Why swimming against Katie Ledecky at NCAAs isn't the difficult part for Michigan's G Ryan

Michigan's G Ryan is scheduled to race in the 200, 500, 1,650, and the 800-yard freestyle relay and is banking on at least one podium finish. Courtesy Michigan Athletics

Not all that long ago, G Ryan was the kid clinging to the ledge during swimming lessons, the large pool too big and too deep to even consider letting go.

Today, as Ryan prepares to represent Michigan at the NCAA swimming championships -- the same NCAA championships that will feature Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Lilly King and more -- that pool often doesn't seem nearly big or deep enough.

Swimming can be complicated for Ryan, who identifies as genderqueer or non-binary. On one hand, the pool is a respite, an oasis in a society obsessed with gender in ways that create issues for Ryan where there do not need to be. And yet, swimming is not exempt from that reality because, well, Ryan swims on a women's team, and owns women's swimming records.

"It made it hard to get up and put on a suit some days," said Ryan, who uses they/them pronouns, a gender-neutral option to the more common he/him or she/her pronouns because they better reflect their identity as genderqueer. "It's still hard to get up and put on a suit some days. It's not the best sport. You're wandering around half naked for hours at a time."

Being on display in the way swimming requires can be uncomfortable for Ryan, who does feel anxiety about how their body looks and how they feel. But that discomfort is not the defining feature of being a non-binary athlete.

"People are under the false assumption that being trans is about your body," they said.

For Ryan, being trans is everywhere all the time. It is in others' assumptions that Ryan is a woman because Ryan was assigned female sex at birth and swims on a women's team. It is in the question of which bathroom to use when the two options presented are men and women. It is in seeing so many ways in which they are excluded, and feeling few ways in which the opposite is true.

"Sometimes in practice, I get wrapped up in my head, especially if I've already been having a rough day," the junior said. "I spend time and energy devoted to thinking about the things I can't change -- other people's reactions, my body, feeling uncomfortable, etc. -- that could be used for something else."

Ryan, who moved from rural Pennsylvania to Baltimore with their family after freshman year of high school, started questioning their gender identity while training at North Baltimore Aquatic Center (of Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps fame) with Erik Posegay. While finishing their remaining three years of high school online, Ryan felt uncomfortable with their body but could not quite pinpoint the reason. They changed the clothes they wore, cut their hair, and even cut weight and lifted more.

It wasn't until they enrolled at Michigan and visited the Spectrum Center, the university's LGBTQ services office, that they found the language to describe the tension they had been feeling.

"It was extremely liberating to have that experience," Ryan said.

Ryan came out to the team as non-binary nearly a year ago, shortly before coming out publicly in an article in SwimSwam, an outlet that caters specifically to the swimming community. Over the past year, the team has made adjustments to the language it uses because, frankly, Ryan's presence challenges the very binary that governs classification in athletics. The team Ryan swims on is commonly referred to as "Team 42" rather than the women's team (it is the 42nd edition of the "women's" team), and emails are addressed using gender-inclusive language such as "Blue" or "All Michigan athletes."

"Colors are great," Ryan said. "It's an accurate way to talk about the team without having to delineate around gender."

It is a simple change but not an easy one. Ryan's presence asks the complicated question, of what does inclusion of non-binary athletes look like in an athletic system defined as a binary?

There is no simple answer to that question, and it is one being grappled with across the United States. At times the lack of understanding of trans identity is used as a cudgel to ostracize trans people, as seen in North Carolina with HB2 and more recently in Texas with Mack Beggs and the consideration of SB6.

In sports, the question is often existential. What does it mean to have folks who do not identify as women competing against women, in women's leagues, and on women's teams, as is the case with Mack Beggs (high school wrestling), Harrison Browne (NWHL) and Ryan? What does it mean when space is not created for trans and non-binary athletes, especially those with trans-feminine identities?

These are the kinds of conversations Ryan wants to have. They have worked with USA Swimming to discuss what being affirming of all athletes looks like, and after graduation, Ryan wants to use their English and women and gender studies majors to do advocacy work and make athletics more trans inclusive.

For now, however, they are preparing to enter the pool to compete for an NCAA championship. They will line up next to Olympians who have already made their mark on swimming. Ryan is hoping to do the same. Already Ryan has won Big Ten titles in both the 500 (4:34.40) and 1,650 (15:44.93) freestyle. At the NCAA championships, they will be racing the 200, 500, 1,650, as well as the 800 freestyle relay. Olympians or not, Ryan is hoping for at least one podium finish.

"We sing about their growth," Michigan swimming and diving coach Mike Bottom said of Ryan. "As they begin to understand themselves, there's been a strength that's moved into the water, and out of the water. That's been the excitement."