At 16, depression and gender dysphoria nearly broke Colby Love. Now, he’s back in the pool — and his story isn’t over.
February 21, 2019
When the first heat hit the water, Colby Love stepped behind the starting blocks and took a deep breath. As the only freshman to make the podium the previous year in the 200-yard freestyle at the WPIAL swimming championships, Colby had his sights set on qualifying for the state finals as a sophomore. His heat was next. But he couldn’t stop shaking. And then he was crying.
Krista Wycinsky, Colby’s best friend, was swimming in the lane ahead of him at Trees Pool in Oakland. She climbed out of the water when her heat ended, and her heart sank. Colby was melting down. That simmering anxiety he’d kept inside was boiling over. Until then, Colby had managed to hide his panic attacks from everyone except Wycinsky. He couldn’t hide this one.
Sobbing, Colby took his place on the starting blocks. The Bethel Park High School teammates waiting to cheer for him at the end of his lane went silent. In the bleachers, his mother, Kim Love, leaned forward in her seat. Wycinsky walked slowly toward the warm-down lanes. She turned back to watch Colby as the starter’s horn sounded and his heat began.
“He was in complete tears,” Wycinsky said. “I knew right away that this probably was the start of something.”
The truth was that Colby already was spiraling into severe depression. This was two years ago now, before Colby stopped swimming and nearly dropped out of school; before he hit rock bottom and went to bed each night hoping not to wake up in the morning; before he found help, came out publicly as a transgender man and showed his scars. It was before Colby was Colby.
Colby is sitting at the kitchen table at home in Bethel Park, where he lives with Kim, his brother Ty, 22, his sister Maddie, 15, two dogs, two rabbits, two ferrets and a cat. Colby, 18, spent most of the past two years here at home, trying to wrangle anxiety and depression. Progress was slow, with more bad days than good many weeks, but with time and treatment his mental health has improved.
On the refrigerator, a row of photos of Colby — one from each of the past six swim seasons — forms a timeline of his female-to-male transition. Colby put duct tape over his name in the first five photos, and Maddie later wrote “Colby” over it. The last photo, from this season, is already accurate. It’s been a year since Colby came out as trans, then legally changed his name to Colby. He prefers masculine pronouns (he/him/his/himself) even in references to his childhood.
Swimming is in Colby’s blood. His grandfather, Bill Love, was a PIAA swimming official. His aunt, Sheryl Love, led Bethel Park to its first state title in 1981 and then swam on scholarship at Virginia Tech. Sheryl’s name remains on the record board above the Bethel Park pool: 1,650-yard freestyle, 17:21. Colby had hoped to one day beat it. For a while, he was on target.
Bethel Park swim coach Dave Kutrufis said Colby was one of the top-three fastest freshmen the girls team ever had. As a sophomore, Colby was getting letters from Division II college programs. He was hopeful for a scholarship, or at least a chance to walk on to a Division I team. Even after the panic attack, Colby still finished 12th of 33 in the 200-yard freestyle at WPIALs.
“Depression took it from me,” Colby said.
And then he took it back.
After a year away from swimming, Colby returned this season and switched from the girls team to the boys team for his final year of eligibility, proudly wearing scars from his top surgery last fall. His times aren’t far from where they once were, but the competition is faster. Colby said, “I can’t compare the person that I was the last time I swam to the person that I am now.”
Now, he’s not swimming for scholarships or school records. He’s swimming for something else.
“Just for me,” Colby said, before pausing. “I didn’t want depression to be the reason I stopped.”
The panic attacks started early in Colby’s sophomore year. He told almost no one. If his anxiety spiked during swim practice, Colby would lift himself onto the pool deck and try to catch his breath. If it happened during class, Colby would excuse himself, run to the swim team’s locker room and text Wycinsky. She’d tell Colby that he was safe, that nothing bad would happen.
As his mental health worsened, Colby withdrew further from other friends.
Aubree Stewart was like Colby’s second sister growing up. They learned to swim when Colby was 8, and Aubree 9. Colby could be shy and sensitive, but around close friends he brightened. Their friend group at Bethel Park High School was lively and gossipy. But Aubree began to notice Colby burying his head in homework at the lunch table, barely talking or eating. Aubree didn’t know what was wrong, but eventually Colby stopped spending any time with them.
Looking back, Kim, a social worker, wonders how she missed the signs of depression. At home, Colby had become increasingly distant. He was quieter. It wasn’t normal. Colby used to tell Kim everything. “He’s always been a mama’s boy,” Kim said. As a kid, if Colby didn’t talk to Kim before bed, he couldn’t sleep. “If I didn’t get to see her,” he said, “it was the end of the world.”
