Lia Thomas Becomes First Transgender NCAA Champion

Penny Rabatsky, Scarlet Staff

March 17, 2022 went down in history as the day that the first transgender athlete became a Division 1 NCAA national champion. Lia Thomas, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, won the 500-yard freestyle with a time of 4:33.24, making her a national champion with a time that was only about 9 seconds shorter than Olympian Katie Ledecky’s 5-year record (4:24.06). Thomas has been gaining national attention for months since her races in December at the Zippy Invitational in Akron, Ohio where she swam and received top times in the 200- and 500-yard freestyles. The attention has been a mix of positive and negative reactions to Thomas’ ability to compete in the women’s division.

Thomas has been undergoing hormone therapy since Spring 2019. Her first three years of collegiate swimming were on the men’s team, and she has been on the women’s team since November 2021. She has acted in accordance with the NCAA’s policy regarding transgender women athletes. The policy “allows trans female athletes to compete on a collegiate women’s sports team after undergoing testosterone suppression treatment for a year.”(NBC) Before her transition, her personal record for the 500 free was 4:18.72.

The race itself was in the McAuley Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Thomas competed against Emma Weyant who attends the University of Virginia and won a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics for her 100m individual medley, Erica Sullivan who attends the University of Texas and also won a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics for her 150m freestyle, and Olympian Brooke Forde who attends Stanford. The race began with Thomas in the lead with Sullivan trailing. Sullivan led for most of the first half, but Thomas and Weyant were neck-and-neck in the lead for the second half. Thomas pulled ahead in about the last 100 yards and finished with a season-best time. Weyant came in 2nd and lost by 1.75 seconds while Sullivan came in 3rd with a time of 4:35.92.

Beth Stelzer, the founder of Save Women’s Sports, held a banner over the rail of the stands during the race portraying the name of her organization. The organization itself is rooted in the idea that men’s and women’s sports should continue to be separate and to not do so would hurt the female competitors. 

Outside the arena were over 20 protesters from Save Women’s Sports and Young Women for America, the college-level division of Concerned Women for America (CWA). CWA is a conservative religious organization dedicated to implementing Biblical ideas into legislation and education. Also in attendance was Idaho State Representative Barbara Ehardt who wrote the HB 500 which is the “first law restricted transgender athletes’ ability to play sports in accordance with their gender identity . . . [and] has since been blocked in federal court.”(ESPN)

Concerned Women for America have filed a Title IX complaint against UPenn. CEO and President Penny Nance stated, “the future of women’s sports is at risk and the equal rights of female athletes are being infringed. We filed a formal civil rights complaint against UPenn in response to this injustice. Any school that defies federal civil rights law by denying women equal opportunities in athletic programs, forcing women to compete against athletes who are biologically male must be held accountable.” The Department of Education has not responded yet. The organization’s other Title IX complaint was filed against Franklin Piece University (FPU) against transgender track athlete Cece Telfer and 2019 winner of the Divison 2 national championship for the 400m hurdles, and the Office of Civil Rights, part of the Department of Education, decided that FPU’s “transgender inclusion policy violated Title IX and . . . was forced to rescind its policy.”(ESPN)

Beyond the protestors outside, there have been criticisms from Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and some of his teammates. Ron DeSantis, the Republican Governor of Florida, has been critical of the race and has called Weyant, a Florida resident from Sarasota, the true winner of the race. He recently signed the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, a law that prevents conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools, and is also one of the 11 states to have “written trans sports bans into law” since 2021.  DeSantis released a proclamation that states, “The NCAA’s actions serve to erode opportunities for women athletes and perpetuate fraud against women athletes as well as the public at large. Florida rejects the NCAA’s efforts to destroy women’s athletics, disapproves of the NCAA elevating ideology over biology, and takes offense at the NCAA trying to make others complicit in a lie.” Caitlyn Jenner, Olympic gold medalist in track and transgender female, has come out in support of DeSantis and Weyant being the champion. She tweeted, “@RonDeSantis agreed! She is the rightful winner! It’s not transphobic or anti-trans, it’s COMMON SENSE!” Jenner transitioned in 2015. She has never competed on a woman’s sports team.

There has been a lot of support for Thomas as well. Across the street from the protesters were undergraduate and graduate counterprotesters from Georgia Tech in support of Thomas. Some other competitors that Thomas faced have also come out in support of her swimming for the women’s team, such as Lexi Cuomo, a swimmer at Virginia, who said that they were all focusing on swimming and winning.”(ESPN)

Thomas came in 4th in her second-to-last race on Friday, March 18th. The final race of her college career was the following day, and she came in 8th in the 100-yard freestyle in 48.18 seconds (her qualifying time was 0.81 seconds faster).

Organizations like Save Women’s Sports and Concerned Women for America, as well as people like Ron DeSantis, are overly concerned about equality amongst the sexes and are going to extreme measures to ensure that this happens, specifically among transgender athletes. They are worried that women’s sports will be taken over by transgender women, who they believe have an unfair advantage because they went through male puberty. They are trying to stop this from happening. From what is currently going on surrounding Thomas to conversations regarding gender-neutral bathrooms to other discussions about transgender rights, it may be time to define the difference between sex and gender, so no one is discriminated against based on their sex or gender. At the end of the day, Thomas said it herself, “I don’t look into the negativity and hate. I am here to swim.” She also told the reporter after the race, “It means the world to be here.”

To watch Lia Thomas’ race: