Lia Thomas has become the first known transgender athlete to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I championship.
Thomas, a swimmer for the University of Pennsylvania, won the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA women’s national competition in Atlanta Thursday night. She had a winning time of 4 minutes, 33.24 seconds, 1.75 seconds ahead of the University of Virginia’s Emma Weyant, ESPN reports.
Thomas has won Ivy League swimming championships this season — her first on the women’s team — and had NCAA season-best times in two freestyle events at the Zippy Invitational in Ohio in December. Her success in the sport has fueled criticism by those who object to trans women competing alongside cisgender women, although the reality is that there is no widespread dominance of sports by trans women and girls.
Indeed, Thomas’s time in the freestyle final “was the fastest of the NCAA season, but well off the NCAA record of 4:24.06, held by 10-time Olympic medalist Katie Ledecky,” CNN notes.
There were protests and counterprotests Thursday outside the Georgia Institute of Technology’s McAuley Aquatic Center, where the events were taking place. Inside the center, a few audience members jeered, while one yelled “cheater” as Thomas did a post-competition interview with ESPN’s Elizabeth Beisel.
Thomas told Beisel that she tries to tune out any negativity. “I try to focus on my swimming, what I need to do to get ready for my races,” she said. “And just try to block out everything else.”
Even some of her Penn teammates have objected to Thomas’s presence in the women’s competition, with an anonymous letter written on behalf of 16 of the 40 swimmers. But numerous other athletes have defended her; 300 current and former collegiate and elite swimmers recently signed on to an open letter supporting her.
One of them was the University of Texas’s Erica Sullivan, an Olympic silver medalist who finished third in the freestyle. Sullivan also released a statement, saying, “I was fortunate enough to be welcomed with open arms in the swim community when I came out as gay. Just with my own personal good experience of coming out and feeling all that love and support within my swim community, I feel like [Lia] deserves the same thing.”
In a Newsweek commentary published Friday, Sullivan offered additional support for Thomas. “I can’t sit silently by as I see a fellow swimmer’s fundamental rights be put up for debate,” Sullivan wrote. “Like anyone else in this sport, Lia has trained diligently to get to where she is and has followed all of the rules and guidelines put before her. Like anyone else in this sport, Lia doesn’t win every time. And when she does, she deserves, like anyone else in this sport, to be celebrated for her hard-won success, not labeled a cheater simply because of her identity.”
And Virginia junior Lexi Cuomo told ESPN, “Any hate is unnecessary. We need to look at it as we’re all competitors right now. We're focused on ourselves and our team. Our first and foremost goal is to win a national title.”
Thomas has qualified for the 200-yard freestyle finals, coming in second in the preliminaries Friday morning. The finals will be held Friday evening. She also will compete in the 100-yard freestyle, set for Saturday.