Courtesy of Palo Alto Stanford Athletics

When Iszac Henig ’23 dives into the water he feels like he is flying. When he was young, he spent most of his time by the ocean near his home in Menlo Park, California. He loved playing in the sand and looking for the creatures in the tide pools. As he grew older, he fell in love with the feeling of cold water rushing around his body as he sped through the pool.  

Now a student-athlete who swims the “short, fast stuff” on the Yale women’s swimming and diving team, Henig has been a star player throughout the season. For the Bulldogs, he swims the 50, 100 and 200-yard freestyle events as well as the 100-yard butterfly. He has already set several program and pool records despite the cancelled 2020-21 season. 

This past weekend, against Harvard and Princeton, Henig won the 100-yard freestyle with a time of 48.37 seconds, starting off the team on its path to victory, where they defeated Harvard 211-89 and Princeton 182-118. But for Henig, it is not so much about the wins as it is about the joy. 

“Swimming has just brought me so much joy, so much community,” Henig said. “I think everyone deserves access to those things.”

This season has been an unprecedented one for Henig — both as a swimmer and as a person. Not only has he been a key player in rocketing the women’s swim team to win after win, but he has also had to navigate coming out as a transgender man.

This was something Henig came to terms with when he took a gap year over the pandemic. During his time away from New Haven, he continued to train as well as self-reflect. From home, he sent a video to his team, coming out. Henig said he was met with a “phenomenal” response and was sent resounding love and support from his teammates and coaches. 

“Iszac Henig is an outstanding person, student, athlete and teammate,” head coach Jim Henry wrote in an email to the News. “We are all fortunate to have him on our team. He leads by example every day with his commitment to the sport and this team.”

Women’s captain Ashley Loomis ’22 emphasized that Henig brings a “tremendous amount of positivity and support” to the team. 

According to Loomis, Henig shows up to meets and practices “ready to do the best for the team,” while also fostering confidence in his teammates.  

“We as a swim team strive to create a supportive and safe environment for every single member. Iszac has been on the forefront of that goal,” men’s captain Nathan Stern ’23 said. “The team culture would not be as strong as it is if it weren’t for Iszac’s presence.”

Lia Thomas, a transgender female who competes on the Penn women’s swim team, made headlines after a string of record-breaking performances, sparking debate over the fairness of transgender athletes in competitive sports

Henig found his own name in national news after beating Thomas in a race on Jan. 8. The attention has been difficult, Henig said, but the love and embrace of his team and other support networks, such as family and friends, has helped get him through challenging times.  

According to NCAA guidelines, a transgender man who is not taking testostrone in relation to gender transition “may participate on a men’s or women’s team” as a student athlete. However, a transgender man who undergoes testostrone treatment can then compete on a men’s team, but is “no longer eligible to compete on a woman’s team.” Henig is in full compliance with these rules.  

“It is tough existing as a man on a women’s team,” Henig said. “I think that it is difficult in two ways. I think people’s perceptions of it are not necessarily understanding right away. And, on the other hand for me, there’s a piece of it that feels a little bit incongruent. But, my team has been incredibly supportive.”

The California native found his love for swimming at a local rec center, where he first came across a summer swim team called the “Dolphins.” Henig, enraptured by the dolphin suits which the team members wore, begged his mom for one. When his mom told him he had to be on the team to get a suit, he quickly signed up. Henig started swimming competitively over the summer at the age of four, and at nine started competing year-round, falling more in love with the sport every day.

In middle and high school he continued to swim, practicing six days a week. With Dana Kirk, a former Olympian, as his coach, he led his high school team as captain and set school records in the 50, 100, 200 and 500-yard freestyle races. 

Henig also qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials in the 50-meter freestyle event. The nerves got the best of the 15-year-old, who flinched after taking his marks during the preliminary round. He was disqualified from the race and Olympic contention. 

When Henig visited Yale, he said he “couldn’t stop smiling.” By his senior year of high school he knew he was recruited and set his mind on swimming for the Blue and White. He said he loved the team, the coaching staff and the University’s academic and athletic rigor, which he mentioned are both incredibly important to his life and served as the deciding factor in his decision to enroll at Yale.

Outside of the pool, Henig spends his time working in a paleobiology lab where he examines “60 million year old fish teeth and shark scales.” He first fell in love with marine biology in high school, recalling the California beaches and his adoration for the waters and creatures within them. The University lacks a Marine Biology department, so he majors in Earth and Planetary Science and is a part of the energy studies certificate program. According to Henig, balancing academics and athletics ultimately comes down to “really solid time management.”

“I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t sacrifice things for my sport, you know, like the Friday nights out. But, it is so worth it to have this team around me and the opportunity to swim at this collegiate level which I’m incredibly grateful for,” Henig said. 

In the pool, Henig had a successful 2019-20 season, when he finished in third place at the Ivy League Championships in the 100-yard freestyle and second in the same category at the annual Harvard-Yale-Princeton meet. But it was this season that he really came to play.

Last month, Henig set a new pool record at Penn’s Sheerr Pool in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 22.76 seconds, breaking a record set 32 years ago.

Earlier in the season against Columbia, he also delivered a strong performance by completing the 100-yard freestyle in 49.30 seconds, setting a Kiphuth Pool record.

He went on to improve his personal best in the event with a time of 48.03 seconds in a meet against Brown in Providence.

Recently, he was also a key player in this season’s HYP meet with a performance that allowed Yale to seal the victory, with a time of 48.37 seconds in the 100 yard freestyle.

“Those were some pretty cool moments for me,” Henig recalled. “I had done a lot of work in the fall this whole season, just trying to get faster and I think seeing it pay off was absolutely incredible. And being able to put my name but also put Yale’s name up on the wall and then to have my name in the Yale record book is really special for me.”

But, Henig maintains that his favorite memories at Yale are the small moments. He said what he remembers is not what his times were but getting out of the water and hugging his teammates. 

Throughout the past year, Henig said that he has learned the importance of living life authentically, and how by doing so he helps other people do the same. He wishes this is something he could have told his younger self, and he now hopes to pass along the message to younger swimmers, younger trans people and younger trans swimmers, “to not be afraid of living their own lives.” Henig said that getting in touch with that part of himself for his own life, “made everything easier.”

“It made getting dressed in the morning easier. It made me feel better about myself as I walked through the world … I think being able to live my authentic life was incredibly important. And also being able to live my authentic life in sports,” Henig said. “For me, that was life saving.”

But, at the end of the day, Henig said he is “really just some guy.” A guy who loves the ocean. A guy who loves swimming. A guy who loves to fly.

Tigerlily Hopson covers diversity and inclusion at Yale. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Berkeley majoring in English.
Toia Conde Rodrigues da Cunha is the News' Instagram editor. Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, she is studying cognitive science as sophomore. Toia is also a staff reporter for the Sports desk and was a staff photographer.