When Schuyler Bailar graduated from Harvard University on May 30, 2019, he completed one of the most memorable student-athlete experiences in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) history. The first openly transgender athlete to compete in any sport on an NCAA Division I men’s team earned a degree in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, while competing for four years on the Crimson men’s swimming and diving team.
“I don’t think I ever named Harvard or even any of the Ivy League schools as a place I wanted to go,” Bailar stated. “I knew I would go to college and that I wanted to prioritize my academics, but I don’t remember ever thinking or worrying explicitly about a single school.”
He was one of a select group of “notable graduates” highlighted in the Harvard Gazette Commencement Program and received the prestigious Harvard Director’s Award. The award, as determined by the Harvard Varsity Club “recognizes the person (or persons) who, through his/her pursuit of excellence and service to Harvard Athletics, has displayed exceptional leadership, personal character, integrity, and commitment to education through athletics.”
The honor is not an annual award, but is only granted when a student-athlete demonstrates exceptional contributions. Bailar was the seventh recipient in history and the first swimmer to be honored.
“Harvard was a place where I was expected to attend classes and learn so that I could move forward in the world, just like any other college institution. Of course, Harvard is an incredible opportunity with so many resources, and I am was so thankful for that,” he commented.
“Academics always come first at Harvard,” remarked Kevin Tyrrell, the Ulen-Brooks Endowed Coach for Harvard Men’s Swimming & Diving. “Excellence in academics fosters excellence athletically as it is the same skill set.”
SWIMMING AND DECISIONS
Bailar, who remembers his parents throwing him in the pool before he was a year old, took to swimming immediately and was swimming solo by his first birthday. He started competing at meets by age seven and fewer than three years later, was competing in Junior Olympic competition. By age 13, Bailar qualified for his first national meet and two years later was ranked as one of the top-20 breaststroke swimmers in the U.S. among 15-year-olds.
In 2012, he earned the first of back-to-back All-American finishes in the 100-yard breaststroke while attending Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C. At the 2013 National Club Swimming Association (NCSA) Junior National Championships in Orlando, Florida, Bailar qualified for the U.S. Open Swimming Championships, the fastest U.S. meet in a non-Olympic year.
One of his most memorable swimming highlights was at the 2013 United States Swimming National Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana. Bailar swam on the 400-yard medley relay team that set the U.S. national record for ages 15-to-18, joining NCAA champion Janet Hu, NCAA qualifier Kylie Jordan, and five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky in posting a record with a 3:37.93 finish. He was recruited by multiple Ivy League schools before deciding to continue his education and swimming career at Harvard.
Despite all that success, Bailar faced numerous challenges. He broke his back in three places in a biking accident and wasn’t released from an upper-body brace until shortly before the 2012 D.C. swimming championships began. But most of all, Bailar battled with body image and self-esteem perceptions, and struggling with mental health issues and bullying throughout high school. After graduating high school, he decided to take a gap year and focus on therapy.
Bailar with the back brace following bicycle accident
Through therapy, it became clear that the foremost issue in Bailar’s life was gender identity and that he was transgender. Being heavily recruited as a national-level women’s swimmer, he now faced a difficult decision of whether to follow through with swimming on the women’s team or to join the men’s team.
One more dilemma was weighing heavily on his mind – informing his conservative, Catholic, Korean immigrant grandmother that he was transgender. “Being Korean is a very important part of me. Coming out to my Korean grandmother was a major ordeal and the centerpiece of my TedX talk, which is connected to one of my tattoos,” he articulated.
“Save coming out to my grandmother, I don’t think being Korean has influenced the main path of decisions in my journey, but it has certainly seasoned the ways I interacted and some of my perceptions,” he explained. “Being someone who has been racially marginalized prepared me for some of the prejudice and hate-speak that is directed toward trans and queer people. My experience is tame when I compare it to Asians living in Asian countries that are aggressively anti-LGBTQ.”
Schuyler Bailar with his grandparents and great aunt
Another place where Bailar found immediate support was at Harvard. Both Tyrrell and Stephanie Wriede Morawski, the Costin Family Head Coach for Harvard Women’s Swimming & Diving were very supportive of Bailar regardless of which decision about swimming he made. “Schuyler did not originally want to swim for the men,” Tyrrell recalled. “Coach Morawski suggested it to him and then he spoke with me about it. Things moved quickly from there.”
