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Lia Thomas swims on for Penn amid controversy

Lia Thomas competed at home for last time in her Penn swimming career.

Penn swimmer Lia Thomas waits before competing in the 500m free race during a meet at UPenn’s Sheerr Pool in Philadelphia on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Thomas is a transgender athlete who is among the nation's top swimmers in her events.
Penn swimmer Lia Thomas waits before competing in the 500m free race during a meet at UPenn’s Sheerr Pool in Philadelphia on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Thomas is a transgender athlete who is among the nation's top swimmers in her events.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

In the final home meet of her college career Saturday, Penn swimmer Lia Thomas won two freestyle races and continued along a path to the NCAA championships in March.

And that would have been the end of the story except for this: Thomas is a transgender woman who is defeating most of her competition.

So, as Thomas swung her right arm and touched the wall 1.47 seconds before Penn teammate Anna Kalandadze to win the 500-yard freestyle in a tri-meet against Yale and Dartmouth (Yale won the team competition), two female protesters held a “Stand Up 4 Women” sign on the sidewalk on Walnut Street and shouted about an unfair competitive advantage and a tilted playing field – or in this case, Sheerr Pool.

Thomas’ participation for the Penn women’s team is a debated issue for some. She’s in compliance with the NCAA’s transgender policy, which states that “a trans female treated with testosterone suppression medication may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team … until completing one year of testosterone suppression treatment.” Thomas began undergoing treatment over 2 years ago and submitted her required documentation to the NCAA.

Thomas also received support last week from Penn and the Ivy League, which released separate statements that backed her inclusion in women’s athletics.

After shattering records in at least three events at a meet last month in Ohio, Thomas became a central figure in the debate over trans inclusion in sports and the subject of culture-war criticism. Some media outlets circulated video of Thomas’ 38-second victory in the 1,650-yard freestyle event at that meet. The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, doesn’t usually cover Ivy League swimming, but has run multiple articles on Thomas.

Thomas didn’t dominate to nearly that degree Saturday. She won the 200 free by only two seconds, in a time of 1:48.73, nearly 7 seconds off her personal best time. She won the 500 free in 4:57.20, more than 20 seconds off her personal best.

Thomas also finished fifth in the 100-yard freestyle in 52.84 seconds. That race was won in 49.57 seconds by Yale senior Iszac Henig, a transgender man who told the New York Times in July that he came out to his teammates last summer but was not yet taking hormones because he wanted to continue competing.

Although Saturday’s meet was closed to the public in accordance with Penn’s COVID-19 guidelines for spectator sports, it attracted national media attention. Penn officials credentialed reporters from Newsweek, ESPN, the Washington Post, the Daily Mail, and Fox News, among others. Thomas, like all the seniors, was feted before the meet, which was open to a limited number of guests of athletes and coaches.

In certain media circles, the coverage of Thomas has trended toward the sensationalistic. The Daily Mail, for instance, published paparazzi photos of Thomas and Penn teammates in bathing suits during a recent training trip to Florida and ran anonymous quotes claiming some teammates considered boycotting Saturday’s meet. The story didn’t note that Thomas’ participation almost certainly elicits a wide range of opinions on a team of 41 women who hail from 17 states and two countries.

(For the record, though, there weren’t any boycotts Saturday.)

Penn’s coaches and team members declined interview requests. Thomas was also unavailable for comment, though in a recent appearance on a podcast for the SwimSwam website, she said her coaches and teammates have been “unbelievably supportive since the beginning.”

“I mean, she’s followed all the rules that she’s supposed to follow,” said Sue Feldman, whose son is a sophomore on the Penn men’s team. “It’s hard when you have to play against somebody who is much better. But she’s great in some things and in other events she’s not so great. If you’re playing sports, you have to expect that some people are going to be better than you.”

Not everyone feels that way. Jennifer Thomas and Joy Gray, who said they were from Pennsylvania but not Philadelphia, voiced their disapproval as swimmers left the building by chanting, “Stand up for women, even when they’re swimmin’.”

In her podcast appearance last month, Thomas explained that she started her transition in May 2019 with hormone replacement therapy.

“I first realized I was trans the summer before, in 2018,’’ said Thomas, who came out to her teammates in the fall of 2019 while competing for the men’s team. “There was a lot of uncertainty. I didn’t know what I’d be able to do, if I’d be able to keep swimming.”

Thomas described a period of “distress” and said her “mental health was not very good. There was a lot of unease about basically just feeling trapped in my body. It didn’t align.”

After competing for the men’s team in 2019-20 and not at all last year because COVID-19 shut down all Ivy League sports, Thomas said she “experienced a lot of muscle loss and strength loss.” She called it a “weird adjustment,” and her times reflect as much. She has the top time in the country among women in the 200 free (1:41.93) and 500 free (4:34.06). But both times are slower than her top time in 2017-18 before she began her transition (1:40.35 in the 200, 4:20.97 in the 500).

In a piece written last week for Forbes, Donna Lopiano, former chief executive officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation, wrote that NCAA policies for transgender athletes are outdated and “legacy advantages remain even after a year [of hormone therapy], especially in strength and power events.” She looked at the percent difference between the men’s and women’s 2021-22 Division I qualifying standards in Thomas’ events and asked, “Are they comparable to the percent difference between Thomas’ 2018-19 pre-transition times and 2021-22 post-transition times? The answer is no.”

The swimming community is paying close attention. Although Thomas’ times in Ohio threatened the 200 and 500 records set by Missy Franklin (1:39.10) and Katie Ledecky (4:24.06), respectively, she didn’t come close to replicating those performances Saturday.

Others, including former Olympic swim champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar and tennis legend Martina Navratilova, have questioned the standards being applied. Meanwhile, two-time Australian Olympic medalist Madeline Groves dismissed criticism of Thomas’ participation with women as “transphobic dribble.”

In its statement last week, the Ivy League said it “reaffirms its unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive environment for all student-athletes while condemning transphobia and discrimination in any form.”

For her part, Thomas keeps swimming.

“I just don’t engage with [the criticism],” she told the SwimSwam podcast. “It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all.” She described the opportunity to continue swimming as “an incredibly rewarding experience.”

“I’ve continued to do the sport that I love as my authentic self,” Thomas said. “That experience in swimming, and basically being in a swimsuit 20 hours a week, has sort of helped me with accepting my body as it is and being proud and comfortable in my body, and who I am.”