Lia Thomas, National Champion
University of Pennslyvania swimmer Lia Thomas added an NCAA national championship to her whirlwind 2021-22 season on Thursday, becoming the first out transgender NCAA champion at the Division I level.
Thomas’ NCAA wan came Thursday in the women’s 500m freestyle, her first of three events at the 2022 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in Atlanta, GA. Thomas bested three Olympic silver medalists who competed in Tokyo last year, out LGBTQ swimmer Erica Sullivan, Emma Weyant and Brooke Forde, posting a winning time of 4:33.24, just 1.75 seconds ahead of runner-up Weyant.
“It means the world to be here, to be with my best friends and teammates and be able to compete,” Thomas told ESPN after her win. Thomas joins former Franklin Pierce runner CeCe Telfer as the only out trans athletes to win an NCAA championship across all divisions.
“Let Trans Kids Play”
The historic victory comes as Thomas remains a reluctant focus of transphobic arguments and efforts aimed at limiting the participation of trans women in women’s sports. Thomas lept into the wider consciousness of the public in December 2021 when she won a race by 38 seconds at the Zippy Invitational, earning her spot in the NCAA Championships. That record-setting performance started a four-month period of criticism from conservative media outlets, organizations claiming a desire to preserve women’s sports and parents of her Penn teammates arguing that she shouldn’t be allowed to compete alongside cisgender women.
Those attitudes were present on the Georgia Tech campus as Thomas made history on Thursday. A small group from Save Women’s Sports and Young Women for America protested Thomas’ participation outside of the McAuley Aquatic Center as a group of Georgia Tech students counter-protested in support of the swimmer. According to ESPN, Idaho state Rep. Barbara Ehardt, who wrote the first bill banning trans women from gender-affirming participation in sports, was among the protestors.
Inside the building, the crowd met Thomas with a more quiet response than her opponents. Save Women’s Sports founder Beth Stelzer displayed a banner promoting the organization during the event and continually misgendered, booed and called Thomas a “liar” during a livestream from the stands. Other Save Women’s Sports supporters can be heard calling Thomas a “cheater” on the video.
“I try to ignore it as much as I can,” Thomas said when asked about the transphobic comments made toward her. “I try to focus on swimming, what I need to do to get ready for my races. And I just try to block everything else out.”
While Thomas continued tuning out the anti-trans critics throughout the week, she tied for fifth in Friday’s 200m freestyle final and finishing eighth (last) in Saturday’s 100m freestyle final. Fellow trans swimmer Iszac Henig from Yale tied for fifth in the 100m freestyle final as well. Both raced on Saturday with the message “Let Trans Kids Play” written on their arms.
Thomas’ presence in Atlanta sparked reactions within the swimming world, with Swimming World Magazine editor-in-chief John Lohn saying Penn and the Ivy League’s support of Thomas “belittled” cisgender female athletes in an op-ed. “It is a pathetic and misguided state that any argument against Thomas’ participation is immediately deemed to be an indication of transphobia,” Lohn continued. “No, the arguments against Thomas are about fairness, and for the Ivy League to play the transphobia card is arrogant, ignorant, and insulting.”
Lohn and tennis icon Martina Navratilova, who has her own history of transphobic comments, called for an asterisk to be placed on Thomas’ championship win. Former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner called Thomas’ win unfair during an appearance on “Hannity” Friday. Angela Morabito, former Education Department press secretary under Donald Trump, praised Weyant on Twitter, saying “second is the new first.”
But Thomas’ fellow competitors showed support for the trailblazing swimmer. Weyant and Sullivan congratulated Thomas while still in the pool. All of the participants in the final except for fifth-place finisher Evie Pfeifer applauded Thomas as she stood on the podium as national champion.
Sullivan offered more words of support for Thomas and trans participation in sports in an op-ed for Newsweek released Friday. “I feel incredibly grateful that coming out as gay never kept me from being able to participate in the sport I love. All athletes — including transgender athletes — deserve to be respected and included, exactly as we are,” Sullivan wrote. “What makes us each unique also contributes to our success in the pool. Yet no one questions the validity of how cisgender athletes’ unique traits and skills, or who they are, contribute to their success. However, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas has been unfairly targeted for just that — for being who she is, a transgender woman.”
“Like anyone else in this sport, Lia doesn’t win every time. And when she does, she deserves, like anyone else in this sport, to be celebrated for her hard-won success, not labeled a cheater simply because of her identity,” she continued. “Many of those who oppose transgender athletes like Lia being able to participate in sports claim to be ‘protecting women’s sports.’ As a woman in sports, I can tell you that I know what the real threats to women’s sports are: sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay and resources and a lack of women in leadership. Transgender girls and women are nowhere on this list. Women’s sports are stronger when all women—including trans women—are protected from discrimination, and free to be their true selves.”
Forde said she had no issue racing Thomas prior to the NCAA Championships. “Treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be,” Forde said in a written statement. Eventual women’s 200m freestyle national champion Taylor Ruck shook hands with Thomas following the Friday event and her mother, Sophia Ruck, told ESPN she has “nothing but empathy” for Thomas. “If that’s what Lia needs to live her best life, that’s up to Lia.”
Lia Thomas: Previously on Towleroad
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Photo courtesy of Penn Athletics