How PNW trans swimmers are finding comfort in and out of water

Pools can be hotbeds of sports debates and body discomfort for transgender people. One Idaho student wouldn’t let it stop him from becoming a triathlete.

A person sits in front of an indoor pool


Torrey Stephenson in front of the pool at the University of Idaho Swim Center. (Frankie Beer for Cascade PBS)

Torrey Stephenson, 30, never learned to swim. 

As an 11-year-old growing up in Colorado, Stephenson tended to avoid his neighborhood pool. He was uncomfortable with the idea of being made to wear a bikini as someone assigned the female gender at birth. 

Years later, as a college student at Colorado State University in 2014, Stephenson was told his sports bra and shorts were against the rules, and he was “thrown out” of the pool, he said.

“I was just like, ‘You know what, swimming isn’t for trans people. I’ve decided. I’ve made the executive decision,’” said Stephenson, now a doctoral student in environmental science at the University of Idaho. 

But things can change. 

After undergoing gender-affirming surgery in 2020, Stephenson became more comfortable with the public display of his body that swimming requires. Last year, after two decades, Stephenson, already a competitive runner and cyclist, decided it was time to learn to swim.

He was going through a breakup at the time, which was the catalyst to a “New year, new me” mindset, he said. 

“I thought, ‘Well, I guess this is my sign from the universe. It’s time to swallow my pride and admit that I need some help,’” Stephenson said. 

Searching for representation

More than half of Americans cannot swim, according to the American Red Cross. For transgender people, public pools present a particular challenge as bodies are on display and locker rooms remain a controversial territory. Pools have become the frontlines of a roiling debate on transgender athletes and sports.

On April 8, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics released a policy barring transgender women from competing in women’s sports if they have started hormone therapy. Out of 250 NAIA colleges across the United States, The Evergreen State College, Walla Walla University and Northwest University are three Washington universities where the policy is scheduled to go into effect on Aug. 1. 

Walla Walla University confirmed that it will adopt this policy by that date. The Evergreen State College told Cascade PBS it will adopt the policy, but it is awaiting updates to Title IX and working with the Attorney General’s office to see if it conflicts with Washington’s discrimination law. Northwest University did not respond to Cascade PBS’s questions by press time. 

In 2022, the International Swimming Federation ruled male-to-female transgender athletes could compete only if they transitioned before turning 12 years old or reaching a certain stage of puberty. A few months prior to the policy, college swimmer Lia Thomas became the first transgender swimmer to win a national title, and critics claimed she had a physical “edge” over her opponents. 

Last year, 23 states had laws banning transgender athletes from high school sports, with 21 of those states banning transgender athletes in college from any sport. 

These policies and legislation that deny transgender swimmers’ identities have had a chilling effect. A father, who helped raise his transgender son in Eastern Washington and prefers to remain anonymous to protect his son’s identity, said his son enjoyed swimming as his main athletic outlet throughout elementary and junior high school until the son started transitioning in seventh grade. 

“The fact that he felt like to be comfortable, he had to wear the chest binder and a T-shirt was something that kind of pegged him as being different or other, and I think that was not easy,” the father said.

While his son’s peers, church and family accepted his transition with open arms, pools were one of the only spaces that heightened his discomfort before he underwent gender-affirming surgery in high school, the father said. After a long time away from the pool, his son, now in his early 20s, slowly lost his connection to swimming and has not returned to the sport. 

Truly inclusive spaces to swim can be hard to find. At Seattle’s Orca Swim Team, an LGBTQIA+ club with more than 100 members, there is less pressure to “put people in boxes,” said Paul Ikeda, the team’s 64-year-old coach. 

Still, Ikeda said Orca is only one of two queer swim clubs in the Pacific Northwest, the other in Portland, Oregon. Last year, Ikeda saw a swimmer with scars on their chest joining the club, but it was several weeks of practice until Ikeda realized the scars must have been from top surgery. It made no difference to him. 

“Once people get on the [pool] deck, gender doesn’t make a difference,” he said. 

But even here, one club’s inclusivity can’t open all doors. Most Orca members use the sport as a tool for fitness while about 10% of its members compete in formal U.S. Masters Swimming events, Ikeda said. U.S. Masters Swimming is a national nonprofit that hosts swim clubs, workout groups and competitive swimming for adults. 

U.S. Masters Swimming requires competitors to identify as male or female. There is no option for nonbinary swimmers. 