One night, a few weeks before Colby’s panic attack at WPIALs, he twirled in front of a mirror, trying to decide which dress to wear to the swim team’s senior night. Maddie noticed a cut on Colby’s leg and asked him about it. Colby said the cat scratched him. Later, when they were wrestling in the hallway, Maddie saw it again. She knew that wasn’t from the cat.
This time, Maddie told her mother. It wasn’t the first Kim had heard of Colby’s self-harm. Earlier that week, a teammate had seen cuts on Colby’s arms and told her parents, who contacted Kim.
When Kim and Colby talked that night, the truth spilled out. Colby said he’d been self-harming for six months, and he’d also basically been starving himself.
“I spent half that night just bawling my eyes out,” Colby said.
Kim asked if Colby would be willing to get help. He said yes.
“But at that point I was doing it for her,” Colby said, “not for myself.”
The anti-depressants Colby was prescribed in the spring of his sophomore year didn’t seem to help. As his depression intensified, he took a break from swimming. Because he wasn’t permitted to be home alone — for his safety — Colby sat poolside during practice and did homework. He started to hear whispers, rumors spreading about why he’d stopped swimming.
“Everyone could tell something was going on, but nobody knew what,” Colby said. “That drove me nuts.”
“Everyone could tell something was going on, but nobody knew what. That drove me nuts.”
One afternoon, Colby addressed the team. He said he’d been diagnosed with anxiety and depression and had entered a treatment program that often made him miss school. The rest he kept to himself.
In reality, Colby already had tried several treatment programs. He didn’t tell the team he was having suicidal thoughts daily. He didn’t mention the family trip to the Dominican Republic, to the all-inclusive resort by the beach, and how he’d stayed in the hotel room the whole time. He didn’t talk about the time he was hospitalized for a week so he’d stop hurting himself.
Colby also didn’t tell his teammates about the gender dysphoria, which left him overwhelmingly uncomfortable about certain parts of his body. He couldn’t stand wearing a swimsuit. For homecoming the fall of his junior year, Colby wore a binder, which is designed to flatten the chest. He dressed in a blouse, a vest, slacks, heels and full makeup. It was “a big turning point,” Colby said. “I was really in-between, but it felt a lot better to be wearing that than a dress.”
The self-harm continued. Colby wrote reasons to stay alive on the whiteboard in his bedroom. There’s You inspire people and a list of names underneath. In a corner: Never forget Mom. And in the center: Give yourself the chance to show the world who you really are. Colby cried every night. He’d often slip into Kim’s bedroom during the night and sleep on the floor.
For over a year, Kim lived in constant fear. While she was at work one morning, she texted Colby to check in on him, like she did every day. He didn’t reply, so she called. He didn’t answer. Frantic, Kim kept calling, ran to her car and raced home. Colby’s car was still in the driveway. When Kim burst into his bedroom, there was nothing wrong. Colby was just sleeping.
Despite receiving a medical excuse for the first semester of his junior year, Colby planned to drop out and take the GED. Instead, Bethel Park administration arranged for Colby to enter a dual-enrollment program in which he could take online classes through Community College of Allegheny County and receive both high school and college credits.
Without school and swimming, Colby lived in isolation. He spent most days alone at home with his puppy Luna, a German shepherd husky mix, browsing Netflix or the internet. While researching trans athletes one day, looking for a lifeline in the LGBTQ community, Colby came across Schuyler Bailar, a Harvard swimmer who in 2015 became the first openly transgender athlete on any Division I men’s team. Colby followed him on Instagram.
Transgender: Resources and Support
A nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen the existing transgender community in Pittsburgh, sponsoring educational programs and social events, along with a trans partner support group that meets twice a month. https://transpridepgh.blogspot.com/ or Facebook.
Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund
The Name Change Project provides free legal name-change services to transgender people through partnerships with law firms and corporate law departments. In Pittsburgh, lawyers from Reed Smith, PNC and BNYMellon participate in the program. http://www.transgenderlegal.org and find the Name Change Project under Our Work.
Provides services and a safe space for young adult members of the LGBT community in a partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the University of Pittsburgh. 810 Penn Ave., Eighth Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15219; https://chscorp.org/project-silk.
Garden of Peace Project
Nonprofit networking group that provides resources for medical and mental health care for marginalized populations, as well as legal name-change assistance. Teaming with Project Silk, it offers HIV and STD testing, hormones, mental health, substance abuse and linkage to social services, 4 to 7 p.m. Thursdays at Project Silk, https://www.gardenofpeaceproject.org/.
