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Trans college swimmer embraces her true self and desire to swim

Trans swimmer Natalie Fahey did not want to quit competing at Southern Illinois and her coach has been her biggest source of support.

Natalie Fahey swims for Southern Illinois.

The cool air of the back room sent shivers down my spine as water dripped off my chin and onto my bare chest.

“Well, I want you to know, that when Elise and I recruited you, we recruited you as a person. If this is who you are, then we will welcome you,” Rick Walker, my head swimming coach at Southern Illinois University, remarked moments after I came out to him in January 2018.

He was sitting on a box in one of the storage rooms off the pool. I stood among the touchpads and various pool equipment, freezing in the air. We had abandoned the comforting humidity of the pool deck for the sake of privacy, and a conversation Rick worried would involve me quitting.

The last thing in the world I wanted to do at that moment was quit. But continuing to live my life as a lie was figuratively killing me, and I had felt that swimming stood in the way of me being my true self, a woman.

The thought of quitting had crossed my mind, especially a month prior when I tweaked something in my shoulder, and suffered from shooting pain any time I moved my arm in certain patterns. Swimming freestyle and holding a tight streamline were the most irritating actions. One week of putting on fins, grabbing a kickboard and trying to keep up with my teammates was enough, in combination with the crushing depression that had been increasing for the past few years, to cast serious doubts on my desire to continue swimming.

Up until that point I had considered swimming and transitioning to be mutually exclusive activities.

I was aware of the NCAA’s inclusive policies and the general ability of me to begin transitioning while still competing in the sport I loved, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do.

Swimming as a sport includes a lot of exposure of your body, a fact that had helped me be more comfortable in my body in the past, but now worked against me wanting to transition.

Taking hormones, for all trans people, but especially for trans women, is a very private process. It takes an enormous amount of time for significant changes to take effect, and is hard to hide certain body parts not normally present on cisgender people.

The last thing I wanted to do was to broadcast every step I made in my journey to externally reflecting the woman I was on the inside to my teammates, coaches, the passerby in our rec center and the swimming world.

I wanted to start transitioning as soon as possible, because mentally things were starting to tear me up. I didn’t want to stop swimming, because I had been doing it since I was 10, and I also didn’t want to transition while swimming because I didn’t want to have to deal with all the extra work that required.

As each day in the pool passed, the idea of quitting was becoming more and more appealing. A few days in and my right ankle began to hurt from the constant pressure of my fins. I couldn’t swim because of my shoulder, and I couldn’t keep kicking because of my ankle. I sat on the pool deck for the remainder of that practice, and the following morning I slept in and skipped practice.

Luckily my ankle was better by the next afternoon and my shoulder cleared up the following week, but the doubts were still heavy on my mind. I would continue to hem and haw over the paths that lay before me until the end of our Christmas break.

When I was home over break it hit me one night: I didn’t care what people would say, or think. I didn’t want to do anything else besides transition and keep swimming.

Relief washed over me the moment Rick told me that I would still be welcome on the team. I knew Rick well, I loved him as only an athlete can love a coach, but I was deathly afraid of opening myself up to him in such a basic way.

I suspected he would react well, but I could never have predicted he would react in such a wholesome way. We then talked about what I wanted, how I planned to get it and what he could do to help me out.

Before my talk with Rick, I came out to close friends on the team in person, but when it came to coming out to the whole team, I decided to post on our team Facebook page. It was a Saturday before a team event that I got with my best friend on the team and had her watch over my shoulder as I typed.

I explained that I was trans, Rick was OK with it, and that I was going to remain on the team per NCAA rules. I included my name and pronouns. I walked into the room where we were hosting the event in and someone looked up and said, “Hey Natalie.”

Later that day a friend with whom I swim distance with came up to me and asked, “So is your last name still going to be Fahey?” Sometimes when I’m having a tough time I look back to that question for a good pick me up.

By the time I had been out for two months, somebody with the university’s media relations reached out to Rick about me doing an interview. Last April, I was on air with an incredibly sweet guy who asked me a couple of questions about my journey. That aired on local television and I posted footage of the interview to my Facebook page as a part of my coming out post.

I also interviewed with a friend and former teammate who writes for Swimming World. Since I came out, I have gotten nothing but positive reactions, excepting the usual trans ignorance you find on internet comments.

Between my incredibly supportive parents, family members, friends, teammates and classmates, I’ve realized I have a duty to share my story, to use my incredibly privileged position to inspire others in any way that I can.

Natalie Fahey, 21, is a senior at Southern Illinois University where she is studying Automotive Technology, and is a member of the swimming and diving team. She can be found on twitter @nattheswimmer, and instagram @nat.fahey.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski