“I Win Less, But I Live More”: Iszac Henig ‘18 Embraces Authenticity as a Transgender Athlete

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This is the twenty-sixth article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.

“I used to think that molding myself into what other people seemed to want made it easier to socialize and work with others, but I’ve come to realize that it’s actually so much more powerful to just be like, ‘This is who I am.’ You’re able to better connect with other people when you offer truth, and the world is a better place when we all can live authentic lives and feel respected, supported, and loved in doing so,” said Iszac Henig ‘18, a nationally ranked DI swimmer who recently transitioned from racing women to racing men.

Henig started swimming for the Ladera Dolphins recreational swim team at age four, and quickly fell in love with the sport. “There’s no better feeling than diving into the pool and getting after it,” he explained. At 14, Henig broke a national age group record. During his junior year at M-A, he competed in the 2016 Olympic team trials. “I built part of my identity around being a power player and enjoyed the respect given to hard workers,” Henig wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “I was able to define myself by what I could do beyond the norm, not by how well I could fit into it. I did not need to ask myself who I was the way I did at school or in social settings.”

Assigned female at birth, Henig recalled feeling out of place from a young age. He attended Castelleja, a small, private all-girls school in Palo Alto, from sixth through ninth grade. “I felt like I’d been thrust onstage for a show without having been given a script. Every interaction seemed wrong,” he wrote in The New York Times.

“I came out to my mom when I was in eighth grade,” Henig remembered. “I told her, ‘Listen, I’m your son,’ and she was like, ‘Okay…’—it’s a big thing for a parent to hear. I was not ready to really advocate for myself or pursue that, so I retreated from it and didn’t go ahead with anything at that time.”

“I got to a point where I actually forgot that had even happened—I had blocked it out of my memory. But all those subconscious things were still there. I felt out of place and really uncomfortable in my own skin,” he continued.

At the beginning of his sophomore year, Henig transferred to M-A. “I liked the size of the school and the diversity of thought and of people,” he said.

At M-A, Henig enjoyed Steven Kryger’s calculus course, Maria Angelone’s creative writing course, and Erika Shepard’s marine biology course. “I like the structure of math and that you end up with one right answer. It’s a very satisfying process,” he explained. “I love writing—Ms. Angelone was super nice—and I went into college intending to major in marine biology because Ms. Shepard’s class was so inspiring.”

Henig competed with the Varsity M-A swim team and for the Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics (PASA) club team, practicing upwards of four hours a day throughout high school. The M-A Chronicle profiled Henig in 2016 after he raced at the Olympic trials.

Henig went on to swim for Yale University. He competed for the women’s team his freshman and sophomore years, and then took a gap year in 2021. During that year, he coached swimming at M-A alongside coach Bruce Smith, and came out as transgender for the second time.

“It took me months to admit my transness to myself. I had internalized a lifetime of negative messaging around being trans. But the more I leaned into my authenticity, the easier I could breathe. Everything—even things that seemed unrelated, like doing work or going to the grocery store—felt easier. I allowed the current of my life to carry me instead of fighting it,” Henig wrote in The New York Times.

Henig returned to Yale for his junior year in 2022 and remained a standout swimmer on the women’s team. He won an individual Ivy League title in the 50 free and placed fifth in the 100 free, earning All-America honors. However, he remembered, “It wasn’t sitting right.” So, he decided to begin hormone therapy and switch to the men’s team for his senior year.

“I’m not the slowest guy in any of my events, but I’m not as successful in the sport as I was on the women’s team,” he wrote in The New York Times. “Instead, I’m trying to connect with my teammates in new ways, to cheer loudly, to focus more on the excitement of the sport. Competing and being challenged is the best part. It’s a different kind of fulfillment. And it’s pretty great to feel comfortable in the locker room every day.”

Henig is currently finishing up his senior year of college, studying Earth and Planetary Sciences. Some of his favorite classes have been The History of Life, investigating how life on Earth has evolved over time; Climate Change and Collapse, exploring how downfalls of past civilizations have coincided with huge climate shifts; and The Physics of Weather and Climate. In the future, he hopes to work in the renewable energy industry.

Henig with a group of friends in the Communication and Consent Educator program.

Henig is part of the Communication and Consent Educator (CCE) program at Yale, and helps run community-based workshops on sexual misconduct and preventing harm. “CCE is something I care a lot about. We educate people about bystander intervention—about how to be conscious, helpful, and respectful community members, and how to look out for one another,” he said.

Now that his swimming career is coming to an end, Henig looks forward to spending more time reading and taking photos. He recently got a camera for his birthday and has been learning how to use it

“Iszac Henig is an outstanding person, student, athlete and teammate,” head Yale swim coach Jim Henry told the Yale Daily News. “We are all fortunate to have him on our team. He leads by example every day.”

Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them!

Caroline Pecore is a senior in her first year of journalism. Her column, "Bears Doing Big Things," runs every Monday. She enjoys meeting new people through journalism and writing about the M-A community. Outside of school, she spends most of her time rowing for Norcal Crew and also enjoys reading, drawing, and exploring the outdoors.

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