Transgender services for gender evaluation, individual, couples, group counseling, family education programs, and referrals. Retains professionals to assist clients with legal services, primary medical care, hormone treatment, and cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. https://persadcenter.org/
Initiative for Transgender Leadership
Provides professional and leadership development to transgender youth. Contact Rayden Sorock 412-573-9784 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
PGH Equality Center
Provides gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals, their families and supporters with resources and opportunities to promote visibility, understanding and equality. http://www.pghequalitycenter.org/.
MEDICAL SERVICES AND PRACTICES
Gender and Sexual Development Program, Children’s Hospital of UPMC
This program serves children and youths (up to age 26) with questions regarding gender and sexual identity development, gender non-conforming behaviors and transgender care. 412-692-6653.
Metro Community Health Center (MCHC)
1789 S. Braddock Ave., Suite 410, Swissvale; 412-247-2310. https://metrocommunityhealthcenter.org/
West End Health Center
Stacy Lane, D.O., 415 Neptune St., West End Village 412- 921-7200 and 320 E. North Ave. # B110, North Side. 412-359-3360.
Steven R. Wolfe, D.O.
Forbes Family Medicine, Monroeville Medical Arts Building, 2550 Mosside Blvd. Suite 500, Monroeville. 412-457-1100; https://www.treatspace.com/do/drstevenwolfe.
In 2014, when Bailar was a high school senior, a star swimmer being recruited by Harvard’s women’s team, he became deeply depressed and developed an eating disorder. He spent four months at a treatment facility. He experienced severe gender dysphoria. “I spent the entirety of that year typing into Google: transgender swimmer, transgender athlete, transgender soccer player, transgender everything,” Bailar said recently. “Nothing came up. There was nothing.”
After Bailar came out as a transgender man and joined the Harvard men’s swim team, he decided to be open about his transition. He wanted someone like Colby to see someone like him. Bailar went on “60 Minutes” and “The Ellen Show.” He posted frequently on his Instagram page, which now has over 69,000 followers.
“Now, if you Google ‘trans swimmer,’ I come up,” said Bailar, who closed the book on his Harvard swim career last month. “That’s so important to me because some kid, just like me, is doing that. And instead of immediately being hopeless, they’re immediately being hopeful.”
Hope, Bailar said, is what trans people need more than anything. A study released last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics found staggering rates of attempted suicide among transgender adolescents. In the study, 50.8 percent of female-to-male trans teens reported they had attempted suicide, and 29.9 percent of male-to-female trans teens reported the same.
“What I’ve learned through things I’ve been challenged with is that if I have that hope, I can get through it,” Bailar said. “That hope can be as simple as: I’m going to wake up tomorrow. And it can be as complex as: I’m going to compete for four years on a Division I men’s swim team. They are not that different. Both require faith in one’s self that the next day is possible. And the next moment is possible. And the next stroke is possible.”
Colby lights up when talking about Bailar. He was a beacon on Colby’s darkest days. Watching Bailar, Colby started to believe that one day life would get better, that it wouldn’t always be this hard, and that he could be himself. Colby let himself dream he’d swim again. So one night, in the fall of 2017, Colby asked his mother, “Have you heard about this Harvard swimmer?”
“That was one of the ways Colby began to tell me, ‘Hey, maybe this is my path,’ ” Kim said last month. “He started showing me videos. And I’m like, ‘Hmm, what’s going on here?’ ”
Their stories were similar. So whenever Colby hit a road bump in his transition, Kim would say, “Let’s see how Schuyler did it.”
When Wycinsky, who is now a sophomore on California University of Pennsylvania’s swim team, was home last winter, Colby told her he was trans. Then he told Maddie.
“I kept telling him just to come out,” Maddie said last week, “just so he’d be his real self around everyone.”
Soon, Colby did — by changing his name on social media. Stewart, the childhood friend, now swims at Susquehanna University. When she checked Instagram one night last winter, Colby’s new name popped up. Stewart looked at Colby’s bio and saw it now read “ftm” (female-to-male) and had a pride flag. She texted Colby, saying she was proud of him.
Eight months later, this past August, Colby was in a hospital bed, recovering from top surgery, when Kim handed him a stack of letters from family and friends. There was one from Colby’s grandparents, one from Maddie, one from Kutrufis, ones from Wycinsky and Stewart and one from his dad, Blair Love. (Colby’s parents divorced 12 years ago.) The last letter was Kim’s.
My sweet sweet boy. I loved you before you entered this world, have loved you every moment since, and will love you until the end of time and beyond. I thank you for choosing to stay in this world with me, with us — with all the people who know and love you and all the people whose lives you will touch in the future. I hope you never experience the trials and despair you felt over the past couple years and that today truly is a new start for you. …
With all my love,
Last month, during a home swim meet, Kim watched Colby climb onto the starting blocks. She smiled. He started testosterone today, she said. For Colby, that was a step into his future. He’d had the prescription for months. When asked a week earlier whether he’d do hormone therapy down the road, Colby shifted in his seat and said, “I can’t decide.” The side effects scared him.
