My swimming teammates at American University are some of the most adaptive people when it came to my pronoun usage. I had no idea the impact I had on a lot of people.

For them, I was the first openly queer, non-binary person that they had ever met, and by default, the first person they knew who used gender neutral pronouns. Despite this lack of experience, my teammates accepted me with flying colors, going as far to correct other teammates when I wasn’t present in the room.

One of the things that caught me off guard was when a teammate of mine asked how he should address me. He asked “Since you’re not a guy, I can’t use Mr. and since you’re not a woman, I can’t use Mrs. How should I address you?”

I was a little unprepared, as I hadn’t thought of this question myself. However, I was surprised by how far my teammate was going to make sure I was comfortable and affirmed with how people addressed me. I told him about the gender-neutral address “Mx.” (pronounced “mix”).

It wasn’t long before he started to use it, almost like a nickname. To him, I became Mx. Liu. It was oddly endearing, that he would think about asking about a gender-neutral title to consistently use it.

This interaction shows how far I have come and how much I have grown in the past few years. The first time that I met the Outsports world, I was a newly out 15-year-old swimmer from a small town in upstate New York. Now, I am a 20-year-old Division I swimmer who lives in Washington, D.C., and attends American University.

In the past five years, I’ve moved halfway down the East Coast, graduated high school and gone to college and learned a lot about myself. Being in such a small town, it was difficult to truly explore my identity to the extent that I wanted to. Everybody knew me, and to explore new identities simply wasn’t feasible to me at the time.

However, when I got to college, it was a fresh start for me. I started out by changing my name. From Alex to Sasha, it seemed pretty easy enough. Sasha was a Russian nickname for Alex, and my great-grandma was Russian. Who would know? The next thing I did was sneak a they pronoun into my life. I introduced myself as he/they, opening the door into identifying outside the gender binary.

I had known for a while that I wasn’t exactly a boy. The thing was, I wasn’t a girl either. I felt stuck in this abyss of “nothing” in between the two. I wasn’t sure what I was. All of those baby steps I made — changing my name, adding an extra pronoun — were steps in the right direction, but it wasn’t fulfilling what I needed and wanted from my identity.

I knew that I was non-binary, but I had two problems with coming out. One, how would I get people to respect my pronouns without constant reminders? Two, I compete on a men’s team. I wanted to still compete in my sport, but I was unsure how to continue with doing the sport I love while being able to be accepted and respected as the person I am. Although I had no plans to medically transition, either now or ever, I still felt that my spot in my sport could be jeopardized with coming out with my gender identity.

However, those fears would soon be met with respect and reassurance. I told my friends that I would go by they/them pronouns exclusively, although I sometimes flirted with going by any pronouns. I knew that slip-ups were going to happen, especially for those who were in my class and had known me for at least a year prior to us coming to the same school, and my family. I was met with resounding acceptance.

Sasha Liu, left, with American University swimming teammate.

One thing I was afraid of was how to “enforce” my pronoun usage. While I am known to have a big mouth, I am fairly non-confrontational when it comes to things about myself. Thankfully, my teammates always had my back. It was often that my teammates would correct a person about my pronouns before I got to it.

I am forever thankful that I found an affirming school and an affirming team. To my teammates: thank you for accepting me for who I am and for what I do. I can never thank you guys enough. To my coaches, Garland, Matt, and Beth: thank you for creating an environment where I can be my true self. It means more than you probably think.

To the little gay swimmer that I knew five years ago: it gets better. You will meet people who love you for who you are. You will also meet people who will become your biggest allies.

For any gender-diverse swimmers who feel stuck out there: it might not be today, it might not be tomorrow. However, there will be a day where you are loved, accepted, and affirmed by those around you. Keep your head up and don’t give up hope. If you feel like you have nobody, just know that I am always rooting for you.

Be safe and stay strong.

Sasha Liu is a junior on American University’s men’s swimming and diving team. They specialize in breaststroke and individual medley races. When not in the pool, they can be found participating in their second favorite sports, volleyball and bowling. They are majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry and will graduate in 2024. They possess several quirks including being able to solve a Rubik’s cube in under 30 seconds. They can be reached on Instagram or by email [email protected]. For any inquiries about interviews or media appearances, please contact Karen Angell [email protected].