented swimmer. When I was younger, I wasn’t very good. There were a lot of people who were bigger and stronger than me, but I’ve always worked hard.
Schuyler on video, age 12: This is my bird Chico. I’m Schuyler, this is Jinwon…
Gregor: Schuyler was a tomboy. He was much more comfortable in cargo pants and a T-shirt than anything else.
Schuyler: People handed me skirts, and I would throw on basketball shorts. Or, like, people handed me the word “girl”, and I would hand them back “tomboy”. It wasn’t like I thought about it a whole lot, until it became a thing that people said, “Oh, like Schuyler’s different,” or, “Schuyler doesn’t do other things other girls do,” and then it became conscious to me because I was like, “If I do these things, people are going to see me as a boy. OK, I’m going to keep doing them.”
Schuyler: When I was younger and my coach told me I could be good, and my mom and I were watching the Olympics that same year, I watched all of the women swimmers at that point, and their chests were really flat, and this was the point where my breasts had started growing, and I remember being like, “Mom, how come they don’t have any boobs?” and Mom was like, “Well, when you exercise that hard, like a lot of female Olympians don’t have boobs, because they don’t have enough fat in their body,” and I was like, “Oh, my God. This is incredible!”
Schuyler: At that point, that was a huge fear of mine because I knew that my body was about to be kind of taken from me in a way that I didn’t want it to, and so there was definitely a huge point in my thought process where I was like, “OK, I’m going to be good at swimming.”
Gregor: Schuyler’s swimming career kind of took off in high school… and he started breaking records both in the local area as well as at the national level on a relay team.
Schuyler: I think when I was younger I was intent on doing things because I liked them, but I got lost in high school, and started just doing things because I wanted to do well in them.
Gregor: Schuyler broke his back the summer before his junior year, and junior year is recruiting year for swimming, and so it was actually quite emotional.
Schuyler: Up until that point, I had used swimming as my everything. It was my release. It was my pleasure. It was my social life. It was my motivation. It was my… my day. It was definitely a way to block everything else out. Breaking my back broke me. I fell so far into depression, eventually an eating disorder, um, and a lot of it was because I didn’t have another way to release anything, and I didn’t know how to deal with my own feelings. I had never had to sit down and really think about who I was or what I wanted out of the world. I didn’t have any words to explain why I felt so uncomfortable with my body, and the biggest thing was that I did have everything I needed. I was doing really well in school. I had just gotten recruited to swim at Harvard, and I had gotten accepted into Harvard. I had made the National Age Group record. I was swimming fast, and I was like, “What is wrong with me?”
Gregor: There was no gender discussion, by the way, at that time. It was just all about, um, getting to know who he was and getting to fix some of these issues, and we found a facility that seemed to be a match with that.
Terry: He graduated, and then the day after, we went to Florida where we took Schuyler into the facility where he would spend 131 days, and he did a lot of really difficult work there and… started the process of becoming whole.
Schuyler: At treatment you’re not allowed to do any behaviours. They keep a very close watch on you, so I literally had zero ways to cope, and had to talk about my feelings, and had to talk about how I felt and my identity, and that was the first place that I was finally able to say that I was transgender.
Schuyler on video, aged 18: Hey, guys. Um, so I’m Schuyler. I’m about to start my physical transition. Um, FTM, female to male. Er, and I thought that it would be good to document it.
Schuyler: It took me another year until I told most of my friends, and asked them to call me male pronouns, and refer to me as a boy, and kind of solidify the idea of like, “Oh, this has actually always been me, and I’m not actually, you know, changing myself. I’m just presenting the truest part of myself.”
Schuyler on video, aged 18: I’m going to be swimming next year in college. Um, so that makes it complicated because I want to transition as soon as possible, but you can’t swim competitively and take hormones. So what I’m gonna do… ..er, is get top surgery. So I…
Schuyler: When I was allowed to have top surgery, it was probably one of the best days of my life.
Schuyler on video, aged 18: You kind of see that, you know, they’re there. I hate that.
Surgeon: Let’s take a look in the mirror, OK? So, big difference.
Surgeon: You can see…
Schuyler: I thought that it was going to be me transitioning, and being true to being trans, or me being true to me being a swimmer, and that was really hard because I thought, you know, “Both of these are me.”
Terry: It was an agonising decision for Schuyler to consider giving up everything he had worked for his whole life, in terms of his swimming. It was really hard to realise, “Oh, I’m not maybe going to be this champion swimmer that I thought I was going to be, that everyone told me I was going to be.”
