Lia Thomas became first known transgender athlete to win a Division I national championship in any sport after finishing the 500-yard freestyle for Penn. yesterday in four minutes and 33.24 seconds, defeating Virginia freshman Emma Weyant to take home the gold for the Quakers.
Small groups of protestors were outside the national final event as well as Thursday’s qualifiers — an unsurprising presence, as Thomas’ successes in the pool have placed her into the national spotlight at the center of the ongoing debate over transgender athletes’ participation in high school and collegiate sports.
“It’s a symbol of Lia’s resilience,” Schuyler Bailar, who at Harvard became the first known transgender man to compete on a Division I men’s team, told ESPN. “The fact that she’s able to show up here, despite protesters outside, people shouting and booing her, I think it’s a testament to her resiliency.
Thomas began swimming at Penn in 2017 on the men’s team. She began hormone-replacement therapy and came out to her teammates in 2019, and began swimming on the women’s team in 2021. Her recent success on the national stage has prompted USA Swimming and the NCAA to revisit their policies regarding transgender athletes and testosterone levels, though the NCAA did not opt to change any of their policies for this current academic year.
Thomas has done all she can to remain out of the spotlight while still competing in the sport she loves, declining to attend press conferences and granting very few interviews. But her name has become synonymous with her cause as well as with the ongoing discussions about trans athletes in sports. She was the subject of a letter that 16 anonymous teammates sent asking the school to remove her from the women’s team, and was also the subject of a counter-letter signed by over 300 student-athletes expressing their support for both Thomas herself and all trans athletes.
Penn’s athletic department has stood firmly by Thomas, though fellow swimmers and their parents expressed doubts to Sports Illustrated earlier this year about her spot on the team. They did speak out against vitriol Thomas has found herself on the wrong end of.
While there’s certainly a nuanced discussion to be had about trans athletes’ eligibility, particularly in women’s sports, protestors, pundits, politicians, and parents have used Thomas’ spot on the Penn women’s swim team to be openly bigoted and incredibly offensive toward transgender people. Two known groups who were protesting outside of the national qualifiers and finals at Georgia Tech, Save Women’s Sports and Concerned Women for America, sported T-shirts and signs with phrases like “that man is a cheat,” per ESPN.
Seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky still holds the women’s 500-yard freestyle record by a long shot — bettering Thomas’ finish in the national finals by nine seconds — and USA Swimming updated their policy in February to require that transgender athletes must undergo HRT for 36 months and test under a certain testosterone ceiling to be eligible to compete in women’s races.
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