Lia Thomas became the first transgender athlete to win a Division I collegiate national championship on March 17. However, not everyone in the sporting world thinks she should be allowed to compete against other women.
Thomas, who hails from Austin, swam for three years on the men’s team at the University of Pennsylvania before switching to the women’s team.
Now a senior, Thomas entered the NCAA women’s swimming and diving championships as the top seed and took first place with a season-best time of 4:33.24 at the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of expectation for this meet,” Thomas said. “I was just happy to be here and race and compete the best I could.”
Virginia’s Emma Weyant, who won an Olympic silver medal in the 400 individual medley last summer in Tokyo, came in second at 4:34.99. The race remained competitive until the final 100 yards when Texas’s Weyant and Erica Sullivan challenged Thomas for the win but came up short.
Thomas’ performance was the fastest of the NCAA season, but it was still a far cry from the NCAA record of 4:24.06 set by 10-time Olympic winner Katie Ledecky.
CNN reported that as Thomas delivered her interview after the victory, there were a few jeers from the audience, including one person who chanted “cheater.”
Beth Stelzer, an amateur powerlifter, came to the swim meet armed with a “Save Women’s Sports” vinyl banner and hung it at the event. Stelzer says she fights for biological sex-based eligibility for female sports and her group — Save Women’s Sports — is part of a growing backlash against transgender athletes like Thomas.
“This is not an anti-Lia campaign,” Stelzer told The New York Post. “It’s a pro-woman campaign. We think everyone should play sports fairly.”
Reka Gyorgy, a Virginia Tech swimmer, agreed.
Gyorgy, on her Instagram, after missing the cut on Thursday to compete in the finals of the 500-yard free at the NCAA Championships, challenged college sports to change their policies on transgender athletes.
“It doesn’t promote our sport in a good way, and I think it is disrespectful against the biologically female swimmers who are competing in the NCAA,” Gyorgy said.
About two dozen anti-Thomas protesters gathered outside the aquatic center, including members of Concerned Women for America, Save Women’s Sports, and Young Women for America.
“We will not stand by and watch women be displaced,” stated Annabelle Rutledge of Young Women for America. We must speak up to safeguard their rights.
Barbara Ehardt, the author of Idaho’s HB 500, which banned transgender girls and women from participating in girls’ and women’s sports, was also present. The law was passed in 2020, but a federal court in the District of Columbia granted an injunction against it.
On Thursday, Concerned Women for America (CWA) filed a Title IX lawsuit against Penn State University, claiming Penn is violating Title IX by letting Thomas compete on the women’s team.
“The future of women’s sports is at peril,” says CWA CEO Penny Nance. “In reaction to this injustice, the University of Pennsylvania was sued.”
This is not the first time CWA has filed a Title IX lawsuit regarding a transgender athlete.
After Franklin Pierce University (FPU) track athlete CeCe Telfer won a Division II national championship in the 400-meter hurdles in 2019, the CWA filed a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR determined that FPU’s “transgender inclusiveness” policy violated Title IX and ordered the school to remove it.
CWA’s latest complaint has yet to be addressed by the Department of Education.
In contrast, a dozen Georgia Tech students, both graduate and undergraduate, counter-protested the anti-Thomas crowd in Atlanta.
“They are dragging hatred from off-campus into our college,” said Grad Pride president Naiki Kaffezakis.
After the race in Atlanta, Thomas told ESPN she had been trying to shut out the noise.
“I try to ignore it,” she said. “I try to concentrate exclusively on my swimming and preparation for competitions.”
Schuyler Bailar, the first openly transgender NCAA Division I swimmer, said he supports Thomas.
“It is a testament of Lia’s resilience,” Bailar said. “Even though she is being mocked and jeered as she approaches the podium, I believe it shows her strength. We may be ourselves while doing what we love.”