By David “Dirk” Smith, M.Sc., SDL (He/Him)
THIS YEAR’S NCAA Women’s Swimming Championships saw two transgender athletes competing at the event for the first time, causing lots of controversy. One is trans man Iszac Henig, who delayed use of hormone replacement therapy as part of his transition so he could remain qualified to finish his college career. The second is trans woman, Lia Thomas. It’s important to note both athletes met the NCAA’s qualifying standard for trans athletes to be eligible to compete. Trans activist and former NCAA swimmer, Schuyler Bailer attended the championships and shares his insights with Compete.
Dirk Smith: Starting off, swimmer-to-swimmer, share your thoughts on both Henig’s and Thomas’ swim seasons.
Schuyler Bailer: They’re both incredible athletes. I’ve seen Iszac swim quite a bit before he began his transition and he’s always been a strong swimmer. This year, he popped off and I think he seems more excited now when he’s swimming. Also, being able to see another swimmer in a Speedo who’s a transmasculine person like me was cool. Lia has also been swimming well. It’s heartwarming when I see her on deck smiling like I’ve never seen her before. I knew her before she transitioned so to watch her beam with happiness now was all I needed to see.
DS: It’s good to mention the difference in her facial expressions and general behavior on the pool deck. She’s more comfortable in her own skin and feeling more confident in herself. Do you feel like this influenced her performance in the water?
SB: My coaches have always said, “happy swimmers are fast swimmers” and I think that’s a good rule. If you’re happy I think it’s likely you’re going to be better at whatever you’re doing. We’re better people in everything we do when we’re feeling comfortable with ourselves in our own bodies, and safe in our own selves. I think for Lia, Iszac and for me, being happy has allowed us to perform better now than before we transitioned.
DS: I’m glad you mentioned that because the impact that mental health has in sport performance is a key factor.
SB: It’s super important, especially when you consider the number of attacks that Lia deals with about how her performance has improved, and because a lot of lies are being spread about how good she was before she transitioned versus now. A primary factor is that she’s happy for the first time in her life and people are ignoring that. You can look at many stories of Olympians who went from being good to being very good, based on figuring out their mental health.
DS: It also shows how strong she is. It takes a lot of mental resilience to be able to discard the negativity, stay focused and still swim as strong as she has.
SB: It’s incredible. Simply the fact that she’s competing at the level she is while sustaining the amount of hatred, cruelty and irresponsible wielding of power by certain individuals attacking her. Somehow she is still beaming at meets, smiling at people knowing that there are people there who are hating her; it’s just unbelievable. On top of applying to law school, attending an Ivy League school, competing at the NCAA championships and training 20-plus hours a week, she’s also dealing with literally a world that’s attacking her. Lia is an incredibly resilient athlete and very courageous, yet she’s still a kind and loving person. The abuse she experiences could really harden and embitter someone, but it hasn’t her. I think people don’t get how difficult it can be to live in a state that doesn’t align with who you are. As a trans person, I know how devastating it feels, how constantly misaligned you feel and how miserable you can be without having access to transition, especially in a sport that’s as naked as swimming. People need to recognize that it says something about how freeing it is being able to be yourself and play your sport.
DS: That’s a good point, too. One of the common misconceptions anti-trans people use is that trans people are doing this just so they can win.
SB: Yes, the argument claiming that cis men are going to masquerade as women to win at women’s sports. First, it says they know very little about toxic masculinity. No person thinks “I’m going to boost my ego by winning women’s sports.” There are no facts to support that claim, despite trans women being allowed in women’s sports for decades in many arenas. Secondly, if it did happen, you’re afraid of toxic cis men and not trans woman. People forget that part as well. People think Lia is this nefarious person who must try and win women’s sports. What would this give her? Nothing but a world that hates her. I think that people are missing the point here.
DS: Indeed, I always struggle with this because none of their arguments make any sense. They really don’t understand the basics of the issue they’re trying to argue.
SB: None of them truly care about fairness. If you look at any of the states proposing anti trans athlete bills, these are about children and have nothing to do with Lia or professional sports or even the Olympics. If you look at those state legislatures, they aren’t doing anything to promote fairness in sports; they aren’t increasing access to sports that have a socio-economic barrier. They aren’t working to stop the sexual abuse of female athletes, which is rampant. They aren’t promoting swim lessons for Black children when most Black children don’t know how to swim. So this concept of “fairness in sports”, is drummed up by people who don’t care at all about women’s sports. The reality is that it has nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with transphobia, bigotry and racism. There’s a lot of anti- Blackness, racism and misogyny built into these attacks.
DS: It’s frustrating to see the hypocrisy when there are so many other more important issues affecting women’s sports we need to deal with.
SB: People need to remember Lia is a real human. They forget that I’m a person, that Isaac is a person, and they treat us as if we are these pawns to destroy sports. Nobody is trying to destroy your sports. The exclusion of trans women is what will destroy the women’s category because of the enforcing and policing of women’s bodies. Transphobia is a threat to sports everywhere and people need to remember that Lia is a whole human. Just for a moment, sit and imagine what would it be like, if not only the whole world was attacking you, but 16 of your teammates go to the press, not to you, with a very powerful Olympian and they tell the world they don’t want you to be on the team. Imagine that happens, then how do you go to practice the next day? How do you show up at the sport that has carried you through your life? How do you show up at that practice with a third of your team saying they don’t want you there? The team is supposed to have your back no matter what. Imagine what that would be like. How devastating is that. To me, that was so hard, uncomfortable, and painful. I can’t imagine experiencing what Lia has experienced without feeling very, very dark, and yet, Lia somehow has been able to get through it. I want people to consider what that would be like, especially all these parents who were thinking that they’re defending their child. Imagine if Lia was your child, try to get that empathy going. People think she is some horrible person who is trying to just win women’s sport. All Lia is trying to do is to live her life and play the sport that she loves, just like we all do.
DS: Thank you for your insight Schuyler!
Photo Credit: Sydney Claire Photography via Schuyler Bailer