ATLANTA—Lia Thomas ended her collegiate sports career Saturday with an eighth-place finish at the NCAA Division I women’s swimming championships while sending a message in support of transgender athletes.
The male-born Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania senior who identifies as female, bore a message on her arm written in marker saying “let trans kids play,” as did Yale junior Iszac Henig, a female-to-male transgender swimmer, during the 100-yard freestyle.
Henig tied for fifth with a time of 47.32 and Thomas placed eighth out of eight swimmers in 48.18. Hours earlier, Thomas had qualified for the final with a time of 47.37, the fourth-best time in the preliminary round.
Finishing first in the 100 freestyle was University of Virginia freshman Gretchen Walsh with a time of 46.05, which was also a pool record. Virginia repeated as the NCAA Division I women’s swimming and diving champion.
Thomas’s participation roiled the championships, drawing protesters from Save Women’s Sports and Concerned Women for America, as well as student counter-protesters from Georgia Tech, which hosted the four-day end-of-season meet at the McAuley Aquatic Center.
Thomas started strong with a first-place finish Thursday in the 500 freestyle, becoming the first male-born athlete to win an NCAA Division I title, but fell off Friday with a fifth-place finish in the 200 freestyle, followed by Saturday’s eighth-place swim.
Activists from Save Women’s Sports held up signs during Thomas’s races with messages such as “Say No to Males Competing as Females” and “DQ XY.”
Texas freshman Erica Sullivan, one of those who lost to Thomas in the 500 freestyle, came out in support of allowing Thomas to compete in the women’s category.
“Like anyone else in this sport, Lia has trained diligently to get to where she is and has followed all of the rules and guidelines put before her,” said Sullivan in a Friday op-ed in Newsweek. “Like anyone else in this sport, Lia doesn’t win every time. And when she does, she deserves, like anyone else in this sport, to be celebrated for her hard-won success, not labeled a cheater simply because of her identity.”
Thomas, who swam for three years on Penn’s men’s team before transitioning to female, followed the NCAA rules on transgender athletes by undergoing at least a year of testosterone suppression, but critics argued that it wasn’t enough to mitigate the physical advantages of an adult male body.
John Lohn, editor-in-chief of Swimming World magazine, blasted the NCAA for allowing Thomas to turn the championships into what he called a “circus.”
“Simply, the NCAA abandoned its women’s athletes, and its four days of competition equated to a charade. With Thomas in three fields, there was illegitimate racing,” he said in a Saturday op-ed. “Outside the competition venue, there were protestors. Inside the facility, there was tension. On social media, there was ample discussion, some civil and much not. Make no mistake: Attention at the 2022 NCAA Women’s Champs was not solely where it belonged – on the athletes.”