The Bravest Man in the NCAA

Oct 20, 2015

Two years ago, Schuyler Bailar joined Katie Ledecky on a NAG-record setting relay… Now he’s a member of the Harvard men’s swim team, and the first openly transgender swimmer in college history… 

Consider your identity, how you might describe yourself in the most basic of ways. Name, age, gender, race, that should get things going. Then you may go on to where you’re from, where you live. Then your basic specs – physical appearance; sexual orientation; occupation; relationship and family status; maybe you’ll feel it’s necessary to mention your faith or political affiliation. What else? The driving passions of your life, perhaps. If you’re reading this, swimming will probably get a shout out.

Now try subtracting some those defining qualities. You’re not from New York, you’re from Milwaukee. You’re not six feet, you’re five-two. You’re a brewer, not a business owner. You’re not Catholic, you’re atheist. Are you still “you”? Of course not, you think. At least I did. And those are the easy items. Location, height, career, religion – either they’re subject to change or you can’t do a damn thing about them.

For Schuyler Bailar, and for many others struggling out there, the question of identity goes much deeper. Born a girl physically, Schuyler was always psychologically a boy. One of those core four identifiers – name, age, gender, and race – was hardly fixed. Since he was a kid, this is something he just knew. As much as you can be confident you know your age or race, Schuyler knew the soul-deep conflict between his exterior sex and his interior one.

They say that gender identity first takes root in children between the ages 4 and 6. As the parent of a 4-year-old, I’ll say that it’s even earlier than that. For reasons unprompted but hard-wired, my daughter has had a passion for pink and dresses since she was old enough to express her preferences. She’s a girl through and through, and there is a confidence in that. She may lack the vocabulary to fully express it, but there is an unmistakeable sense that she knows ‘who she is’ in those fundamental ways of identity.

Imagine the agony from the earliest age in knowing that is not the case. Knowing that the way the world sees you is not the way you see yourself. It’s not surprising that Schuyler Bailar and most other transgender children suffer through years of depression and very dark thoughts. They’re isolated and betrayed by their own bodies, and until very recently, the world did not much care to hear about it.

That’s changing, fast. Led, of course, by the high-profile transition of Caitlyn Jenner, the trans community is finally being recognized and becoming more accepted in everyday American life. Mr. Bailar, elite athlete and Harvard-smart student, should be an example and role model that exceeds the tabloid-frenzy madness of Ms. Jenner’s Kardashian-drenched saga.

Indeed, Bailar’s transition has to stand as a best case scenario for a process that sounds impossibly difficult, even with all the support and opportunity that he’s received. Even ‘best case’ came with depression, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts. But his parents, Gregor Bailar and Terry Hong, offered unconditional love every step of the way. His coaches and teammates at Harvard sound almost saintly in the way they’ve handled his transition. Harvard’s women’s coach, Stephanie Morawski, recruited Schuyler out of Nation’s Capital Swim Club and Georgetown Day, among the most respected club teams and prep schools in the nation. His grades and test scores made him Harvard-worthy, and as a female athlete, her times made her a prized recruit for the defending Ivy League team champion. (Note the pronoun juggling in this sentence. As we’ll learn, these little identity labels are essential to understand and respect in the transgender community.)

It appears that Morawkski was the one who first stepped up and encouraged Schuyler to swim away from the women’s team and try competing as a man. It not only meant losing a top recruit, but also put her counterpart, Harvard men’s coach Kevin Tyrrell, in a position of accepting a new and unprecedented member of his team. Tyrrell brought it to his guys and to a man it’s said that they supported Schuyler without hesitation. Having spent plenty of time in men’s swimming locker rooms growing up, I can’t say that would have been the case a generation ago. A tip of the cap is due to every one of Harvard’s swimmers, but it’s also indicative of how far we’ve come in accepting genders and sexuality in a very short time.

When I first learned about Schuyler Bailar’s story, it hit close to home. When my daughter was learning to swim, between the ages of three and four, she had a beloved teacher named Hunter. It was the first ‘big kid’ teacher she ever had, after her dad climbed from the pool and she ‘graduated’ from her Parent & Me classes. She adored Hunter, as did every other child that swam with him.

Soon after she turned four, Hunter came to us and informed us that she was transgender and would be transitioning to become the woman she had always been inside. As the owners of the swim school, my partner Lars and I quickly had to educate ourselves on this process, and in turn, help educate our entire staff. Pronouns, we soon learned, were huge. Something we’d always taken for granted – the casual toss of ‘him’ or ‘her’ when referring to folks – now carried great weight. Failing to reference a transgender person with the correct pronoun could be heard as an act of outright cruelty, we were told. Soon Hunter was no longer Hunter. She was Lirael, shedding not just the gender she was born with but the name along with it.

Then it was time to share the news with all of the kids she taught, and their parents.

When I told my daughter, her reaction went something like this: “Ok.” Shrug. Back to playing. Not even a raised eyebrow of confusion. The reaction of all the other kids was exactly the same. No worries, dad or mom, sounds good, can I have some ice cream? In the innocent wisdom of preschoolers, name and gender were not cores of identity at all. They were something that could be shed if needed, and then they could move on to more important things.

Of course, the response of adults was not quite as smooth. Too much baggage and accumulated judgment. But Lirael is still Lirael, still popular with all her kids, still among the best swimming teachers you’ll ever find, regardless of name or gender.

And Schuyler is still Schuyler. A very fast swimmer and a very smart guy. Who also happens to be the bravest athlete in the NCAA.