WHEN LIA THOMAS’ fingertips break the surface of the water on Thursday at the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta, nobody in the 500-yard freestyle, or in any other race at the NCAA women’s swimming and diving championships, will have navigated choppier waters.
Thomas, a transgender swimmer at Penn, has sparked searing skepticism with her season-long dominance. Over the next four days, she’ll have three chances to become the first known transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship.
Although she has followed every eligibility rule and policy set forth by the NCAA, Thomas has landed at the epicenter of debate — in the pool, in the media and in statehouses across the country — about fairness and inclusion and whether those values are mutually exclusive.
Thomas is not the first transgender athlete to compete in collegiate sports, nor the first to be successful. But no one has spurred deeper division.
She might win, she might finish on the podium, she might not. But whatever the outcome, Thomas’ participation will be a victory for some and a defeat for others. Some will see it as progress and others will see it as regression. Some will cheer and some will object. Everyone, it seems, already has taken a side.
THOMAS’ LONG ARMS sliced through the water during the 200-yard freestyle at Ocasek Natatorium in Akron, Ohio, propelling her 6-foot-2 body forward. At each turn, her feet popped off the wall to kick-start her journey the other way. This was the second day of a three-day meet, the last stop before finals and winter break.
She already had won the 500 freestyle the day before in comfortable fashion, posting the best time in the country this season. Her time of 4 minutes, 34.06 seconds trailed Katie Ledecky’s record by 10 seconds. Close enough for eyebrows to raise. Thomas was undefeated in her individual events to start the season. As she pulled away from the field in the 200, it became clear that this race would be more of the same.
When she touched the wall, her time flashed on the screen: 1:41.93. It wasn’t just fast; it was eye-popping. She now owned the nation’s top time in two events and was two seconds off Missy Franklin’s NCAA record. And it was only Dec. 4, 2021. The national championships were more than three months away. Who knew how fast she’d be by then?
As news of Thomas’ times leaked out of Akron, it became clear that her life was about to change, that the NCAA swimming season was about to be upended.
The division started within her own team, some Penn swimmers expressed support while others protested anonymously to the media. Barely a day passed without Thomas’ name in the news. As states such as Indiana and Arizona considered legislation that would affect transgender girls’ ability to participate in girls’ sports at the youth level, Thomas was brought up as the reason why such laws were needed.
The controversy was driven by the specter of Lia Thomas the swimmer, but little was known about Lia Thomas the person.
THOMAS, WHO DECLINED multiple interview requests from ESPN, grew up in Austin, Texas, as the youngest of three children. She’s been swimming since she was a child, following in the footsteps of her oldest brother, Wes. The two swam for Lost Creek Aquatics, and still hold multiple club records. Lia’s longest-standing record is in the 6-and-under division in the 100-yard backstroke.
Wes went to Penn and swam on the men’s team, and Lia decided that’s what she would do as well, though they never overlapped in school. For three seasons, Lia swam on the Quakers men’s team. She was a distance specialist. But as she began college after graduating from Westlake High School, she also struggled with her identity, according to a Sports Illustrated story. She recognized she was transgender and shared that with her family following her freshman season in 2017-18. In her sophomore season, Thomas placed second in the Ivy League championships in the 500, 1,000 and 1,650 freestyle events. Even with that athletic success, Thomas was struggling.
“I was very depressed,” Thomas told Sports Illustrated. “I got to the point where I couldn’t go to school. I was missing classes. My sleep schedule was super messed up. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew at that moment I needed to do something to address this.”
Thomas began hormone therapy in May 2019, following her sophomore season. She continued to swim on the men’s team as a junior, but sparingly. “It was an awkward experience being a woman competing in a men’s meet,” Thomas said in a podcast with SwimSwam. “It was uncomfortable. So I didn’t compete that much.”
Thomas began swimming on the Penn women’s team in the fall of 2021. The Ivy League canceled all sports in 2020-21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so this season was Thomas’ first opportunity to swim in the women’s category. At the beginning of the 2021 season, the NCAA policy for transgender athletes was that transgender women were eligible to compete in the women’s category after completing 12 months of testosterone suppression. That policy was enacted in 2011 and governed all NCAA championships, though individual schools and conferences were free to set their own eligibility processes.
