He had no choice but to wear the uniform.

The swimsuit’s fabric covered his torso, stretched over his shoulders and clung to the chest Schuyler Bailar loathed, making his figure demonstrably female. He preferred a shirt and board shorts, which he wore with friends when lap times were inconsequential. But he wanted to swim fast; he wanted to win. So through middle school and high school, he dutifully put on the uniform that winning demanded. He usually slipped it on in the car on the way to the pool before he walked into the women’s bathroom, the place where society was sure he belonged – even if he wasn’t.

Like that swimsuit, his body never seemed to fit. But the sport he treasured, the one that offered an identity as he searched for one, happened to be one that put the body on display, demonstrating the stark differences between male and female through exposed skin and thin fabric that hugged angles and curves. So, for more than a decade, Bailar wore the uniform he was told he had to and evaded the panic that always found him in the women’s bathroom by leaping into the water and lingering, lap after lap.

He doesn’t wear a woman’s swimsuit anymore, but to escape its confines he didn’t have to abandon the sport he had pursued since he was 4. Born female, Bailar is a member of the men’s swimming team at Harvard University.

Only 3 years old, Bailar wailed when he had to wear a dress to his christening. His parents learned to compromise – piano recitals throughout childhood required formal attire, so an ornate, androgynous Indian pants suit would have to suffice. When Bailar was 8, his mother asked if her daughter wanted short hair. Of course he did – so they cut it. Bailar lacked the vocabulary, a true understanding of the war raging between his body and mind, to tell her he wanted to be a boy. Forget answers – even the questions inside of him were written in another language. “There was no notion that he was saying, ‘I'm male.’ He was just saying, ‘I don't like dresses,’” his father, Gregor Bailar, says.

Bailar’s parents didn’t care if their daughter wanted short hair and cargo pants, but when others mistakenly said “him” or “his,” the family would rush to correct them. “Oh, no, no, no, she’s a girl,” they would say. “She’s my daughter.” The understandable urge to remedy those mistakes imbued in Bailar the sense that being male – even being perceived as male – was wrong. “I just figured it was this horrible thing to want to be a boy,” Bailar says.

Questions about pronouns gave way to the peace of working in the water. Having learned to swim before his second birthday, Bailar joined a club team a few years later and, because he hated women’s swimsuits as much as dresses, sometimes wore a wetsuit that covered his skin from neck to ankle. Some kids said he was weird, but it didn’t matter – he was good. Bailar went on to set seven individual women’s records for his club team in northern Virginia and qualified several times for a junior national club competition.

Then, during his junior year of high school, he flipped over the handlebars of his mountain bike and compressed vertebrae in the middle of his back. For several months, he was told to rest. No exercise. No swimming. Without the pool, the place where he was nothing more than another swim cap bobbing in the water and perceived no differently from the girls in the lanes to his left or right, the unintelligible questions inside him took a dark turn.

“My identity,” he thought, “is nothing now.”

Bailar hated it most when the bathroom beckoned. In high school, a several-times-a-day routine for everyone else became agony, a constant worry, a reason to scheme and strategize. He would walk to the other side of the school to find one that wasn’t occupied or try to go to a single-stall bathroom intended for adults. He couldn’t fight the sense that he didn’t belong in the women’s room, and he dreaded the concerned looks or confrontations with girls who thought a slight, short-haired boy had slinked into their personal space.

So midway through high school, he grew his hair out, bought skinny jeans and shopped in the women’s section of department stores for the first time in his life. He wore dresses to social events. He wore makeup twice. The stares and questions abated, but the feeling that he didn’t belong in those bathrooms persisted. “I had no desire to do any of that,” he says. “I conceded.”

From afar, though, life seemed perfect. Harvard women’s swimming coach Stephanie Morawski needed a specialist in the 100 breaststroke and saw Bailar as the perfect fit: a young woman with an academic record that met Harvard’s standards, the drive to bounce back from a horrible back injury and the ability to compete at the national level. Early in his senior year, Bailar visited campus and told Morawski he would swim for her. He would become a Division I athlete at an Ivy League school, someone to admire.

