When G Ryan started swimming at 6 years old, they swam just to prove they could to an older brother. They continued the sport into collegiate athletics and eventually earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan. Friends described Ryan as a “big name” in their area, a kind teammate and a successful member of the distance squad of the women’s team.
However, when Ryan came out as gender non-binary sophomore year, things changed.
“People had to change in order to interact with me,” Ryan said. “They could not exist as they had previously. My pronouns changed and my name changed. That kind of had to be acknowledged.”
Ryan, who uses they, them and their pronouns, graduated from the University in the winter of 2018 after spending four years competing in collegiate athletics. They now work as the program specialist for education and training at the Spectrum Center.
Ryan first realized they were non-binary after encountering uncomfortable situations in the women’s bathrooms on campus.
“When I got on campus, I was having a really hard time using the restrooms, because I kept using these (the women’s) restrooms because I thought that was where I was supposed to go,” Ryan said. “And legally, that’s accurate, but then everyone kept getting upset that I was using them, so I kept running into really uncomfortable situations that I was struggling with.”
After disclosing their problems with using the bathroom to a few people, Ryan was directed to the Spectrum Center. There, they talked to Director Will Sherry about where to find gender-inclusive restrooms on campus. Sherry also introduced them to a packet of vocabulary terms for the LGBTQ+ community, most of which Ryan had never heard before.
“I knew a handful of them,” Ryan said. “Ninety percent of what was listed, it was my first time seeing them. That was really influential. It was kind of a catalyst for me to go down the rabbit hole of the internet and just learn more about the LGBTQ+ community and identity terms, and get into this understanding of gender as a spectrum and not just two different points. And then really start reflecting on what that meant for how I saw myself and getting language for the first time to really describe my relationship to my body and to my gender, and what that meant as a student-athlete, as someone who’s a swimmer.”
Swimming is not the easiest sport to participate in for a person coming out as non-binary, according to Ryan and their teammates on the swim team. The athletic clothing and emphasis on gender distinction can make it arduous for athletes who do not identify with the gender binary.
“We show up pretty much in underwear and are asked to train and compete day after day,” Ryan said. “And that’s really uncomfortable sometimes.”
This struggle with gender identity led Ryan to struggle with depression.
“I was at times very disassociated from everything that was going on,” Ryan said. “It felt like I would be going through the motions, but not really mentally or emotionally engaged with my day to day activities. And that was one of the symptoms definitely of my depression, that once I was able to get help and find resources and try things like medication, that became much easier to control. As a swimmer every day, I would change into a swimsuit and have to walk around in a body that felt uncomfortable, that didn’t feel it was really my body in a way that I could claim. Which is just an odd sensation to live in for an extended period of time.”
While Ryan came out as gender non-binary their sophomore year, they didn’t receive top surgery until after the end of their swimming career at the University.
They first attempted to change their body through other means.
“I tried a lot of different things to change my body,” Ryan said. “I was an athlete, so I trained harder, I tried different nutrition plans and I tried to change my muscle mass, and really see if that was it, if it was something I could change in that way. But really, I was very uncomfortable about my chest and the way that it looked, especially in a swimsuit, and I kept having to see that day after day after day. And so that contributed to my decision to go through with top surgery, but only after my swimming career was done.”
Ultimately, though, Ryan decided to wait to pursue top surgery because they were unsure of how it would affect their swimming scholarship or position on the team.
“I felt that in order to maintain my eligibility and consistency in performance and maintain that scholarship and the ability to attend this institution, that I needed to not interrupt it with any kind of major surgery, especially if that surgery was elected,” Ryan said. “And so that was one of the primary factors in waiting until the end of my competitive swimming career… just kind of not wanting to jeopardize that.”
Ryan said they considered switching to the men’s team or quitting swimming altogether at the end of each year. However, they said there was no alternative that seemed appropriate, an obvious conundrum for athletes who identify outside the gender binary in a binary sport.