What accelerated such a monumental decision for Bailar was the reaction of his soon-to-be teammates, which occurred after he initially said “no” to joining the men’s team. “They encouraged me to meet the captains of the team. They encouraged me to meet the actual team,” he stated. “After one weekend with the team, I said yes.”
Harvard Swimming & Diving supporting trans and queer athletes
“Our students are very accepting and Schuyler’s gender identity just wasn’t a big deal to them,” Tyrrell recalled. “What his teammates wanted to know was if Schuyler was going to be a good teammate. Once he established that he cared about the success of the team, everything clicked.”
BALANCING ACT AT HARVARD
Every student-athlete learns to balance athletics and academics and for Bailar, that congruity came at a high level. Harvard won the Ivy League title in each of his final three seasons on the team and finished eighth at the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships, its best season in 50 years. In addition to his psychology and cognitive neuroscience studies, Bailar also maintained a busy speaking schedule.
“The primary thing that keeps me from ‘burning out’ is that I enjoy what I do. I would say that 80% (at the very least) of the activities I engage in I enjoy,” he explained. “I try very hard to fill my life with things about which I am passionate.”
In the pool, he saw some of his greatest collegiate success at the annual H-Y-P meet, which features competition between Harvard, Yale University, and Princeton University as the final meet before the Ivy League championships. In 2018, he posted his season-best time of 50.78 seconds in the 100-yard butterfly. This past February, Bailar was the team’s third-fastest swimmer in the 100-yard breaststroke (56.96 seconds) and recorded his season-best time of 2:06.24 in the 200-yard breaststroke.
His final swim in the 100-yard breaststroke ranked him in the top 34 percent of Division I swimmers and top 15 percent of all NCAA divisions, finishing his career among the elite male swimmers.
With so many demands on his time, Bailar made sure to take a step back when needed and to focus on his health. “When I’m at my busiest, I take everything one step at a time. I do my best to focus on whatever it is I am doing in any given moment and only that,” he commented. “Lastly, I always try to make time for myself and self-care. This comes in many forms: swimming or some other exercise, guitar, photography, time with friends, social media, and journaling.”
In a span of five years, Bailar grew from not openly identifying as transgender to leaving a lasting legacy at Harvard and for student-athletes around the world.
“I think this power of inclusion may sit in me, I can exemplify it, but it is not mine,” he remarked upon receiving the Harvard Director’s Award. “I think that is so important to recognize. There are so many studies to show that the more a person feels they bring their whole selves to anything that they do, not just your sport, but also work and school, the more successful and happy they will be in anything that they are doing. I think Harvard embodies that so well. I think my team exemplifies that more than any other team I have ever interacted with.”
“Schuyler brought his passion, perseverance, determination, and caring to our program,” Tyrrell remarked. “I think it’s important that things are proven in this world. Our young men proved that a transgender swimmer and his teammates can have a wonderful experience together.”
After graduating in May, Bailar went on a road trip across the U.S. to visit family and friends. He traveled more than 6,500 miles from Florida to Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Texas, and back to Florida.
He will spend the rest of July as an assistant divemaster on a scuba dive boat in Cozumel, Mexico before undergoing a long-deferred surgery on his arm, resulting from years of swimming, in August.
Before commencing his career teaching emotional intelligence to staff and customers at Brighton Jones in Seattle, Bailar will go on a speaking tour covering more than 15 states. Beginning in early September and running through mid-October, he will be speaking and sharing his story at various venues, including schools and organizations that may not otherwise have the exposure or means to bring him in.
His talks, like his social media and various media appearances, are open and transparent. Bailar frequently posts photos of himself as a girl, highlighting his physical transition. “I think I’ve always known who I am, but I did not always have the vocabulary to explain myself, nor the societal examples to prove that my path was possible,” he explained.
“There were no trans athletes, no trans swimmers,” Bailar continued. “When I transitioned, I made a conscious decision to be open about it. My main goal in this openness has always been to show other people like me, especially young trans and queer athletes, this type of happiness is possible. That their happiness is possible.”