Inside, though, Bailar burned. The pain manifested as bulimia and self-harm. Several times, his parents rushed their daughter to the hospital, unaware that Bailar’s battles with self-worth and body image were symptoms of something else entirely.

“I was searching for something, some sort of feeling of fitting in and belonging,” he says. “And I don't think I would have explained it that way, but I would have said I can't stand feeling like I'm so different all the time. Because I wasn't a boy, but I wasn't a girl, and I didn't know how to put that into words.”

In spring 2014, a few months before he was set to begin at Harvard, Bailar and his parents decided he would take a year off school and go to a residential program in Florida to treat his eating disorder. Bailar called Morawski and broke the news. The coach appreciated the recruit’s bravery and vowed they would stay in touch. Bailar’s spot on the team was safe.

That fall, when Gregor visited Florida, his daughter sprinted to his arms. Bailar had attended a gender workshop that day, and learned he was not alone. Others had struggled with the same uncertainties, the same feelings. In that setting, the questions about his own identity snapped into focus.

After 10 minutes together, talking and embracing and sobbing, Gregor came to realize he was holding a son, not a daughter.

The word “transgender” didn’t hit like cold water to the face. For both, it brought relief. Bailar was finally able to utter the answer he had sought, confirming what his parents had already begun to assume. The worst of what the family had faced – the agony of not knowing – was behind them.

Morawski watched her recruit gradually sink into his new identity as winter gave way to spring and Bailar, finished with his time in Florida, visited Harvard regularly in early 2015. The skinny jeans and long hair had disappeared. They mulled the idea of him living as a man, but swimming with the Harvard women. Even if it meant giving up a prized recruit, Morawski didn’t think Bailar would be able to cope with that life. She thought it would be selfish to urge him to stay on her team. Teammates and schoolmates would be confused; they would misuse pronouns; even inadvertently, they would cause Bailar pain. So Morawski tried to nudge the swimmer in the direction that seemed most obvious. “Are you going to be able to wear a women’s suit for four years?” the coach asked.

Morawski kept Harvard men’s coach Kevin Tyrrell in the loop, and Tyrrell quickly realized the solution – the result Morawski had hoped for – that would enable Bailar to fully embrace his change. “He should come swim for me,” Tyrrell told Morawski.

In March, Morawski mentioned Tyrrell’s offer. Bailar remained calm in front of the coach but later burst into tears, overwhelmed by the potential to follow a path he hadn’t considered. He would go on to meet with Tyrrell and members of the men’s team as he agonized over the decision. Bailar felt at ease around them, and eventually, the answer was clear: Bailar had been certain he would have to choose between fully embracing his male identity or living his dream of swimming in college. Now, he realized, he could do both. “It meant that I could really, really, truly be male completely,” Bailar says. “Physically and in society and in my sport.”

Despite cautions from therapists and his parents to move slowly, Bailar wanted his physical transformation to take place as fast as possible so he could resume training. He had surgery to remove his breasts in March 2015, a procedure with a painful aftermath – he lived briefly with drainage tubes in his chest and lives permanently with a prominent scar. But Bailar was giddy, not frightened, the morning of the surgery. “I had been at war with my breasts since before they started growing,” he says.

Testosterone, however, was a more startling prospect. Where and when would hair grow? Might he go bald? How would his body change? As the injections began, Gregor realized his son’s transformation entailed more than a deepening voice and growing muscles. Bailar became less fastidious – his once-neat room grew messy. He now sweats and sometimes stinks, and his clothes pile up in the corner. But at his core, “this is the same wacky, nerdy, authentic, empathetic person I've always known,” Gregor says.

