UPDATE | Harvard's Schuyler Bailar making smooth transition to 'normal freshman guy'
Bailar, 19, is believed to be the first openly transgender athlete to compete in an NCAA Division I men’s sport. On Nov. 6, he made quiet history when he raced for the Harvard men’s team at the Crimson’s season-opener against Bryant University.
Bailar will be profiled by 60 Minutes Sunday night on CBS.
A top-notch recruit pursued by Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Dartmouth, his parents’ alma mater, Bailar was recruited by the Harvard women’s team before the school offered him a spot on the men’s squad.
In 2013, as a high school girl swimming for Virginia’s Nation’s Capital Swim Club, Bailar helped set a national age-group record on a 400-medley relay team featuring future star Katie Ledecky, the Olympic gold medalist and nine-time world champion.
As Ledecky swims high-profile Grand Prix meets in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Bailar is just returning to familiar waters. In Harvard’s 165-120 win over Bryant, his first meet as a male, Bailar didn’t have a single top-three finish. Yet he sounded thrilled.
“It was just fantastic,” said Bailar. “It was the first meet I’ve swum in in almost two years. Super exciting. I was happy with how I raced. It was a good time.”
Bailar’s extended absence from competition, the longest in his life, was spent getting therapy for an eating disorder and then beginning the long transition process.
“He was not last in any event,” said Gregor Bailar, Schuyler’s dad, who attended. “This is a proud papa talking.”
Against Bryant, Bailar swam four events, highlighted by a point-earning fifth place in his specialty, the 100-yard breaststroke. He set his season-best time in Harvard’s tri-meet with Yale and Princeton in January (59.46).
The larger point: For Bailar, becoming transgender doesn’t mean dousing your competitive fire.
“Schuyler and I are very much on the same page,” said Harvard coach Kevin Tyrrell said. “I think Schuyler can get significantly faster. Where that tops out, who knows?”
Openly transgender athletes have come a long way since the 1970s, when male-turned-female tennis player Renee Richards had to get a court order to compete on the women’s pro tour. Earlier this year, Caitlin Jenner, who won Olympic gold in 1976 as decathlete Bruce Jenner, put a celebrity spotlight on the transgender population.
Jenner and Richards transitioned when they were past their athletic primes. Bailar is doing it just as he approaches his.
So in his brave new bare-chested world, reaching for one dream meant letting go of another: the possibility of qualifying for the NCAA championships or Olympic trials.
A tough call for someone so competitive that, following a foot surgery, once literally crawled from locker room to pool so as not to miss workouts.
“Switching over to the guys, and competing as a guy makes me much, much less competitive,” Bailar said. “It’s not nearly as possible for me to beat the next guy. That’s not to say it’s impossible. With time and with training, maybe some of it is possible.”
A remarkable option
Bailar is grateful for the chance. His heart told him he must be male. His head said he’d have to give up swimming. When Harvard women’s coach Stephanie Morawski came to him with the solution, it stunned both Schuyler and his parents.
“It was a remarkable option that she was presenting,” said Bailar’s mom Terry, “and one that we probably wouldn’t have thought of on our own.”
For Morawski, mother of two girls, it was the logical solution, even if it meant giving up a prize recruit.
“I’m a mom,” said Morawski. “I really looked at Schuyler (and said) ‘If this is my child, how do I support him. How can I help him be true to himself?’”
With hormone treatment, the 5-foot-8, 170-pounds Bailar now looks and sounds the part. The only clue something’s different are two curved scars where breasts used to be. Bailar had his breasts removed in March in what’s known as “top” surgery. The scars are expected to diminish with time. Bailar said he doesn’t have plans now for further surgery.
“I pass as male pretty well,” Bailar said, “almost 100% of the time.”
He said there’s little awkwardness in the men’s locker room. Teammates shower in their swimsuits and change with a towel wrapped around their waists, like they did before Bailar joined the team.
“Guys don’t really look at each other,” Bailar said. “They know there’s nothing underneath my suit.”
Bailar, from Langley, Va., is relieved to be treated like anyone else.
“The unanimous response has been they just don’t care. Not in a mean or malicious way, it’s just it’s not a problem,” said Bailar. “The welcome has been in treating me just as another freshman.”
After three months, he’s just getting to know his male teammates. His closest friends are on the women’s team, especially his recruiting class. He has known them for almost three years now.
“The women’s team, I was scared they were going to think I was weird or a freak or whatever,” he said. “They’ve just been loving me and accepting me and trying to make sure I do what’s best for me.”
Bailar has athletic genes. His father, an independent investor and former chief information officer for Capital One, rowed for Dartmouth. His mother, Terry Hong, who writes a prominent book-review blog for the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center, currently runs ultramarathons.
Flexing his new muscles
A tomboy from a young age, Bailar came out as a lesbian in high school and spent senior year attempting to fit in as female. It was a disaster.
“Trying to do the social scene of being a woman was killing him,” said Gregor.
Therapy for an eating disorder uncovered his gender issue. The pieces fell into place. He could not wait any longer, even if it meant giving up the sport that was his identity, and the records he might break. A disciplined and hard worker in the pool even as a kid, Bailar valued authenticity.
“That would be the thing I regretted the most — hiding myself or compromising myself,” he said. ”And I knew there would also be other kinds of glory in this journey too.”
Bailar continues to have therapy. He started testosterone injections in June. NCAA rules require Bailar to seek a medical exception to take the hormone, following a doctor’s diagnosis of gender identity disorder. He will be drug tested like any other athlete, and cannot exceed levels allowed for males.
He has been remarkably open about his transition, documenting it through Instagram posts and video. Under “changes since starting testosterone,” Bailar listed everything from increased anger to an emerging jawline and muscles to annoyingly profuse sweating. He recently posted a photo of his new birth certificate, with “male” circled prominently.
Five months into hormone therapy, Bailar figures he has the body of a 13½-year boy. His accelerated puberty could be complete in two to five years, compared to seven or more naturally.
“My parents have been incredibly accepting,” he said, “and that is literally lifesaving. There have been way too many trans kids in this past year who have committed suicide because they just aren’t accepted and primarily the problem is the parents.”
Bailar’s gender revelation was met with relief by his parents, but also with worry. They want their kids (Schuyler has a younger brother) to live happy lives. Gregor points to a website listing transgender homicides.
“There’s a transgender murder every month somewhere in the world,” he said.
For Bailar, it’s full steam ahead. Flexing his new muscles in blog photos, he has been open about this transition because he wants to help others.
“Being able to talk to people younger is really what means a lot to me,” he said. “I have had some 11- and 12-year-olds (contact me). I’m currently talking to some 13-year-old kid.”
He wants parents to know he’s just a normal kid.
“I’m not super-weird or strange and I’m not trying to mess with anybody’s life,” Bailar said. “I’m just doing me and I’m being happy … a pretty normal freshman guy.
“I go to swim practice, I do my homework, I talk to my friends, I have a girlfriend. I like to eat sushi and Chipotle. I like to play with my cousins and do normal things,” he said.
Gretchen Roesel, 19, has been a best friend since childhood. They keep in touch despite their distance — Roesel is at Army West Point, Bailar at Harvard. She noticed a change now when Bailar calls.
“You can really tell, he feels more at peace,” she said. “I feel like he’s not ignoring part of himself.”