The Mayo Clinic lists weight gain, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and potential permanent infertility among the risks associated with masculinizing hormone therapy.
So Colby started with a low dose.
“I knew I just needed to start it,” he said later. “I finally was like, ‘OK, I’m going for it.’ ”
Some parts of the transition were easier than others. Transferring Colby to the boys swim team was simple. Kutrufis talked to Bethel Park athletic director Dan Sloan, who found that PIAA bylaws leave it up to the school’s principal to determine a student’s athletic eligibility. Zeb Jansante, the school principal, signed off, and so Colby was listed on the boys team’s roster.
“You think it’ll be some sort of process, but it’s not,” Kutrufis said. “Simply put, that’s who that person is. That’s who they are. That’s what they want to do.”
Kutrufis said as far as he knows Colby is the only openly trans swimmer in the area. “If there is [another], more power to them,” he added. “If people want to swim, we want to give them opportunities.” Before the season started last fall, Kutrufis debated whether to sit down with the team and explain Colby’s situation. He never ended up doing it.
“When you looked around and saw Colby come on deck,” the coach said, “it’s just, ‘Hey, Colby’s here.’ OK, great. Why don’t we just roll with it?”
Kutrufis arranged for Colby to have a separate changing space at each meet. He said he’s heard no complaints from students, parents or coaches. Sloan, the athletic director, agreed.
Colby said the boys swim team welcomed him with open arms. It helped to have Maddie — now a sophomore on the girls team — in his corner. When Colby came out, Maddie told her boyfriend, another Bethel Park swimmer, they’d break up if he had a problem with Colby transitioning. Another time, a swimmer who had transferred away from Bethel Park bumped into Maddie at a meet and asked, “How’s your sister?” Maddie replied, “Well, he’s my brother.”
With the right meds and regular appointments with a therapist, Colby’s mental health stabilized. On days when anxiety is getting the better of him, he tries to at least get to practice, even if he doesn’t get in the water. During a recent meet, Colby overheard Kutrufis telling a teammate what time each swimmer needed to hit for a WPIAL cut. Colby panicked. He hyperventilated and cried. He could hit the time. But he couldn’t handle that pressure. The boys missed the cut.
Then last week, on their last try, they got it.
For years, the Bethel Park boys team has struggled to qualify its relays for WPIALs. With Colby, the team qualified for three and will swim two — the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays — at WPIALs next week. Since his last trip to Trees Pool went so poorly, Colby wasn’t sure he wanted to swim at WPIALs. In the end, he and Kutrufis compromised: Colby will plan to swim the relays, and they’ll bring a backup in case he can’t.
Between the scars on Colby’s left wrist, there’s a tattoo of a semicolon — a symbol of the fight against depression — and the words, “My Story Isn’t Over.” His bucket list is only getting longer.
He wants to take a class in person at CCAC this summer. The goal is to have Luna trained to be at his side as an emotional support animal. “We have a long way to go,” Colby says, laughing, as he looks into the living room. Luna has ripped the head off a toy elephant, and its stuffing is sprayed across the carpet. “Already?” Kim asks. “That one was advertised as indestructible.”
He wants to graduate high school next year, then pursue a degree in social work, like his mom. “I know I want to work with people with disabilities,” Colby says, “and part of me wants to do the types of things people were doing for me when I was really depressed.”
“She’s been the reason for me to keep going. She’s been everything.”
He wants to participate in the National Trans Visibility March in Washington D.C., this fall.
And he wants another tattoo. When the swim season ends, Colby and Kim will get matching tattoos of an infinity sign — a bond that never ends — and a moon — for new beginnings — on their left shoulders. Kim’s will have her kids’ names written beside it; Colby’s will have “Mom.”
“She’s been the reason for me to keep going,” Colby said. “She’s been everything.”
Kim says she’s the last person in the world to want a tattoo. But this one is special to her. There was a time she was sure depression would take her child away, but that day never came. Kim has hope, and she still has Colby.
“The darkest periods of time can indeed come to an end,” Kim wrote in an email last month. “People have to know that with time and a lot of work and a lot of hope and persistence, they can get through those times. Friends and family members have to know that during those times the people they love are doing the very best they can and that they, as their supporter, have to be vigilant and supportive and hang in there no matter what, no matter how long.
“Love is what kept Colby here on this Earth, I have no doubt of that.”
If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re a young LGBTQ person, The Trevor Project’s 24-hour confidential crisis hotline is available at 1-866-488-7386. The Allegheny County Crisis Intervention Hotline can be reached at 1-888-796-8226.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt