Here’s what you need to know about openly transgender Division I NCAA champion Lia Thomas



Openly transgender University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas’s victory at the NCAA championship has sparked a larger conversation about transgender athletes in sports.

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas made history as the first openly transgender athlete to win a Division I National College Athletics Association (NCAA) championship on Thursday, March 17. Thomas touched first in the 500 yard freestyle, clocking a 4:33.82 to top the rest of the field.

In recent months, Thomas’s participation in Division I swimming has sparked controversy. Thomas, a transgender woman, began using hormone replacement therapy in May 2019. This means she meets the guidelines to swim in women’s events in NCAA competitions, but still falls six months short of meeting the requirements instated Feb. 1 to compete in USA Swimming competitions. The Ivy League Conference adopts the same policy as the NCAA, and released a statement in support of Thomas’s participation.

Following Thomas’s victory, many took to social media to proclaim second-place finisher Emma Weyant, a University of Virginia swimmer and Olympian, as the “rightful winner” of the 500 yard freestyle, including Florida governor Ron DeSantis who issued an official proclamation declaring this on Tuesday, March 22.

DeSantis cited the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act that he signed into law June 1, 2021, which prevents people assigned male at birth from competing on any athletic teams designated for females.

“Women have fought for decades to have equal opportunities in athletics, and it is wrong to allow ideology to erode these opportunities as is happening in other states, and the preservation of women-specific athletic teams or sports is necessary to promote equality of athletic opportunities; and it is my determination that men should not be competing against women such as Emma Weyant, robbing women and girls of achievements, awards, and scholarships,” DeSantis’s proclamation reads, “Florida rejects the NCAA’s efforts to destroy women’s athletics, disapproves of the NCAA elevating technology over biology, and takes offense at the NCAA trying to make others complicit in a lie.”

At the NCAA championships, protestors with the organization Save Women’s Sport staged protests outside the pool facility, and loud booing was audible after Thomas’s victory.

In Feb., 16 of Thomas’s teammates on the University of Pennsylvania women’s swim and dive team and their families issued an open letter to the university and the Ivy League asking them to follow the guidelines put in place by USA Swimming.

“We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her life authentically,” the letter reads. “However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.”

Following the NCAA championships, Olympian and Georgia Tech University swimmer Reka Gyorgy wrote a letter to the NCAA objecting to Thomas’s participation. Gyorgy expressed further frustration about finishing 17th in the 500 yard freestyle, one spot away from qualifying for finals.

Teammates of Thomas have released statements supporting her, alongside other active swimmers in the NCAA. Notably, this includes Olympians Brooke Forde, a Stanford swimmer, and Erica Sullivan, a University of Texas swimmer, both of whom raced Thomas in the 500 yard freestyle at the NCAA championships. Sullivan wrote an article entitled “Why I’m Proud to Support Trans Athletes like Lia Thomas” for Newsweek and signed an open letter, along with over 300 other active or former NCAA, Team USA and international swimmers, led by former Harvard swimmer and transgender man Schuylar Bailar and the organization Athlete Ally.

Forde wrote in her statement that the social change Thomas is spearheading is worth more than any victories in the pool.

“I have great respect for Lia. Social change is always a slow and difficult process, and we rarely get it correct right away. Being among the first to lead such a social change requires an enormous amount of courage and I admire Lia for her leadership that will undoubtedly benefit many trans athletes in the future,” Forde wrote. “I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.”

The Trevor Project: (866) 488-7386
Trans Lifeline: (877) 565-886