Heading into the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming & Diving National Championship, some projected that University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas would “dominate” her three events, and “smash” American records.
Instead, she didn’t come close.
The participation of Thomas, a 22-year-old transgender woman, was held up by some as “the beginning of the end of women’s sports.” Yet ultimately, out of the meet’s 18 events, Thomas won one race and placed in the top eight in two others.
She didn’t break any records. Her race times were not extraordinary.
In the 500-yard freestyle — the event in which she won a national title — she swam fast, but wasn’t remarkable. Had she raced the same time in 2019, she would have placed third. Her 500-yard freestyle time was more than 9 seconds slower than Katie Ledecky’s record (that’s a lot in swimming), and her finish in the 200-yard freestyle — in which she tied for fifth — was more than four seconds off Missy Franklin’s (again, a lot for a short distance race).
It was other women who dominated the meet, held at Georgia Institute of Technology. University of Virginia swimmers won 11 out of 18 events, and were back-to-back national champions. Junior Kate Douglass left with eight national titles, and broke three American records in three different strokes, an astonishing and never-before-seen feat.
Thomas still swam historically. She became the first known transgender athlete to win a D-I national championship, and is the first Penn woman to earn the title. She is now a three-time All-American.
Many people, including about two dozen protesters who gathered outside the arena, said Thomas’ participation was the breaking point in sports-gender equity. They maintained their opposition wasn’t just about her winning or losing, but her presence.
“How many girls did [Thomas] beat and displace to get here?” said Beth Stelzer, founder of Save Women’s Sports, which organized the protests.
But in reality, Thomas is an outlier, a rare culmination of extenuating circumstances. And with more stringent eligibility policies for trans athletes on the horizon, the likelihood that another trans woman competes in college swimming, let alone dominates, is highly unlikely.
It’s rare for a trans athlete, like any athlete, to reach the elite level of competition, let alone to transition at the peak of their athletic careers. The NCAA inclusion of trans athletes has been around for more than a decade, and yet “Lia is the first person to win,” said Schuyler Bailar, former Harvard University swimmer and the first openly trans person to compete in Division I men’s sports.
Ten states have passed laws banning trans kids from competing on sports teams that match their gender identities. If the NCAA adopts USA Swimming’s new policy — which requires trans women to undergo 36 months of hormone replacement therapy, maintain testosterone levels below 5 n/mol, and be approved by a panel — it would be highly unlikely that a trans athlete who transitions during college could still compete.
After winning the 500 free, Thomas emerged from the pool, seemingly overcome with emotion and adrenaline.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations for this meet,” she said on the pool deck. “I was just happy to be here and race and compete the best I could.”
“It means the world to be here, be with two of my best friends and teammates, and be able to compete,” she said.
Gwen Luxemburg watched calmly from the stands of the McAuley Aquatic Center as Thomas stepped onto the racing block Saturday, the final night of the meet.
Luxemburg, 24, had never been an avid sports fan, she said, but as Thomas’ girlfriend of about a year, she has grown to love watching her compete, and learning the sport of swimming along the way.
Luxemburg, who works at the Mazzoni Center, a Philadelphia-based LGBTQ+ health and wellness center, said her main focus has been supporting Thomas, and blocking out the vitriol the same way Thomas has.
But that wasn’t easy in Atlanta. Thursday afternoon, ahead of the 500-freestyle finals, Thomas and Luxemburg were in the lobby of their hotel, preparing to head to the pool. Thomas had her headphones on, mentally preparing for her race, when a man came up to them, she said.
“God bless you, God bless you. But I don’t agree with anything you’re doing,” the man said to Thomas, according to Luxemburg.
She said he was a coach they’d seen on the pool deck, but she couldn’t recall with which team he was associated.
“She just tried to keep her calm,” she said of Thomas. “She was not going to let any of that filter through how she needed to compete.”
And she didn’t. Thomas won a national championship that night.
“She’s shown amazing resilience and I love her for it,” Luxemburg said.
On the pool deck, the other swimmers appeared to treat Thomas like any other competitor. Some disagreed with her being there — on Sunday a Virginia Tech senior wrote a letter to the NCAA expressing dismay — but there was no palpable tension between the athletes. Some of Thomas’ top competitors, like Erica Sullivan and Brooke Forde, even said they supported her competing.
Before the event, the organizations Champion Women and the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group released joint petitions against Thomas that had a combined 5,446 signatures, from college coaches and swimmers to former Olympians. It included Princeton University and the University of Tennessee’s head swim coaches, and five Penn swimmers — the first time they publicly signed their names in opposition of their teammate.
In the stands, opposition was considerably louder. Some parents wore stickers that said, “Save Women’s Sports,” and two Auburn University parents sported “Women’s Sports Matter” shirts. At the preliminary races Thursday morning, as the natatorium went quiet and Thomas stood atop the racing blocks, someone shouted “cheater.” Others booed when she accepted her awards, including protesters who hoisted up transphobic signs misgendering her.
Most parents in attendance declined to speak with The Inquirer, and when they did, many asked to remain anonymous to avoid upsetting their daughters or subjecting them to social reprisal.
Almost all parents told The Inquirer they supported Thomas’ right to compete, just not in the women’s category. Most said that it’s not about whether Thomas wins or loses, but the principle of an unfair advantage. Some expressed fear that another trans woman could come after Thomas and actually win everything. Many said they blamed the NCAA, not Thomas personally.
Four parents interviewed by The Inquirer said that Thomas’ not winning every event didn’t change anything.
“There is a bulwark that must be maintained and if we give this away, what will come next?” a University of Alabama swimmer’s father said.
Only one parent interviewed by The Inquirer expressed support for Thomas: Sophia Ruck, mother of Taylor Ruck, the Stanford swimmer and Canadian Olympian who defeated Thomas in the 200-yard freestyle.
“I feel not only respect for Lia, but all the other athletes,” she said. She said Thomas competing would push her daughter to swim faster. Taylor said the same after her race Friday.
“I have a son ... and if he were going through the same thing, I would hope that people could be supportive and cheer and love,” Sophia Ruck said.
But Colin Ruck, Taylor Ruck’s father, said he supports Thomas’ right to compete, “to dream and succeed in life,” but not in the women’s category.
“The shame is on the NCAA,” he said.
A woman named Christine, whose daughter swims for the University of Louisville and who declined to give her last name, said she struggled to form an opinion.
“If she wins, you’re never sure if it’s because she’s a good swimmer or because of a physical advantage,” she said.
“I didn’t know before [the races], and I don’t know now,” she said of her stance. “I think she’s just a person who wants to compete.”
Bailar, who traveled to Atlanta to support Thomas, said he did not think the opposition was “all about trans-ness.”
“It’s about parents getting upset and too involved in their kids’ sports,” he said. “That isn’t unique to Lia participating. But now they’re empowered by the fact that they think it’s technically unfair.”
Mollie Westrick, a former Penn swimmer who graduated in 2020, beamed with pride from the stands as she watched her former teammate make Penn history.
“She’s not doing anything crazy,” Westrick said. “She’s just working hard and being herself. And I think that’s why she’s going so fast, because she’s finally happy and content with who she is.”
Thomas has applied for law school, she told Sports Illustrated, and her goal is to compete at the 2024 Olympic trials.
But in the short term, Luxemburg said Thomas will likely focus on other parts of her life.
“There’s a lot of relief that the pressure is finally off,” she said.
Saturday night, Thomas hoisted herself out of the pool as a collegiate athlete for the final time, and hugged her two teammates and coach. The words “let trans kids play” was written in marker on the side of her arm, slightly faded from the water.