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Protest at the pool

As Lia Thomas clinches win at the NCAA swim championships in Atlanta, women’s advocates call transgender competition unfair


Lia Thomas before the women’s 500-yard freestyle final at the NCAA swimming and diving championships at Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Thursday Associated Press/Photo by John Bazemore

Protest at the pool

The University of Pennsylvania’s athletics website hails Lia Thomas as “the first Quaker female swimmer to win an NCAA individual title.”

Truth be told, there still hasn’t been one.

Thomas made history Thursday as the first biological male to capture a collegiate national women’s swimming title at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, which began Wednesday in Atlanta. The transgender athlete also became the second male to win an NCAA women’s championship in any sport, following CeCé Telfer of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce University, who won the 400-meter hurdles crown at the 2019 NCAA Division II track and field meet.

Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle race, touching the wall with a school-record time of 4 minutes, 33.24 seconds. In the process, the senior defeated three female swimmers who represented the United States at last summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo: Virginia’s Emma Weyant, Texas’ Erica Sullivan and Stanford’s Brooke Forde—who placed second, third, and fourth, respectively. (Thomas later finished fifth in the 200 freestyle final on Friday and last in the 100 on Saturday.) Women’s advocates who protested Thomas’ inclusion in the women’s championships say having a male in the pool makes it inherently unfair for female competitors.

The time sheet reflects that Thomas beat Weyant on Thursday only by a little more than 1.5 seconds in the “A” final. He was also just three seconds ahead of Sullivan during the morning preliminaries.

Still, to at least one observer who saw the 6-foot-3 Thomas compete during the preliminaries, Thomas seemed to be coasting—perhaps to avoid appearing too dominant, as he had earlier in the season, when he defeated a female teammate by 38 seconds in one race.

“He wasn’t trying as hard as the women he was competing against based on the frequency of his strokes,” said Linda Blade, a Canadian women’s sports activist, who tweeted a video of Thomas’ preliminary swim. “He was hardly kicking his legs. It was like a gentle stroll through the park for him.”

Blade protested Thomas’ presence in the NCAA competition alongside fellow activist Beth Stelzer’s group, Save Women’s Sports. Stelzer and other protesters made their feelings known inside the McAuley Aquatic Center by waving black pom-poms and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the dictionary definition of woman: “Adult Human Female.”

Stelzer carried a “Save Women’s Sports” sign into the arena. According to the business owner and amateur powerlifter, a security guard tried to silence her.

“He told me to put my sign away and get the ‘F’ out,” Stelzer said. She partially complied, putting her sign away and sitting in her seat.

Still, Stelzer’s group wasn’t without support. “We got quiet thumbs-up from a lot of parents around us,” Blade said. “Some people didn’t like it, but most did. I think we found a way to be respectful and not be disruptive.”

Nancy Hogshead-Makar is a lawyer and former Olympic swimmer who won three gold medals and a silver at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. She said Thomas’ performance at the NCAA meet is “Exhibit A” as to why men who identify as women should not be allowed to compete against females: While the NCAA this year required males to undergo a year’s worth of hormone treatments to be able to compete as “women,” no amount of such treatments seems to dull the biological advantages males develop after age 8.

“Hormone therapy has not done what we were told it would do,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Lia went from not being able to qualify for the NCAAs as a male to winning as a female. That’s not mitigation.”

Hogshead-Makar has gathered a wealth of evidence to support her position. Perhaps the most notable statistic she points to is that on average, men swim 8 percent to 12 percent faster than women, with the percentage decreasing as race length increases.

There’s also the fact that male bodies naturally produce testosterone. “If a biological woman tests positive for testosterone two times, she’s banned for life,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Lia’s effectively been on that drug for 10 years.”

Cynthia Millen stopped serving as a USA Swimming official earlier this year because she believed allowing Thomas to compete against women created an inherent unfairness in the sport.

She believes the only way to preserve fairness in swimming is to keep the sport segregated by biological sex: “We [officials] examine starting blocks, lane lines, suits, goggles — all of it — to make sure no swimmer has an unfair advantage,” she said. “Letting men compete against women is absolutely not fair to anyone.”

With transgender athletes already in the pool and on the field, Hogshead-Makar believes sports leagues need to find a way to accommodate such players without diminishing opportunities for biologically female athletes.

“Only 3 percent of college students are given [an interscholastic] sports experience,” the former Olympian said. “When you go from 60 percent of high school students down to 3 percent in college, that’s highly significant.”

She added, “If Lia’s in a competition, that means a woman is not. If Lia wins, that means a woman does not. If Lia goes to the NCAAs, that means a woman does not go to the NCAAs.”

—WORLD updated this story on March 19. The story has also been corrected to reflect that Lia Thomas finished last in the 100-yard freestyle race.


Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Syracuse University School of Journalism, and he has been a sports reporter for 25 years. He is also a licensed attorney. Ray resides with his wife, Pauline, and daughter in Keizer, Ore.

@RayHacke43

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