The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lia Thomas broke no records at the NCAA championships but left plenty of questions

Lia Thomas's college career ended with this weekend's NCAA championships in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)
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ATLANTA — Lost in the debate about testosterone levels, gender identity and what constitutes a level playing field was the fact that Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas, who became the first known transgender swimmer to win a Division I championship this weekend, is not a wedge issue or a talking point but a person.

She stood awkwardly and alone on the winner’s platform in Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center on Thursday after she took the 500-yard freestyle final at the NCAA women’s swimming championships — more a spectacle than a champion. Few cheered when her name was announced; fewer booed. Everyone appeared to understand that college sports were changing before their eyes, but it seemed no one knew what to make of it — so they did nothing.

Several yards away in the arena’s front row, 10 feet above the pool deck, Thomas’s friend and adviser Schuyler Bailar, who a little over half a decade earlier had become the first openly transgender swimmer to compete for a Division I men’s team, seemed saddened by it all.

“I don’t think it’s hard to imagine what would it be like if you were supposed to be being celebrated but you won’t be,” Bailar said later. “I think that’s pretty easy to imagine. I would imagine that it’s lonely.”

Thomas dominated the Ivy League in her only season competing on the Penn women’s team, winning conference titles in the 500, 200 and 100 freestyle. Her success helped push the NCAA to rewrite its eligibility policy for transgender athletes, leaving those decisions to each sport’s governing body, but the NCAA did not accept USA Swimming’s policy requiring transgender athletes to undergo three years of hormone replacement therapy — a half-year more than Thomas has undergone.

ESPN brought multiple camera crews to Atlanta. Seats were set on press row not only for the New York Times and USA Today but for the Daily Wire, ABC News, Fox News and NewsNation. Protests over Thomas’s inclusion in the meet raged just outside the arena’s entrance. And while Thomas never spoke to the media, declining to attend the news conference required of all winners, her name seemed to linger everywhere, even as she finished fifth and eighth in her other races.

Predictions that she would break national records and destroy the rest of the field, in the final weekend of her college career after she swam three years for the Penn men, never came true. Even her time in Thursday’s 500 victory was nine seconds behind Katie Ledecky’s 2017 record.

“Lia is such a kind person,” Bailar said. “I have spent time with her, and she is so kind. She’s just compassionate. She is shy. She is an all-around very nice human, and I think people miss that. I know people miss that. They are painting her as some nefarious human that is trying to destroy women’s sport. She is just a woman who is trying her best in a sport that she loves. And she is a real person. I hate having to say that, but it’s true, and people have to treat her as such.”

In the spotlight

About 6½ hours before Thomas won her national title, Beth Stelzer flipped a switch on a speaker she had set up near the swim center’s entrance. “We’re live!” she shouted.

As the founder of a group, Save Women’s Sports, that opposes transgender athletes taking part in women’s competitions, she says “we’re live” a lot — a call to action when she and the nearly two dozen others who had come with her spotted a TV news live shot to stand behind or a group of parents to corral — or, in this case, a rally to stop what she called “the erasure of women.”

One of the first speakers, Barbara Ehardt, a former women’s basketball coach at Cal State Fullerton and now an Idaho state representative, said if Thomas had been a freshman instead of a senior, other Ivy League coaches would have had to recruit transgender swimmers to counter her perceived advantage.

“I promise you it’s going to change the face of women’s sports — and it must be stopped now,” she said.

Kellie-Jay Keen, a feminist activist from the United Kingdom, repeatedly referred to Thomas as a man, calling her by the first name she used when she swam for the Penn men. Later, Robert Fausett, a taekwondo coach who has worked with the USA Taekwondo coaching staff, said, “Men are bigger faster, stronger and have more explosive power,” adding, “It is not transphobic to defend reality.”

Several college students heckled Stelzer’s group. Counterprotesters who stood across from Stelzer’s rally said the demonstration made them feel “unsafe.” Campus police lingered nearby, occasionally breaking up arguments after Save Women’s Sports members surrounded a handful of counterprotesters.

