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Schuyler Bailar (right), the first openly trans swimmer to compete in NCAA Division I swimming, demonstrating his support for Lia Thomas along with Alix J. (left), one of the facilitators of the Georgia Tech T+ group, holding a trans flag.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

ATLANTA — Walking across the pool deck after placing fifth in the 200-yard freestyle finals, Penn swimmer Lia Thomas glanced up at the stands and smiled at her supporters, who were holding a transgender flag. Among them, cheering and pumping his fist throughout the evening, was her longtime friend and mentor Schuyler Bailar.

An advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, Bailar has broken boundaries. In 2015, he began swimming for Harvard University — becoming both the first openly transgender swimmer to compete in NCAA Division I swimming and the first trans man to compete in any NCAA men’s sport.

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with Bailar on March 18 at the NCAA Division I Women's Swimming and Diving Championships, which he attended specifically to support Thomas.

While Thomas made history at the meet — becoming the first transgender woman to win an NCAA Division I Championship title — she is not the only transgender swimmer competing this weekend. Yale University swimmer Iszac Henig, who is a trans man, is competing in the women's 100-yard freestyle along with Thomas, as well as the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly events. The 100-yard freestyle final will take place on Saturday at 6 p.m.

As a trailblazer for trans athletes in college sports, Bailar said that he struggled with feeling alone while competing for Harvard, without having trans role models who went before him to look to for mentorship or advice. 

“Being able to be here for Lia means a lot to me because I was very alone during my process,” Bailar said. “While I had people who supported me, I didn't have anybody else to look to like, ‘you're also a transgender swimmer.’”

Bailar — whose polo shirt was embroidered with the phrase “TRANS ATHLETES BELONG IN SPORT” — said he felt a responsibility to educate the public on transgender athletes in order to pave the way for future trans swimmers like Thomas.

“I gave my first interview before I began college, and all four years, I was doing interviews and speeches. I actually did 102 speeches before I graduated from Harvard, educating people on trans inclusion,” Bailar said. “And I didn't do that so that Lia also has to do it.”

Bailar said he first met Thomas when she came out as trans in 2019. She reached out to him for resources and advice. While he added that he often serves as a mentor to Thomas as she navigates difficult situations like dealing with hateful messages and national media attention, he said she is first and foremost a friend. 

Other than an appearance on the swimming news outlet SwimSwam's podcast in December 2021 and a recent in-depth profile with Sports Illustrated, Thomas has largely avoided speaking with the media. In the feature, SI revealed that Bailar accompanied her when she sat down for the piece's interviews. 

Credit: Jesse Zhang

Lia Thomas competes at the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships on March 18, 2022.

Hours before Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle event on Thursday, demonstrators gathered outside the Georgia Tech McAuley Aquatic Center to protest Thomas’ participation in the championship. As they denounced and misgendered Thomas, counter-protesters across the street held signs denouncing transphobia and waved rainbow and trans flags. Bailar stood quietly to the side, watching the scene.

Thomas' broken records and participation throughout the season have drawn criticism from right-wing media outlets across the country.

“They report on Lia especially as if she's just some ‘thing in the media’ — and she’s not,” Bailar said. "She’s a human with emotions, with feelings. She is somebody's sister, she is somebody's child, she's somebody’s daughter, she's somebody's loved one, right? And we all forget that.”

Despite the hateful vitriol directed at his friend, Bailar said he is optimistic; he believes that even people who do not agree that Thomas and other trans athletes should compete in sports may come around through education and respectful discussion.

For years, Bailar has worked to educate the public on trans inclusion in sports as a public speaker and activist. He has spoken at high schools, colleges, and the NCAA, and has been invited and featured on "The Ellen Show." He also published the fiction book “Obie Is Man Enough,” which centers around the story of a young transgender swimmer.

In the long term, Bailar said he hopes transgender athletes will be empowered to compete in sports matching their gender identities without fear or pushback.

“My hope is that it really can help prove that you can be who you are, and do what you love, and thrive at it,” Bailar said. “I think we need to see more people being themselves and doing what they love.”

Assignments Editor Delaney Parks contributed reporting to this article.