But Thomas’ times in Akron brought intense scrutiny not just to herself, and not just to her team, but also to the Penn, Ivy League and NCAA policies. One media outlet published tabloid-style photos of Thomas and her teammates while they were training in Florida following winter break.
“It’s been weird because if I stand next to Lia, then suddenly my photograph emerges in some news outlet,” Penn teammate and fellow senior Andie Myers told ESPN. “It’s weird.”
Complaints from anonymous teammates about losing opportunities and sharing a locker room with Thomas surfaced in stories.
“I knew that there were going to be people that didn’t want Lia to swim or didn’t think that it was fair, but I definitely was not expecting people to be speaking out like they were,” sophomore Hadley DeBruyn told ESPN. “I think that that is what shocked me the most.”
The Penn swimmers’ opposing viewpoints were expressed formally in dueling letters issued in February. On Feb. 1, an unsigned statement was issued by Penn athletics on behalf of “several members of the women’s swimming and diving team” that supported Thomas being part of their team. Two days later, three-time Olympic gold medalist and Title IX advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar sent a letter to the Ivy League and its schools’ presidents and athletic directors on behalf of 16 anonymous Penn swimmers and their families, urging the Ivy League not to take legal action should the NCAA rule Thomas ineligible for the national championships. And on Feb. 10, 310 members of the swimming community, including representatives from each of the Power 5 conferences and five of Thomas’ teammates, signed a letter to the NCAA organized by Athlete Ally and Harvard alum and transgender athlete Schuyler Bailar that expressed support for Thomas.
Few members of the Penn women’s swimming and diving team have spoken on the record. Myers and DeBruyn are two of Thomas’ teammates who signed the letter organized by Bailar and Athlete Ally. None of the 16 swimmers who were represented by Hogshead-Makar in the letter to the Ivy League have shared their identities publicly.
“We respect Lia as a person. We respect her right to live as a woman and her right to do whatever she feels is best for herself in her life,” one Penn parent who supported the Hogshead-Makar letter told ESPN. “But at the same time, that shouldn’t mean competing against the biological women and having the full access to the locker room.”
WHEN THOMAS JOINED the Penn women’s swimming team, the NCAA’s 2011 policy on transgender participation already was under review. In October 2020, the NCAA hosted a summit on gender identity and student-athlete participation. The stated purpose of the gathering was to “solicit feedback toward the creation of a consensus framework that might inform policy and practice development in the area of gender identity and participation in collegiate sport…” It was one step in an arduous process to reevaluate the organization’s policy that had been in operation for nearly a decade.
“The whole point of it was to begin the review process of the 2011 policy,” said LGBTQ sports inclusion advocate Pat Griffin, who worked on the first policy. “That process was ongoing. And then, I think, that the board of governors hijacked that process by coming out and surprising everyone.”
On Jan. 19, 2022, the NCAA announced it would adopt a sports-specific approach that would evaluate national governing body policies and adopt them for NCAA eligibility. At the time, USA Swimming’s policy for elite athletes deferred to the International Olympic Committee policy, but that was also in flux due to an announcement in November 2021 that empowered each international federation to create their own policies, though the IOC would provide guidance.
“They failed women by not prioritizing fairness.”
The NCAA announcement was met with condemnation and confusion by those who felt Thomas should be eligible to swim and by those who felt she should be ineligible.
“This update complicates the NCAA policy in a way that I don’t believe they are equipped to handle,” duathlete and transgender inclusion advocate Chris Mosier said at the time. “Given that many [national governing bodies] have not created policies for transgender athletes and that policies vary from sport NGB to NGB, tracking compliance is going to be a nightmare for the NCAA. This creates many different standards for trans athletes.”
Hogshead-Makar also expressed dismay. “The new NCAA policy sounds a lot like the old one,” she said. “The board hasn’t resolved the intractable balancing between fairness, playing safety and inclusion. They failed women by not prioritizing fairness.”
For Ivy League executive director Robin Harris, the influence of Thomas’ success and attention was apparent. “It’s clear to me that the publicity and the success that Lia [Thomas] has been having elevated this issue at the NCAA,” Harris said. “I do believe that the NCAA missed an opportunity to be a leader, and instead tried to avoid having the NCAA policy be the focus of the attention, because Lia has met the NCAA policy that had been in existence for over a decade.”