“I thought about what the options were quite a lot, especially at the end of each year,” Ryan said. “But ultimately, I chose not to take any action to change my position, because there wasn’t an alternative that worked better for me. And there wasn’t an alternative that allowed me to affirm or support my gender that I could continue training in the same way with the same support structure, and I was comfortable in the routine of being part of the women’s team. It wasn’t quite right, it didn’t fit, but there was comfort in the fact that it was a habit.”
While Ryan’s non-binary identity can sometimes serve as a cause for confusion in a binary sport, Ryan said their gender assignment at birth has its privileges, as the NCAA does not prohibit participants who are designated female at birth from competing in men’s divisions, whereas it does prohibit male-born participants from competing in women’s divisions.
“There’s definitely a privilege of people who are assigned female at birth competing in men’s division. There are far fewer restrictions than of people who are assigned men at birth competing in women’s,” Ryan said. “So the barriers to me are fewer than they could have been.”
While Ryan said they struggled with gender identity during their years on the swim team, they also felt the camaraderie and success they experienced on the team illustrate how good and bad things can occur simultaneously.
“Other times, being part of the team was really amazing,” Ryan said. “It was exciting and exhilarating. We accomplished some amazing things as a group, which was something I wouldn’t have be able to say as an individual, so that was being part of a team that was unique and valuable in my experience.””
When Ryan came out, they wrote an article in a swimming publication about being non-binary and decided to come out to their team by alerting them of the article before it published. While Ryan said it may have been unconventional, the decision allowed them to come out to multiple people at once.
Ryan called the team’s reaction “entirely positive,” even though the team might not have been familiar with non-binary identities or the gender spectrum.
“I was terrified,” Ryan said. “I was mostly terrified, because I had no idea what people’s reactions would be and that unknown, that question mark, was really unnerving. Nobody’s reaction was bad. I had an entirely positive reaction to my coming out to the swim team, to everyone I talked to. Definitely a lack of knowledge, which made perfect sense to me, because I had only recently acquired this vocabulary to talk about my own identity, so I didn’t have an expectation that other people knew, but I was incredibly nervous.”
While Ryan said the team’s reaction was positive, they did encounter obstacles with their decision to use they, them and their pronouns, which often felt exhausting.
“It was hard to have people try and use my pronouns,” Ryan said. “I would say that was one of the biggest barriers, one of the biggest challenges, that I encountered during my time as a swimmer. It depended on the day. Some days I completely understood why it was happening and that people were still practicing and getting used to it, and other days I was kind of just over it. I was done with the understanding perspective and I was in my own frustration. It had been enough time that I feel like people should be able to use my pronouns. And I wanted to be affirmed in that.”
LSA sophomore Claire Maiocco, Ryan’s former swimming teammate at the University, confirmed that teammates struggled to use Ryan’s pronouns, despite respecting Ryan and their abilities.
“Even to this day, I know there’ll be people like, ‘Oh how’s G doing? Is she doing well?’ and I’ll be like, ‘No.’ Or, ‘Yes, they are doing well,’” Maiocco said. “It’s not that people didn’t really accept them, because they were a big part of the team — especially in the distance crew, they’re very well-respected on the team — but I don’t really think people could understand the same struggles that they had to go through every day, whether it be having to go into a locker room with the label ‘women’s’ on it, because that’s not who they are, or still constantly getting misgendered every day, even if somebody didn’t mean harm by it.”
Another teammate, LSA sophomore Sierra Schmidt, said Ryan’s positive attitude sometimes concealed the difficulties they had to undergo.
“G is such a strong person,” Schmidt said. “G always helped everyone. And they still do to this day. And I think because of that, there were a lot of times that I didn’t even know when they were struggling, because they were such a strong person that you could always depend on and go to.”
In the end, Ryan said they prioritized certain things in the women’s team, such as the camaraderie and success, that contributed to their happiness.
“I was part of a team that was successful,” Ryan said. “I was part of a distance swim group that had real camaraderie, and I would like to maintain that through the end of my swimming career because these were things that helped me to perform and compete and feel happy as a swimmer. So I prioritized those as I completed my swimming career.”