lia thomas, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, swam faster than any other woman in the 500-yard freestyle meet Thursday in Atlanta and made history doing it. Not only because she finished in 4:33:24, more than a second faster than her closest competitor, but because she is a transgender woman.
Her honor came at the Women’s National Swimming and Diving Championships, and despite rules requiring her to speak to the media after her victory, Thomas spoke only to ESPN and “refused” to attend the press conference. mandatory, according to a spokesman.
As for his victory, there are people who are quite angry about it. When ESPN interviewed the 22-year-old live following the event, he was booed by some in the crowd.
“I didn’t have high expectations for this matchup,” Thomas told ESPN, according to an interview transcript provided by our non-binary journalist Katie Barnes. “I was happy to be here, trying to race and compete as best I could.”
The ESPN correspondent asked the Austin, Texas native about competing “under the spotlight.”
“I try to ignore it as much as I can. I try to focus on my swimming, what I need to do to get ready for my races and just try to block out everything else,” Thomas said. She added: “It means a lot to be here, to be with two of my best friends and teammates and to be able to compete.”
The interview ended and some in the stands booed. Parents and supporters from across the country included protesters from an organization against transgender inclusion, Save Women’s Sports.
“It’s not right. It’s not fair,” Beth Stelzer, the group’s founder, told me amid a crowd of about 20 anti-trans protesters, waving signs and leading chants through a megaphone outside the McAuley Aquatic Center on the Washington campus. Georgia Tech.
“We are here to give these girls, parents, coaches, who are too afraid to speak up, because women matter. We won’t say no. Save women’s sport!”
In spite of the change in transgender participation policies by USA Swimming that would have disqualified her, the NCAA ruled earlier this month that Thomas was qualified to swim. I asked Stelzer, who is an amateur weightlifter, about the fact that Thomas is competing fairly and honestly, according to the NCAA.
“I think it’s cowardly,” Stelzer said. “I think he has been driven by money and feelings, instead of doing the right thing and the right thing to do is protect women.”
According to one of the university officials who closely monitored the competing demonstrations, there were no altercations, no arrests, no injuries, and, he told me, he saw “no women in need of protection.” He refused to give her name.
Another official told me that I needed to intervene when a protester “crossed the line.” More on that, after the details of the meeting.
The 500 Free
Earlier in the day, Thomas led during his preliminary heat and extended his lead over Stanford’s Brooke Forde on the final lap to finish with his best time yet of 4 minutes, 33.82 seconds. Her previous record this year was 4:34.06. Stanford’s Brooke Forde finished second in the heat and sixth overall in 4:38.19.
Then came the final. Just after 6:00 p.m., Thomas and the eight swimmers were tight for several laps, with Thomas trailing Olympic silver medalist Emma Weyant of the University of Virginia for much of the heat. Then in the closing laps Thomas pulled ahead and finished over a second ahead of Weyant.
No one, including Thomas, set any NCAA or pool records Thursday.
There were some applause and cheers from the spectators, but the biggest outpouring came when Weyant hit the wall, a repeat of what happened in the preliminaries when the crowd waited for the second-place finisher before cheering.
The crowd fell silent when Thomas was introduced at the start of the final, then continued to cheer on the other swimmers. During the award ceremony that followed the crowd’s boos for Thomas, her competitors and her spectators politely applauded for her.
Thomas is not the first NCAA trans competitor in Division 1. Kye Allums she got that title in 2010. She’s not even the NCAA’s first trans swimmer: Schuyler Dance marked that moment in history in 2015 as the first trans athlete to compete on a DI men’s team.
Bailar, a friend of Thomas, was at the championships on Thursday, cheering her on, along with others waving trans Pride flags. Plus, there’s another noteworthy NCAA All-American: In 2019, Olympic hopeful CeCé Telfer became the first NCAA champion on track DII.
Telfer’s achievement and the success of two Connecticut high school track stars sparked controversy across the country over trans girls and trans women competing with cisgender student-athletes. The Connecticut case ended up in federal court, and despite a judge dismissing the lawsuit, it is now on appeal.