On Feb. 1, USA Swimming shared a new policy governing eligibility for transgender swimmers. The policy applies to USA Swimming members, designated elite events (which did not include the NCAA championships), and swimmers wanting to be eligible for American records, which begins with the 13-14 age group. USA Swimming’s policy requires transgender women who want to compete in the women’s category to present evidence that they have no competitive advantage to an independent panel for review and to maintain a testosterone level below 5 nanomoles per liter for 36 consecutive months. That level is significantly below the previous standard of 10 nanomoles per liter used by the IOC until November, and the time required to demonstrate the lower level is tripled.
If the NCAA adopted those rules for the 2022 winter championships — as the Jan. 19 announcement opened the door for — it would have been impossible for Thomas to compete for a national championship. Thomas has said she began hormone therapy in May 2019, or 34 months prior to the 2022 NCAA championships.
But on Feb. 10, the NCAA announced that it would not adopt the new USA Swimming standards for the 2022 women’s swimming and diving championships. Instead, transgender athletes compliant with the previous standard would need to submit a one-time test showing a testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per liter. The announcement cleared the way for Thomas to participate this week in Atlanta, where she is scheduled to compete in the 100, 200 and 500-yard freestyle.
“There is a sense, particularly the Ivy League swimmers and the Ivy League families, that they’ve been abandoned,” Hogshead-Makar said. “That nobody’s standing up for them, that the sport leaders did not get their act together before Lia came along. And I agree with them.”
WHEN IT COMES to disagreements about whether or not Thomas — and other transgender women — should be allowed to compete in the women’s category, the question is often posed as one of fairness. But it is also about identity, sex and what the word “woman” means.
“There are two philosophies that are clashing right now,” Hogshead-Makar said. “One is an ideology of gender identity and the other one is the idea of science and biology. The ideology is trans women are women. For the most part, people were onboard for the idea that you want transgender people to be welcome in employment and public accommodations. But then there’s the biology part of it when it comes to medical treatment, or women’s sports. That ideology is not fact. It is not a fact that trans women are women.”
The science of transgender athletes is an evolving space, but there are a few things that are known: testosterone is, on average, many times higher in those assigned male at birth compared to those assigned female at birth; testosterone confers physiological and metabolic advantages such as increased muscle mass, lung capacity, increased height, etc.; testosterone suppression effectively reduces levels in transgender women to be on par with those of cisgender women after approximately one year.
“We know that testosterone is not always directly reflective of athletic performance, although it certainly may play a role in some athletic endeavors,” said pediatric endocrinologist Jason Klein, who works with kids, adolescents and young adults in his position at NYU Langone Health.
There have been some studies that examine the effects of hormone therapy on athletic performance and physiological retention of strength. The first, which was conducted by Joanna Harper and published in 2015, followed a handful of transgender women distance runners. Harper’s study — which she emphasized was a small study — found that transgender women, after a year of hormone therapy, didn’t improve post-transition. If they ranked, say, 15th against the men, then they ranked 15th among women. Despite its size, Harper’s study was the first of its kind and provided a baseline for policy frameworks.
Harper also published a review of the existing literature on the topic in 2021. She found that while hemoglobin levels — or red blood cells carrying oxygen to muscles — in transgender women decreased with hormone therapy, there was still strength retention after 36 months of hormone therapy. This was in line with a study published in 2019 that evaluated the level of muscle mass lost in transgender women after one year of hormone therapy, which found that transgender women lost just 5%.
Of those studies, only Harper’s on distance runners measured results in transgender athletes. They also all focused on transgender adults, often those who transitioned after puberty.
The next closest study to examine outcomes of transgender athletes was done by Christina Roberts, who analyzed available data on transgender members of the military performing situps, pushups and 1.5-mile runs at various stages of hormone therapy. The results showed that within two years, the performance gap between transgender women and cisgender women on pushups and situps disappeared. For the 1.5-mile run, transgender women declined in speed, but still exceeded the performance levels of cisgender women. “I think it shows that statements that, ‘Oh no, the trans women will never come down to the level of cis women,’ is just not true,'” Roberts said.