Bailar has blasted photos of the surgery’s aftermath and his body’s gradual changes to more than 11,000 Instagram followers. He says he shares his story to aid any others who entered their teenage years without someone to help them interpret the questions that swirl in their minds. His story, he hopes, enables them to articulate that their feelings are more complicated than not wanting to wear dresses or feeling out of place in the women’s room. He wants to help other boys and girls seek answers, not harm.

Officially a part of Harvard Men's Swimming and Diving ☺️🎉 🏊

A photo posted by Schuyler Bailar (@pinkmantaray) on

Sitting in a lab at the beginning of the fall semester at Harvard, students were asked to find partners. “He’s going to work with us,” a girl told the professor. He was Bailar. Only a year removed from sobbing with his father in Florida – a first step toward a new identity – his fellow students had no questions about pronouns or background. “No explaining, no expectations,” Bailar says. “Just me.”

As the swim season began, Tyrrell pulled his athletes aside individually on the pool deck to ask if any issues had arisen or if the unique arrangement had proven distracting. He hoped that doing what was best for Bailar hadn’t come at the expense of the rest of his team. “It’s not a big deal,” came the same response, again and again. “What are you worried about?”

“They're very open-minded; they care about their teammates,” Tyrrell says. “I just don’t think it registers for them.”

At a practice in the fall, as men’s and women’s teams trained on opposite ends of the pool, Bailar walked by Morawski, and the coach stopped him. Morawski didn’t want to exchange pleasantries; she wanted to know – truly, honestly – how Bailar was doing. Had they made the right choice? His simple answer has stuck with her: “I’m happy,” he said.

As requested- more swimming picture comparisons! Top: Summer 2011 Bottom: last week (winter 2015)

A photo posted by Schuyler Bailar (@pinkmantaray) on

On Nov. 6, at Harvard’s first meet of the season, Bailar stood on the pool deck and listened to the national anthem, just as he had done hundreds of times before. But what had once been routine felt jarringly different. He was slated to swim the men’s 100-yard breaststroke, not the women’s. And a long swimsuit that covered his torso and clung to his shoulders and breasts wasn’t hiding under his warm-ups. Instead, they covered a Speedo and a bare chest. He stood shoulder to shoulder with men – his teammates – and battled back tears.

He didn’t finish last in any of his four events that day, but he didn’t finish among the leaders, either. The swimmer who was accustomed to winning races and breaking records would have to acclimate to touching the wall well after most of his competitors. After finishing last or next to last in several events at a November meet against Columbia University, Bailar asked Tyrrell if he looked out of place swimming next to other men in the pool. What others perceive didn’t matter, Tyrrell told him. All he had to do was swim his fastest.

So Bailar did. He finished the 100 breaststroke in under a minute for the first time in his life in a Jan. 29 meet against Yale and Princeton universities. His teammates erupted when they saw the time and enveloped him when he climbed out of the pool, even though he had finished last.

Morawski arrived just as Bailar posted his time. Gregor, who still chokes up when he remembers that moment, hugged the coach. Then, Bailar approached. He had made the decision to swim on the men’s team to be true to himself, to be happy, but in that moment, Morawski saw hope for something more wash over his face. She saw him realize he may be able to contribute to the team in ways he thought impossible when he discarded a woman’s swimsuit forever. Tyrrell did, too. “It wasn’t about the times,” he says.

When Bailar first donned a men’s Speedo, he jumped in the pool as soon as he could. Gradually, though, as his muscles have begun to bulge and the angles on his face have sharpened, he has grown comfortable standing on a pool deck with his teammates, surrounded by parents and students and strangers. “It’s liberating,” he says.

A deep red scar from his breast removal spans the width of his chest, running horizontally under his pectorals. It’s a remnant of the pain he once felt, a thick line that hints at his history and won’t soon disappear. It’s impossible to ignore: Strangers have asked if he had open heart surgery.

No, he tells them – his heart is doing fine.

Subscribe to the Magazine

Subscribe to the Podcast