ATLANTA — Transgender athlete Lia Thomas made history Thursday at the NCAA women’s swimming championships, cruising to victory amid tepid applause as frustrated protesters outside warned that the Ivy League athlete’s success comes at incalculable cost to women’s sports.
The University of Pennsylvania senior became the first male-born athlete to win an NCAA Division I women’s title after touching first in the 500-yard freestyle with a personal best of 4:33.24 at Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center.
“I didn’t have a lot of expectations for this meet,” Thomas said in a post-victory interview on the pool deck, according to Penn Athletics. “It means the world to be here and be with two of my best friends and teammates and be able to compete.”
Thomas won the title but not the crowd. The swimmer drew polite applause on the podium, while Virginia freshman Emma Weyant, the second-place finisher with a time of 4:34.99, was greeted with loud, enthusiastic cheers.
“The NCAA should be ashamed for allowing this to happen,” said Save Women’s Sports founder Beth Stelzer, who attended the meet. “There will not be an [asterisk] in the record books to show that that record is set by a male.”
She said she “watched athletes and their mothers sobbing in defeat,” calling it “soul-crushing.”
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Penn Athletics said Thomas earned first-team All-America honors with the win, which was also a program record, and became “the first Quaker female swimmer to win an NCAA individual title.”
Outside the arena, two dozen activists from Save Women’s Sports and Concerned Women for America converged for a protest, waving signs and chanting slogans such as “Even when they’re swimming, we support the women.”
“We’re here to celebrate the young women swimming in that pool who are being robbed of their opportunities and titles while being forced to share their locker room and pool with a male body,” Ms. Stelzer said at a press conference. “They have been bullied into silence, and today we speak for them, hoping tomorrow they are brave enough to find their voice.”
Thomas, who swam for three years on the Penn men’s team before transitioning to female, is scheduled to compete in two more events at the championships this weekend: the 200 freestyle on Friday and 100 freestyle on Saturday.
Thomas underwent a year of testosterone suppression as required under NCAA rules. Those speaking at the Save Women’s Sport press conference during the protest said the eligibility criteria fail to account for a male-born athlete’s biological advantages.
“My message to the [International Olympic Committee], the NCAA, and any organization perpetuating the absurdity of allowing males to compete in the female category: Shame on you,” said Robert Fausett, a former Olympic taekwondo coach. “You know the truth but are acting like cowards. Stop this madness and protect female athletes.”
The protest drew a who’s-who of women’s sports advocates, including Idaho state Rep. Barbara Ehardt, who sponsored the first bill banning male-born competitors in female sports. The measure was put on hold by a federal court pending the outcome of a lawsuit.
“I stand before you now saying … if we don’t stop this and put an end to this, you will no longer have girls’ and women’s sports,” said the Republican Ehardt, a former Division I basketball player and coach.
Among the protesters were several current and former NCAA women’s athletes, including Macy Petty, a Division II volleyball player at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.
“I know that some people think that saying ‘save women’s sports’ is an exaggeration, as if women’s sports are not truly at risk,” said Ms. Petty, a member of Young Women for America. “Well, as a college volleyball player who’s had firsthand experience, let me be very clear: This is not an exaggeration.”
Those opposed to laws banning male-born athletes in female sports often argue that such situations are rare, but several female activists involved in high school and collegiate sports said they have encountered male-born transgender athletes.
Ms. Petty said she has played against biological men and watched them “use their biological advantage to take scholarships and championships from females.”
“This is not a hypothetical situation. This is happening in many women’s sports,” Ms. Petty said. “It’s happening right behind me at the NCAA Division I women’s swimming and diving championships.”
Linnea Saltz, a former Southern Utah University runner and Big Sky Conference champion, said she was told that her team would be competing against a male-born University of Montana runner who had previously competed on the men’s team.
She did not name the runner, but June Eastwood, a male-to-female transgender athlete, was a member of the University of Montana women’s cross-country team during the 2019-2020 season.
“All of my hope was lost when I realized the male-to-female transgender athlete I was competing against had a personal best time of 1:55 in the 800-meter, 10 seconds faster than the best season time from my season prior,” Ms. Saltz said.
Georgia Tech student Chloe Satterfield, a Young Women for America ambassador, recalled facing a male-born transgender tennis player in high school. That player was a freshman, while she was a senior who had spent four years on the varsity girls’ tennis team.
“I lost,” Ms. Satterfield said, “Not because this athlete had trained longer or had a better strategy, but because of inherent biological speed, strength and stamina. The playing field, or court in this case, was uneven, and I was the clear loser.”
The protesters drew a mostly positive reaction from passersby, along with a few negative comments. Some drivers honked in support or gave a thumbs-up. One young woman walking past the activists yelled “Transphobes!”
Several counterprotesters stationed themselves across the street from the arena holding pro-LGBTQ signs with messages like “Hate Has No Place @ GT” and a pink-and-blue transgender flag.
The Save Women’s Sports activists insisted they have no problem with transgender athletes in sports in general, only male-born athletes in girls’ and women’s sports.
To prove their point, they cited Yale’s Iszac Henig, who competed Thursday in the 50 freestyle. The female-born Henig, a member of the women’s swim team, is transgender.
“If we were trying to prevent trans athletes from competing … why aren’t we here protesting Henig’s events? We’re not,” evolutionary biologist Colin Wright said at the press conference. “The simple reason we’re not is because Henig is biologically female, and so competing in female sports is completely appropriate.”
Kelli-Jay Keen, founder of the British group Standing for Women, said that “when men do impersonate us, they come with no good intention.”
“It used to be that the state and sensible grown-ups would say no. Well, now it’s time that we say no, and we mean no,” she said.
The first male-born athlete to win a women’s NCAA crown is CeCe Telfer, a hurdler who won a Division II track-and-field title in 2019.