“Now, are there some retained anatomic differences? Your average person who’s assigned male at birth is taller than your cis female. And so where having narrower hips and longer limbs is an advantage, yeah there’s some retained anatomic advantage. On the other hand, we’re not banning tall slender-hipped women. Anatomic advantage is an underlying truth in sport.”
For Thomas, there is data available for her prior to and after transition. For those who argue she shouldn’t be eligible to swim in the women’s category, the difference in her relative performance as expressed in that data is important. In the 200 free, Thomas had the 465th fastest time prior to transition. She is currently the fastest in that event. In the 500 free, she was 65th; she’s currently first. In the 1,650, previously her best event, Thomas’ highest ranking was 32nd. She has the 11th best time in that event despite not swimming it since December.
“She is still almost undoubtedly better as a female swimmer than she ever would have been as a male swimmer,” Harper said. “[But] the notion that all trans women will be better in the women’s category than they were in the men’s category is flawed. I have seen trans women who had trouble adapting to the changing hormone levels and/or their meds. These women end up worse compared to women than they were compared to men. Of course, no one will ever hear of these trans women because they aren’t successful in women’s sport.”
Thomas’ best times while competing on the men’s team were 1:39.31 in the 200 free, 4:18.72 in the 500 and 14:54.76 in the 1,650. Thomas’ best times while competing on the women’s team so far have been 1:41.93 in the 200, 4:34.06 in the 500 and 15:59.71 in the 1,650.
All three of her top times this season came at the Zippy Invitational in early December in Akron. It wasn’t until the Ivy League championships that Thomas posted her top time in the 100.
HARVARD’S BLODGETT POOL, site of the 2022 Ivy League women’s swimming and diving championships, felt like a sauna last month. The heat bubbled through the room cramped with spectators cheering on the women from the eight schools of the conference competing in the pool.
Thomas walked out to the blocks for the final in the 100 freestyle, passing underneath a transgender flag draped over the railing by Bailar, who had come to the meet to support her, as well as another transgender athlete from Yale, Iszac Henig. Henig, a transgender man, swam on the women’s team and was competing against Thomas in this race. Henig landed in the spotlight after beating Thomas at a meet in January.
“I think that people are entitled to their opinions, right, but those opinions are also hurtful,” Henig told ESPN after the race in January. “It’s hard to see sports being used as an excuse to be hateful to people. Because I think that, the fact that I was roped into some of those nasty articles, despite ‘doing everything right’ by competing with the gender that I was assigned at birth. It’s not about fairness, when you really break it down.”
Bailar brought the flag to Blodgett because he remembered his own final meet at Harvard. Some of his social media followers brought a transgender flag and waved it in the stands. “Every time I saw it in the stands, I found myself in tears because it was so beautiful to see that reminder of our own resilience as trans people,” Bailar said. “The world has seen a lot of hatred and vitriol against Lia and against trans athletes in general. Having a record-breaking number of anti-trans athlete bills in the country in 2021 and 2022, there’s a lot of negative energy surrounding us. And that’s actually not comprehensive of what exists. There’s far more support than I think the media is giving credit for.”
At the sound of the horn, Thomas and Henig dove into the pool. Henig was defending the pool record he’d set in the prelims and Thomas looked to avenge her loss to Henig earlier in the season. At the final turn, they started home neck and neck. But it was Thomas who out touched Henig at the wall, setting a meet and pool record in the process. It was her third individual conference championship, which would propel her to win the award for top point scorer of the meet.
Thomas embraced Henig in celebration and pointed her index finger to the sky.
“Swimming is far more about the racing than it is about winning,” Henig said. “And, sure, winning is fun, but at the end of the day, I made myself proud. I made my teammates proud. I made my coaches proud, and that’s what matters to me.”
Underneath the celebratory moments in the pool, however, was the knowledge that not everyone was happy with Thomas’ presence, even as they applauded politely when Thomas accepted her trophies and medals.
“I would just like people to know that supporting trans people does mean you should support them in sports as well.”
Penn swimmer Andie Myers
A woman who identified herself only as the mother of an Ivy League swimmer read an account of her and her daughter’s experiences that was posted on the Women’s Declaration International YouTube channel. “The joy of the meet was spoiled from the onset but we couldn’t bring ourselves to let our girls face this alone,” she said of her experience at Blodgett. “Day after day we watched as a young lady was replaced in a final swim, replaced on the podium, erased from a record or relay spot, and finally replaced by swimmer of the meet by a man.”
