Schuyler Bailar speaks to NNHS on being a transgender swimmer at Harvard

Laura Panayiotides, Staff Writer

Schuyler Bailar, now an openly transgender graduate of Harvard, wasn’t your average high school student athlete. He was a star swimmer, breaking records and snagging the attention and respect of college coaches and fellow athletes alike, with offers from schools including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Columbia. Bailar learned to swim at the same time he learned to walk, and his life has been partially spent in the pool ever since. Despite various offers, Bailar, eventually committed to the women’s team at Harvard, where he entered as a class of 2020 freshman. 

However, during this time he realized he was unhappy and decided that for his own mental and physical health he needed to take a gap year and go to a treatment center. He checked into the Oliver Pyatt Center for Eating Disorder Rehabilitation in Miami, FL for 131 days where he was able to take a step back from competition and work on himself. 

His time at rehab not only helped him improve his strength mentally, but also gave him the courage to come out as trangender. Bailar worried he wouldn’t have the same opportunities after coming out, but his recruiter was supportive and assured him that if he wanted to swim, he would have a spot on the team. In 2015, he transitioned and continued his swimming career on the men’s swim team at Harvard, making him the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the NCAA Division I level. Bailar graduated from the university in 2019 and continues to speak about his experience as a transgender athlete. 

In his presentation at Naperville North on Sept. 20, Bailar used his unique experience and sharp wit to connect with students. While much of his speech focused on his transition, his other messages, such as acceptance, persistence and strong sense of self, held universal appeal.

Here are some of the most memorable quotes from Bailar’s presentation.

On teen identity:

“Remember, if somebody else invalidates your identity, it doesn’t mean that your identity isn’t valid.[…]It means a whole lot about that person and not a whole lot about you. In fact, nothing about you.”

“Your identity does not have to rob you of the things that you love and what you’re passionate about.”

On individuality and personality: 

“You can be exactly who you are. It doesn’t have to be trans or gay or anything in the LGBTQ+ community. It can be something that differs from what your parents want from you, what your friends want from you, what society at large wants from you. You can be exactly that and also do what you love.”

“I realized that, while everything is the same, it’s also different because for the first time in my life I’m competing as just me, just myself. There isn’t all this baggage of who I thought I had to be and who I thought I was supposed to be. I was just me.”

On struggling:

“Instead of taking the time to figure it out, to ask for help, I buried myself in my swimming and in my school. I figured if I was getting A’s and I was getting all these national records, I was producing all this excellence, [then] what did it matter that I was miserable? It did matter.”

On motivation and ambition:

“Everybody had said that there was no way that I was going to be able to compete against these guys, that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up and that there was no way I was going to beat people. So I felt like I had something to prove.”

And, of course, on swimming:

“I don’t think I would be any bit of the person I am today without swimming, but I do think that oftentimes I felt that it held me back as well. […] Swimming was very hard in that sense because I was worried that I would have to choose between the two: choose myself or choose [what felt like] myself.”

“Swimming has absolutely been my vice for my entire life. In that space it’s been healthy, it’s been unhealthy, it’s been obsessive, it’s, overall, been great.”