Torrey Stephenson checks the 100 Mile Club leaderboard at the University of Idaho Swim Center. (Frankie Beer for Cascade PBS)

Training for a triathlon

In April 2023, Stephenson took his initial strokes in the UI Swim Center’s shallow end during the Moscow Chinooks Masters’ Adult Learn-to-Swim course. The swim team began teaching adults to swim in 2017,  and coaches Debbie Bell and Sue Kappmeyer instruct about 20 adults per year, Kappmeyer said. The volunteer-run program was funded by the Palouse Sprint Triathlon and previous grants from the U.S. Masters Swimming and USA Swimming Foundation.

Bell pushed Stephenson to achieve a specific goal — something he responded well to after years of competitive running and cycling. His first informal bike race was at age 9, and he began running competitively in high school. Stephenson said he was used to pushing himself and trusting his body, which he applied to learning to swim. 

“This is a new skill, but I know how to suffer,” he said. 

It had always been in the back of his mind to compete in a triathlon, and he realized his hopes of “one day” could quickly become “never” without the ability to swim, he said. Stephenson had four months to prepare for the Palouse Sprint Triathlon in September in Moscow, where he would swim 500 yards in the community pool, ride a bike through town and run a 5K. 

To prepare, Stephenson raced against a volunteer, an “extremely tough, 70-something-year-old lady” who “absolutely smoked” him at the end of each swim lesson, he said. During one of his last lessons, he began to swim in the 14-foot end of the pool. 

“[The coaches were] like, ‘You’re ready, kid, get in there,’” he said. “Kind of, you know, pushing ya out of the nest and making ya learn to fly.”

Stephenson finished the swimming program in two weeks and visited the pool twice a week for four months to train for the triathlon. He and a group of friends met each Thursday at 7 a.m. to run and train as a unique way to spend time together, encouraging each other toward their final goal. The day before registration, Bell emailed Stephenson to check in, and he said he could not “let Debbie down.”

Months after conquering the deep end, it was race day. 

Slogging through a slow “hour of suffering,” Stephenson made it to the finish line as one of the top 10 overall competitors with a time of 1:02:11, finishing the swimming portion in 9:37.

“He swam so well, I couldn’t believe it,” Kappmeyer said. 

Stephenson said he hopes to compete in the triathlon again this fall and “go even faster this time.” 

Navigating the gender binary

Most locker rooms have no gender-neutral changing area, and UI is no exception. Stephenson has made his peace with locker rooms and found his “little safety and quiet corners,” but discomfort often lingers in the back of his mind. 

In October 2023, an Idaho law stated that transgender high school students must use locker rooms according to the sex they were assigned at birth. Although that rule doesn’t apply to him, Stephenson said changing in UI’s empty men’s locker room still felt like he was “doing something wrong in the eyes of the law.” 

Gradually, Stephenson learned no one else was paying attention to him, instead focusing on their own locker-room discomfort that “everyone with a body” goes through. Although he is not going into pools with the same body or swimwear he had as an undergrad, Stephenson feels swimming is finally accessible to him, though he acknowledged that his physical appearance gives him some privilege. 

“There’s no question if I walk in somewhere with my deep voice and stubby little facial hair,” he said. “Nobody gives me a second look if I walk in like I belong there, whereas [for] somebody who doesn’t really ascribe to either of those stereotypical gender roles, that can be a lot more challenging.” 

Nick Koenig, a 25-year-old graduate student at UI, would rather talk about their climate research than the legislative debate surrounding bathrooms. However, they said the buildup of “slow violence” in locker rooms became a barrier to their college swimming experience, and Koenig stopped visiting the pool in September. 

When Koenig moved to Moscow in 2022, they swam nearly a mile every day, reaching 70 miles on the UI swim center’s leaderboard. They said they chatted with the women’s dive team on Tuesdays and Thursdays, feeling included and safe. 

They wanted to reconnect with the electric feeling they had when “wild swimming” with a close friend in Cambridge, England. There, people often swam naked in the river running through the town, even in winter. The pair would shuck their clothing down to their “skivvies” and plunge into the freezing water, Koenig said.

“It was just a beautiful, unexplainable amount of joy we felt when we swam together,” Koenig said. “We were very free.”

Koenig said they still feel comfortable and euphoric in their body, but it is how people treat and look at their body that makes them uncomfortable. 

As their heels “click-clack” into the men’s locker room and they take off their leather skirt or form-fitting clothing, Koenig said they receive stares and weird looks. 

“Then that’s where I’m like, ‘I’m done. This is stupid. I don’t want to do this anymore,’” they said. 

Koenig said they are working on overcoming this mental barrier while finding community in spaces like drag shows. They hope to swim outdoors in Moscow’s community pool and sign up for the fall Palouse Sprint Triathlon, participating alongside Stephenson and their friend group. 

As for the indoor pool, Koenig does not know when they will return. 

“I wish I had better advice because I would give it to myself,” they said.

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