ATLANTA — Lia Thomas came up short in her second race at the NCAA Division I women’s championships, tying for fifth place in a race won by Stanford’s Taylor Ruck, a four-time Olympic medalist.
The male-born Thomas entered the championships as the top seed in the 200-yard freestyle after posting the 2021-22 season’s best time of 1:41.93, but finished Friday’s race in 1:43.40, good for a fifth-place tie with Kentucky’s Riley Gaines.
The 21-year-old Ruck placed first in Friday’s event in 1:41.12. The Canadian swimmer won three Olympic bronze medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games and a silver at the 2020 Tokyo Games, which were delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday night, Thomas became the first male-born swimmer to win an NCAA Division I title with a win in the 500 freestyle, stoking fears about the future of women’s sports and criticism of the NCAA’s rules allowing biological males to compete against women.
For the second night in a row, however, Thomas failed to win the crowd. The enthusiastic cheers for the race’s other seven swimmers Friday quickly muted when the University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer’s name was called at Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center.
A half-dozen protesters from Save Women’s Sports attended Friday’s final, holding up signs as Thomas was introduced that said, “Say No to Males Competing as Females” and “Why Are Men Competing?”
Elsewhere in the stands, a Thomas supporter held up a pink-and-blue transgender flag.
Thomas placed second to Ruck in the Friday morning preliminary swim with a time of 1:42.09, but faded in the finals.
“Thomas was in seventh place at the halfway point, but she has been accustomed to taking races out slowly before turning on the gas at the end,” said the Swimming World analysis. “Her 100-yard split of 50.34 was actually much quicker than her halfway time of 50.87 in prelims. But after Thomas split 25-mid efforts on the third and fourth 50s in prelims, she was almost a second slower on each of those splits in the final.”
Thomas swam for three years on the Penn men’s team before transitioning to female and joining the women’s team for the 2021-22 season, becoming eligible under NCAA transgender-athlete rules by undergoing at least a year of testosterone suppression.
Thomas has one more chance for a win on the final day of the championships Saturday in the 100 freestyle, although the race is the swimmer’s weakest event.
Thomas’s best time in the 100 during the season was good enough for 10th in the nation. Only the top eight finishers in the Saturday morning prelims qualify for the evening finals.
Among those cheering for Ruck was Canadian track-and-field coach Linda Blade, a Save Women’s Sports advisor and president of Athletics Alberta.
“Lia is seeded 2nd in the 200 free for tonight, behind #Canadian multi-time Olympic medalist Taylor Ruck,” tweeted Blade before the race. “One [of] a very few people who has ever beaten the amazing Katie Ledecky in the 200 free. In other words, Taylor is freaking amazing.”
The first male-born athlete to win an NCAA women’s title was hurdler CeCe Telfer, who won a track-and-field event at the 2019 NCAA Division II championships.
Beth Stelzer, founder of Save Women’s Sports, said that Thomas’s loss was nonetheless disheartening to advocates of single-sex competitive sports.
“While he did not win, he still displaced numerous women to get here today and one is too many,” she said.