With one hand she held a placard reading “Ivy 2022 Champion,” and with the other she stuck up two fingers in that classic sign of victory. Her hair nestled alongside the medal around her neck as a blue University of Pennsylvania jacket hung from her broad swimmer’s shoulders.
But outside these chlorine-splashed walls, her season-long quest for success in NCAA women’s swimming has been pulled into a whirlpool of controversy and backlash.
With each victory, Thomas, a transgender woman who previously swam for Penn’s men’s team, has brought renewed attention to the ongoing debate on trans women’s participation in sports and the balance between inclusion and fair play.
“I believe that we all should feel comfortable with who we are in our own skin, but I think sports should all be played on an even playing field,” he said when asked about Thomas. “I don’t know what that looks like in the future. But it’s — it’s — it’s — it’s hard. It’s a really … honestly … I don’t know what to say,” he said, stumbling over his words. “It’s very complicated.”
Phelps is one of many athletes and regulatory bodies struggling to figure out how to include and accommodate transgender athletes in an elite field where tenths of seconds can mean the difference between winning and losing. Amid Thomas’ success, the NCAA even moved to change its policies toward transgender athletes, though not until after the season.
In addition, over 300 current and former swimmers, collegiate and elite, signed their names to an open letter defending her ability to compete. One of her most vocal supporters said there was no room for compromise.
“We expected there would be some measure of pushback by some people. Quite to the extent that it has blown up, we weren’t fully expecting,” she said. “I just don’t engage with it. It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t.”
Through an Ivy spokesperson, she and Penn coach Mike Schnur declined to be interviewed for this story, as did several of her closest competitors on other teams.
A swimmer since age 5
There, she dominated the women’s field in the 200-yard freestyle, 500-yard freestyle, and 1,650-yard freestyle races, beating the second place finisher by about 7 seconds, 15 seconds and 38 seconds, respectively. Her times in the 200 and the 500 in particular set pool and meet records, qualified her for the NCAA championships, and remain the best women’s time in the nation this season.
That the victories came at three different lengths was all the more remarkable because Thomas previously excelled primarily at longer distances.
The Austin, Texas, native began swimming at 5 years old and was a star athlete long before her gender transition. Thomas arrived to Penn in 2017 and quickly made a mark on the men’s team as a freestyle distance swimmer in the 500-yard, 1,000-yard and 1,650-yard races.
“I was struggling, my mental health was not very good. It was a lot of unease, about basically just feeling trapped in my body. It didn’t align,” she said.
She started on hormone replacement therapy in May 2019 and came out as trans that fall, yet she still had to compete on the men’s team. It was awkward and uncomfortable, she said, and her speed suffered as her muscles weakened from the hormone therapy.
She took the year off of school and competitive swimming due to the pandemic and returned for this season on the women’s team, after about 2 and a half years of HRT.
Despite her success this year, her raw times are significantly slower than they were before her transition. Still, she said she was in a better head space after coming out.
“I’m feeling confident and good in my swimming and in my personal relationships, and transitioning has allowed me to be more confident in all of those aspects in my life where I was struggling a lot before I came out,” she told SwimSwam.
A history of scrutiny in women’s sports
Thomas is not the first athlete to be the focus of debate about who is allowed to participate in women’s sports.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar sees eligibility rules as vital to the continued success of women’s sports. The three-time gold medalist swimmer, civil rights lawyer and CEO of the non-profit advocacy group Champion Women has become a spokesperson of sorts for frustrated Penn swimmers and their parents.
“We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her life authentically,” the letter says. “However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.”
In a phone call with CNN, Hogshead-Makar said it’s important to consider why we have women’s sports in the first place.
“The gap between men’s and women’s athletic performance was so big that if you didn’t give women a special team — their own team — that they would not have opportunities in sports,” she said.
“I want trans people to be loved and accepted and be productive in society and be their true selves,” she added. “I’m talking a small slice of competitive sports.”
‘We express our support for Lia Thomas’
“With this letter, we express our support for Lia Thomas, and all transgender college athletes, who deserve to be able to participate in safe and welcoming athletic environments,” the letter said.
The letter was organized by the organization Athlete Ally and Schuyler Bailar, a former Harvard swimmer who became the first transgender man to compete on a NCAA Division I men’s team in 2015.
Bailar told CNN he organized the message of support because he felt the anonymous open letter was irresponsible and bullying.
“I read that and I cried,” he told CNN on Friday morning at a coffee shop in Somerville, Massachusetts.
When Thomas first decided to come out, she reached out to Bailar on Instagram for guidance about how to move forward with her swimming career, Bailar said. They have remained in contact, though he declined to go into detail on their conversations.
A trans rights activist, Bailar said the outrage against Thomas’ inclusion on the team was not really about questions of sporting fairness.
“It’s not about fairness. It’s about policing women’s bodies,” he said. “It’s about transphobia.”
How the NCAA deals with transgender athletes
Because there are so few elite trans athletes, there is very little hard data comparing performance between transgender athletes and cisgender athletes.
“In relation to sport-related physical activity, this review found the lack of inclusive and comfortable environments to be the primary barrier to participation for transgender people,” the authors wrote.
For over a decade, the NCAA has required transgender women to be on testosterone suppression treatment for a year before they are allowed to compete on the women’s team.
Despite the out of pool controversy, Thomas showed no outward signs of stress or frustration at the Ivy League’s women’s swimming championships this week. With a calm and cool demeanor, she did precisely what was expected of her. She cheered on and high-fived teammates, chatted with coaches and fellow swimmers and sped past the competition on her way to three individual titles.
She is not even the lone trans athlete to win a race in the same pool at Harvard. Yale’s Iszac Henig, a transgender man, won the 50-yard freestyle in a pool-record 21.93 seconds on Thursday and came in a close second to Thomas in the 100-yard freestyle. The NCAA allows trans men to compete on the women’s team so long as they have not had hormone therapy.
On the far side of the pool, Thomas closely watched the end of the 50-yard freestyle race and clapped in excitement upon Henig’s win, a rare display of enthusiasm from Thomas at the meet. A day later, Henig and Thomas struck up a conversation at the far end of the pool, chatting and laughing as they leaned against the pool ropes.
They spoke for a few minutes until Thomas took off to get back to her work. She had more laps to swim.
CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe contributed to this report.