The swimming success of Thomas, who until 2019 competed on the Penn men’s team, has been used by conservatives as a rallying cry to build support for bans on trans student athletes in 11 states and other laws that discriminate against transgender students. American trans youth, such as banning gender-affirming health care, and even Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill.
What’s missing from all that legislation is real scientific evidence to support the cause of groups like Save Women’s Sports. Despite dire warnings, CeCé Telfer didn’t destroy women’s sports in 2019. Laurel Hubbard didn’t destroy women’s sports at the Olympics last summer. And so far, Lia Thomas hasn’t destroyed women’s sport in 2022.
“The question is not ‘Do trans women have advantages?’ Because yeah, that’s so obviously true,” said Harper, a medical physicist and author of “Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes.” Harper added that it is normal for athletes to have certain advantages and that the advantages trans women have are not necessarily unfair. “But can trans women and cis women compete against each other in meaningful competition? That is the important question. That is the interesting question. And that’s a question we don’t have a 100 percent firm answer to yet.”
“It’s a truism from trans athletes that we can compete in women’s sports as long as we don’t win,” said Harper, who is also trans. “If we win, then it’s troublesome. And of course, how can you compete if you can’t win?
The other trans swimmer
Iszac Henig is the only Yale swimmer at these championships and he is also the only male. He is a transgender man, who in order to continue competing in women’s swimming with his fellow Bulldogs, chose to delay one part of his medical transition: he postponed administration of the gender-affirming hormone testosterone. However, he underwent superior surgery.
On Thursday night, Henig finished 16th in the 50 free race, earning him All-American Honorable Mention. He will compete on Friday and Saturday in the 100 butterfly and 100 free. In Saturday’s meet, he will compete head-to-head against Thomas, the first time two transgender student-athletes have appeared in the same championship event.
Even though Henig is a man, Stelzer misidentified him in our interview when I asked if she was also opposed to him competing.
“If a woman who identifies as a man wants to swim with women, I’m all for it, as long as they’re not taking testosterone or other performance-enhancing substances,” she said. “There may be a little bit of a problem with mastectomy, because that could possibly simplify, so some might say there’s a little bit of an advantage there. But I have no problem with a woman swimming in women’s sports. And when it comes down to it, there’s a woman’s body.”
Although Henig was unavailable for comment, a small but noisy group from Yale University traveled to Atlanta for the meeting and cheered him on. They told me that they were beyond excited for him and explained that, like Henig, they don’t do media interviews, but they wanted people to know how proud they are of him.
Mourning protests outside
Away from the pool, protesters chant “Even when we’re swimming, we’re standing up for women!” they were separated from an equally loud group of about 20 pro-transgender inclusion protesters, chanting just as loudly.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho! Transphobics have to go!” and “Say it loud, say it clear! Trans athletes are welcome here!” they shouted.
Some of those who were in that group were trans and non-binary. While they were talking to journalists, one of the Save Women’s Sports activists crossed the street to record the counter-protest and came up with her camera inches from the faces of some of the protesters. That’s when one of the officials who was observing the grieving protests and keeping order for her stepped between her and the protesters, at one point motioning for her to back off. Her name is Kat and she is from New York.
“I used to support transgender rights,” Kat told me, later revealing that she used to identify as non-binary and has trans friends and family. “But then I learned that the government changed the laws to erase the difference between sex and gender and endanger biological women.”
Kate refers to President Biden’s Executive Order, signed on the day of his investiture. He actually says:
“Every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or who they love. Children should be able to learn without worrying that they will be denied access to the bathroom, locker room or school sports.”
It also says that both Title VII and Title IX related to discrimination must include protections based on gender identity. It doesn’t erase sex. Expands the scope of protections against discrimination.
Another Save Women Sports activist worked with the crowd, handing out trinkets bearing her logo to the few willing spectators. For the most part, they were later found lying in the stands under the seats and outside of McAuley.
As the television camera crews, reporters and photographers from the national media packed up their equipment and left, so did the protesters.
Editor’s Note: The above article was shared in the media between Forbes.com and the Los Angeles Blade.