For Schuyler Bailar, a life without chlorinated water, goggles, and snug uniforms is unthinkable. 

“I’ve been swimming since I was one and a half. It’s almost like something that I don’t know what I would do without. I love being in the water and I love the weightlessness of being in the water. I love feeling like there’s nothing around me. I don’t know, I love everything about being in water,” said Bailar during a recent interview in Harvard Square.

In high school, Bailar broke national records on the women’s team and, during junior year, was recruited to the Division I Harvard women’s swim team. 

“When I got in and I got my letter I was relieved as opposed to happy. I should have been happy [but] I wasn’t understanding myself. I wasn’t in a place where I could say I know who I am and I’m happy with who I am because there was a piece missing and I think for me that was my gender,” said Bailar.    

Bailar was biologically born female but always preferred to do things typically expected of boys, like having a short haircut and wearing boys’ clothes. 

“I just didn’t want anybody to think that I was a female,” said Bailar.
But by high school, the pressure to look like a girl and fit in intensified. 
“I bought skinny jeans and I grew my hair out and I tried to be more ‘girly.’ A lot of people were happy with that change. A lot of people were like ‘Oh you’re so pretty now, you’re so beautiful. Oh my gosh, you wore a dress,’” said Bailar. 

Bailar came out as gay and got a girlfriend. But something was still missing.

“I was like, I want be proud of my body, I want be proud of who I am, I want to be proud of being a woman but was so disconcerted with who I was - who I am.”
That pressure soon led to a number of mental health issues: depression, suicidal thoughts, and an eating disorder. 

It was during this emotionally tumultuous period that Bailar was recruited to join the women’s swim team at Harvard. And as the school year progressed, Bailar’s mental health deteriorated. 

To deal with the eating disorder and other mental health issues, Bailar took a year off before college and spent five months in therapy at a residential treatment center Miami, Florida. 

That’s where Bailar made a big realization.

“I remember the first day that I used the word ‘transgender’ for myself. I was sitting there and I looked down at myself and I was like, ‘You know, I wonder if the reason I’m so upset with my body right now is not because it’s fat, it’s not because it’s not the right shape, it’s because it… doesn’t show the right gender,” said Bailar.

It took Bailar months to open up with therapists about his realization.

“It was a conversation I refused to have... for a while. I said ‘I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not trans. I don’t want to think about it.’ It had not only implications in my life -- in terms of what I was going to wear, what pronouns I was going to be called -- but what was I going to do about   swimming?” said Bailar. 

That was a question on the mind of the women’s coach Stephanie Morawski. She supported Bailar’s decision to take a year off but wasn’t sure what to do when the swimmer got back to college. So Morawski turned to the men’s swim coach for advice.  

“He just quite calmly said ‘Well why doesn’t he just swim for me?’” said Morawski.

That wasn’t an answer either coach or swimmer expected. 

“My world exploded because I was like… ‘now I have options. This is horrible.’ That was my visceral reaction because it meant that I would have to make a decision,” said Bailar. 

Bailar made the decision to join the men’s team. That meant he could begin taking testosterone – a violation of N.C.A.A. rules if he had stayed on the women’s team. It also meant that he could swim without fear of being outed by teammates.   

But there were major adjustments ahead, like getting used to spending a lot of times around a group of college boys. 

“So at certain points we would just like talk about girls at school, talk about like random experiences with girls - mostly. And that’s just something he was definitely less comfortable with which makes sense because he’s never really been in that dynamic before,” said Harvard men’s swim captain Christian Yeager.

But now, Yeager says, Bailar has found his way into the team.

“At this point Schuyler really enjoys talking to us. He’s really in on our jokes kind of thing,” said Yeager. 

And it didn’t take long for Bailar to become the one cracking the jokes. 

“I swim breaststroke and nobody says breaststroke they say breast -- so like 100 breasts, 200 breasts. So… one of my friends goes ‘Oh how is your breast?’ and I said ‘Gone,’ because they’re not there anymore. And it took him a second and then he laughed. I think that it’s good to make fun of myself. I think it brings a little bit of lightness and normality to the gender stuff,” said Bailar. 

Bailar says he’s the first transgender person his teammates have met, so that lightness has helped his transition into the team. He’s now more comfortable being in the men’s locker room and wearing a speedo. 

For their part, Bailar says, his teammates have kept the intimate questions to a minimum.

“They know what the scars on my chest are from, and they know that I’m trans and they know that there’s nothing in my pants so I think that there aren’t a whole lot of things to ask,” said Bailar.  

The biggest adjustment for Bailar has been learning to compete against male swimmers. And losing. Constantly. 

“So I was 100% giving up ever being a woman champion. Period,” said Bailar. 

During his first year with the team, Bailar hasn’t won a single race. In fact, he often finishes last. But he says he never questions whether he made the right decision.

“Now there’s like, unrestrained happiness. I’m light… Same thing in the water when I’m feeling good I feel light in the water. I feel strong and I feel sturdy,” said Bailar.