Coach Kevin, Harvard Men’s Swimming and Diving: I first heard of Schuyler through Stephanie Morawski. She’s our women’s head coach of swimming and diving. Stephanie and I had been talking about Schuyler, and some of the issues that Schuyler had outside of swimming. Once we got to a point where Schuyler was thinking of transitioning from female to male, Steph kept me in the loop as far as that was concerned. I did work to educate myself as far as NCAA rules. We found out that it was perfectly acceptable for Schuyler to compete for Harvard Men’s Swimming and Diving. I had conversations with the young men on the team, and everybody was open to the idea.
Schuyler: The men’s coach was like, “Well, if Schuyler identifies as male, and I have a men’s team, and he wants to swim, why doesn’t he swim for me?” But I almost said no because I was so scared of the possibility of losing everything, because, yeah, I’d be able to swim, but I would transition, and my body would be different, and I would lose all of my accolades as a female athlete, and all the potential I had as a female athlete. That was really scary to me because I had worked really hard to be successful at swimming. At that point, I decided, “OK, I’ve got to take this risk. I’ve got to try to be myself because maybe that will make me happy.”
Coach: On your mark, go!
Coach: You’re doing a better job not slowing down in your turns, but let’s get a bit wider in the foot placement for both you guys.
Coach: Schuyler is one of the most determined athletes I’ve ever met in my life.
Schuyler: Hey, Matt, will you start me?
Coach: Not only as a swimmer but, more importantly, he’s an exceptional human being and a really good team-mate. The grit and determination that he’s shown is remarkable, and it’s helped me not only become a better coach, but a better parent and hopefully a better educator at Harvard.
Coach: Your best swimmers have that feeling that this is something they can’t live without, and I think Schuyler can’t live without being in the water.
Schuyler: Five years ago, swimming meant 100%, unequivocally, everything to me. I think over time, I’ve learned to have a bit more balance than that. My family has never shown me a lack of love, and that has been what’s kind of kept me alive. When I ended up biting the bullet and telling my very conservative Korean grandma, she said, “Schuyler, you can be a son. You can be a brother; you can be a husband; you can be a boy, a man, but Korean daughters take care of their mothers, and now your mom doesn’t have any daughters so you have to take care of your mother and your parents,” and I was like, “OK. I can definitely do that.” I have those words – take care of your parents – tattooed on my side, under my scar, next to my heart in my grandmother’s handwriting. She wrote it for me for the tattoo, and she was very excited about it. “Thank you for taking this eternal vow for your parents.”
Terry: I don’t remember the Baltimore harbour like this.
Gregor: Let’s get a picture over here.
Gregor: Of us three.
Schuyler: Got it.
Gregor: OK, let’s keep walking.
Terry: Let’s keep walking.
Gregor: Keep walking before we freeze.
Schuyler: When I came out as trans, and when I decided to swim for the men’s team, I told people around me, my coaches, my parents, my friends, that I was going to be open about it. When I was younger, I had no role models or people to look up to and say, “Oh, I can do this.”
National Association of Independent Schools Congress
Schuyler: I love motivational speaking because I’m really invested in sharing my story, and sharing the possibility for this kind of happiness and this kind of peace with yourself, especially with something so complicated as being transgender, but also so simple as just wanting to be happy.
Host: Yeah, um, Schuyler Bailar. He’s a speaker.
Host: In so many ways, Schuyler’s story represents the stories of the remarkable young people whom we all teach on our campuses, but his story has a unique distinction. As the first openly transgender athlete to compete in any sport on an NCAA division one team, he has been willing to share his story globally. His willingness to share his insights are why we are so pleased he is with us today, and I ask you to join me in welcoming Schuyler Bailar.
Schuyler: Thank you so much, everybody. I’m so happy to be here. I’ve spoken at high schools and middle schools, elementary schools, and colleges, but I’ve never actually spoken with just administrators before so this is really cool. Allowing me to be myself at every step of the way from my coaches, my teachers, my parents, has saved my life, and it’s why I’m here today. I want to just take you back to when I was a kid. I was always a water baby. I’ve swum since the time I could walk.
Schuyler: Swimming has been the hugest part of my life since before I can remember, and being true to myself as a trans person is also hugely important to me. When I used to interact with somebody, it was always, “Who are they going to think I am?” And now I just walk into the room, and I’m just myself. If I can be naked in a Speedo and expose my trans-ness to everybody, you can do your thing too.