“Save women’s sports!” several in Stelzer’s group chanted at the counterprotesters.

“Say it loud, say it clear: Trans athletes are welcome here!” the counterprotesters shouted in response.

And yet as fast as the rhetoric surfaced, it slowed — at least a bit. On Friday, just hours after Thomas won the 500, she was fifth in the 200 freestyle. The notion that she was going to destroy women’s swimming disappeared.

Early the following afternoon, Bailar sat in the back of a cafe in the swim arena, trying to respond to what he called “propaganda” about Thomas. Yes, Thomas is over 6 feet tall and has broad shoulders, but these things aren’t necessarily the advantage they were when Thomas swam for the men’s team.

But it was something Bailar said the day before that might linger as sports organizations grapple with legislation for transgender athletes.

“If you try to police Lia’s body or any other trans woman’s body, then you have to police all women’s bodies,” he said.

To exclude transgender women, sports officials will have to know which athletes are trans and which are not. Organizations will have to come up with a way to test all female athletes.

“What this is doing is creating this box of what a woman can look like, what a woman can perform like [and] what a woman can sound like,” he said. “And at what point is a woman [who is] too good going to be accused of being transgender and thrown out? At what point is a girl too fast, too tall, her bones too big, her shoulders too wide, her hair too short, her appearance too masculine? At what point are they going to be accused of being transgender?”

At the end

By the time Thomas walked onto the pool deck for the 100-yard freestyle Saturday night, the mood had shifted somewhat. It was her final college race, and it seemed a little less lonely around her. The day before, Newsweek published an essay by Texas swimmer Erica Sullivan, who had finished third in the 500, that said Thomas “has been unfairly targeted for … being who she is.”

“As a woman in sports, I can tell you that I know what the real threats to women’s sports are: sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay and resources and a lack of women in leadership. Transgender girls and women are nowhere on this list,” Sullivan wrote.

Just minutes before Saturday’s final, Wisconsin swimmer Paige McKenna, the winner of the 1,650-yard freestyle, praised Thomas at her postrace news conference.

“I definitely feel for her,” she said. “It was tough coming in here in the situation that she was in. I think with this whole experience we need to treat people with more respect. I respect her so much. Coming in here was really hard, and I think she handled it really well.”

Outside, police had erected steel barriers to keep the Save Women’s Sports protesters from the spectators entering the arena. The protesters had brought bullhorns and shouted at the swimmers’ parents; while a few stopped to talk or take leaflets, most walked by without looking.

Thomas was joined in the 100 by Yale’s Iszac Henig, a transgender male who still swims on the women’s team, making the race the first in college sports to have two known transgender participants. Henig finished fifth in the eight-person race; Thomas was last. Afterward, they posed for pictures and hugged.

For the first time all weekend, Thomas didn’t seem alone on the pool deck.

The mood seemed different as the parents and swimmers headed into the night. Thomas’s mother, Carrie, chased down Henig to introduce herself. Still, a small group of parents debated whether Thomas intentionally lost the last two races, a theory that had been floating around the stands since she finished second in the 200 preliminaries.

A few feet down the hall, a handful of Save Women’s Sports protesters had surrounded a transgender woman with children at home who was covering the event, shouting that she was “not a mother” and ordering her to stay out of “women’s spaces.”

Outside, night was overtaking evening, the sun’s last rays lighting the nearby towers of midtown Atlanta a blazing gold. After the confrontation with the transgender journalist, Save Women’s Sports demonstrators did not return to their spot in front of the arena.

In their place along the steel barriers stood a group of six Georgia Tech students, several of whom were from the school’s Pride Alliance. They stood behind gay and transgender pride flags and held homemade signs that read “We support trans/queer athletes” and “Trans women belong in women’s sports.”

The students said nothing as people walked past. They stood behind the barriers, clutching their signs and occasionally smiling if someone made eye contact. In the distance, birds chirped an early good night, and a soft breeze whispered through the trees. Otherwise, there was silence.