An anonymous Penn swimmer spoke to NewsNation following the meet. “I’ve been discriminated against and my teammates have too,” she said. “The NCAA has allowed it to happen and it’s shameful.”
Nearly all Ivy League swimmers and coaches who received requests declined to be interviewed for this story, including every member and coach of the Penn women’s swimming and diving team, with the exception of DeBruyn and Myers. One other Penn swimmer agreed to be interviewed, but declined to answer questions about Thomas.
Watching Thomas swim from off to the side was Myers. She wore a transgender flag face mask the entire meet to publicly declare her support for Thomas. “There is a lot of people who think they support trans people but start to draw the line when it comes to sports,” Myers said. “There are nuances, but I think a lot of that gets lost and I think a lot of people end up using transphobic arguments against her competing. So I would just like people to know that supporting trans people does mean you should support them in sports as well.”
That tension roiling in Blodgett was already spilling across the country, and Thomas was still at the center.
STANDING BEHIND A wooden lectern in the Senate chamber at the Indiana state capitol in Indianapolis, Jackie Stein, the mother of two daughters who compete in swimming, argued the case for why pending bill HB 1041 should pass. “This issue is very visible right now in the swimming community due to the media coverage following University of Pennsylvania competitor Lia Thomas,” Stein said. She went on to quote Hogshead-Makar arguing that Thomas had an unfair advantage as reason to pass HB 1041 in Indiana, which would prohibit transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports.
HB 1041 is just one example of legislation filed across the country that affects transgender youth. As of this writing, there are bills restricting athletic participation for transgender youth filed in 25 states, according to the ACLU, which tracks such legislation. Eleven states have already signed similar legislation into law. There are bills affecting access to healthcare for transgender youth filed in 17 states. There are bills restricting single-sex facilities — commonly referred to as “bathroom bills” — filed in four states.
“It’s predictably awful,” Mosier said. Mosier was driving back to his home in Chicago from a rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, where a bill was filed that would restrict transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports at the middle and high school levels. Mosier left his home at 6 a.m. to drive the six hours to the Minnesota capital, arriving 10 minutes before he was supposed to speak. He stood on the steps in front of the stone-faced building, the same site of the 2012 victory rally following the state’s historic defeat of a constitutional amendment that would have banned marriage equality. After a few pleasantries, Mosier hopped back in his car to drive home. It was nearly dark again when he called.
“We’re seeing the escalation of attacks on the trans community in a way that has morphed from last year in what I consider to be a predictable way,” Mosier said. He pointed to the language used in some bills filed in 2020 and 2021 that focused on exams to prove sex. The original text of Idaho’s HB 500, for example, stated that if a person’s sex was disputed, a signed physician statement confirming “The student’s internal and external reproductive anatomy; The student’s normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone; An analysis of the student’s genetic makeup” to prove sex. Advocates characterized such requirements as tantamount to “genital inspections,” rather than routine exams as proponents argued.
“When you go that extreme, anything less than that seems more reasonable,” Mosier said.
Many bills filed in the 2022 session moved away from that language in favor of using “official birth certificate” — read: not amended — as the delineation of sex. This approach mirrored Texas’ law that passed in October 2021. South Dakota and Iowa enacted laws this session using that language. Pending bills in Indiana and Arizona used it as well.
Though Thomas’ name has been invoked in Indiana, Arizona, and elsewhere, many of the bills and laws that have passed affect not just collegiate athletes, but youth playing school sports, sometimes as young as elementary school.
“Generally, when we’re talking about playing sports, sure what comes to our mind’s eye are the professionals,” said Olympic swimmer Casey Legler, who supports Thomas’ eligibility. “That is not sports. Sports is your local club. Sports is the pickup game that’s being played in the park. Sports is the guy who is not good at lifting weights and who still goes to the gym, because it makes them feel better. That is actually most people’s experience of sports.”
Georgia, where Thomas will race this week, is one of those states with a pending bill. And when she dives into the pool at Georgia Tech, all eyes will be on her. She might win, she might finish on the podium, she might not. But she will be swimming. Just as she has all season.