Collegiate swimmer Lia Thomas is shattering women’s swimming records this season, and critics say there’s a reason: She used to be a man.
The University of Pennsylvania swimmer continued her dominance Saturday at the 2021 Zippy Invitational in Akron, Ohio, with a first-place finish in the 200-yard freestyle, setting a pool, program and meet record with a time of 1:41.93.
“She won the race by nearly seven seconds and her time was the fastest in the country,” the Penn sports information department said in a press release.
Her record-breaking victory came a day after she set a pool and meet record in the 500 freestyle preliminaries, then claimed more records in the final with a time of 4:34.06, beating the second-place finisher by 14.39 seconds.
“That time is currently the best in the country in the event,” the university said. “Her mark was also a new program record.”
Not cheering are women’s sports advocates who argue that the participation of a male-to-female transgender athlete is unfair to female-born competitors.
“Well of course women’s records are being smashed!” tweeted Linda Blade, author of “Unsporting: How Trans Activism and Science Denial are Destroying Sport.” “Lia competed as male for first three years in #NCAA. This is not right!”
Clay Travis, founder of the right-tilting sports-and-politics site Outkick, said “it’s absurd, it’s ridiculous, it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”
“Women should not be losing to biological men, especially biological men who were good enough to be competing on college swim teams before they decided to identify as women,” Travis said in a video post. “I can’t believe I have to say that, but it makes no sense at all.”
The 22-year-old Thomas swam on Penn’s men’s team from 2017-20 as Will Thomas, placing second in the Ivy League Championships in three freestyle events and making second team All-Ivy in the 2018-19 season. Thomas also won the men’s 500 freestyle against Villanova in the 2019-20 season.
Since transitioning to female and joining the women’s team, however, Thomas has gone from being a solid college swimmer to a dominant one.
Penn Today reported in June that “Thomas took a year off during the pandemic and will swim for the Penn women’s team in her senior year.”
“Being trans has not affected my ability to do this sport and being able to continue is very rewarding,” Thomas told the publication.
A University of Pennsylvania women’s swimmer named Lia Thomas, who used to go by Will as a member of the men’s swimming team, is smashing records. https://t.co/sEiiRioEgX— OutKick (@Outkick) December 1, 2021
Certainly the 2021-22 season has been rewarding for Thomas. In the Nov. 20 meet against Cornell and Princeton, she swept the 100-200-500 events and placed first as a member of the 400 freestyle relay team while adding her name to the university’s record books.
“The victory in the 400 free relay put an exclamation point on a big day for Thomas, as she won three events, set a pair of program records and posted the top time in the NCAA in two events,” the Penn press release said. “Thomas touched first in the 200 free at 1:43.47. It was the fastest mark in the NCAA in the event this season and a new program best.”
In addition, Thomas “finished first in the 500 free with a program record time of 4:35.06. She won the 500 free by over 12 seconds and her mark was the fastest in the NCAA this year. Thomas also added a victory in the 100 free (49.42).”
With times like that, Thomas would be a leading contender at the NCAA Division I women’s national swimming championships.
The first and reportedly only transgender athlete to capture an NCAA title was track-and-field competitor CeCe Telfer, who won the women’s Division II 400-meter hurdles in 2019.
The winner of last year’s 500 freestyle, the University of Virginia’s Paige Madden, finished with a time of 4:33.61, less than a second faster than Thomas’s mark Friday in Akron.
“How is it fair for Thomas to be well on his/her way to dominating the 500 free at the NCAA Championships in March?” asked Outkick’s Joe Kinsey.
The NCAA record in the women’s 500 freestyle is 4:24.06, set by Olympic seven-time gold medalist and former Stanford swimmer Katie Ledecky in 2017.
Under NCAA rules, transgender athletes may compete in women’s sports as long as they complete a year of testosterone suppression treatment, but advocates for single-sex sports say that male-born competitors still have physical advantages in areas including muscle mass, bone size and lung capacity.
“Even if Thomas has taken testosterone-suppression treatment for a year prior, his race times still show a clear physiological advantage,” said Nicole Russell in the Daily Signal.
Katherine Deves, co-founder of Save Women’s Sports Australasia, quipped on Twitter: “Man breaks women’s college swimming records. Shocks no one.”
Defending Thomas was Malcolm Harris, editor of The New Inquiry, who said that the swimmer deserved “congratulations not scrutiny.”
UPenn trans swimmer, 22, sparks outrage by SMASHING women’s competition records after competing as a man for 3 seasons— Teddy Brosevelt (@_TeddyBrosevelt) December 2, 2021
Lia Thomas (formerly Will), set new records in the 200m & 500m freestyle ️
Hey @espn why wasn’t this on @SportsCenter https://t.co/7vpE4arhoO
“People have such a hard time divorcing the idea of sports from world championships,” he tweeted. “Even if those two things were in conflict (which they are not) trans participation in sports is more important than the *existence* of world championships.”
Thomas, who co-chairs Penn Non-Cis, told Penn Today that swimming is “a huge part of my life and who I am.”
“I’ve been a swimmer since I was five years old,” Thomas said. “The process of coming out as being trans and continuing to swim was a lot of uncertainty and unknown around an area that’s usually really solid. Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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