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Lia Thomas becomes first transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming championship

Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the first known transgender athlete to capture an NCAA title Thursday in the woman's 500 yards. (John Bazemore/AP)
4 min

An earlier version of this story referred to the race distances at the NCAA championships in meters. The race distances are in yards. The story has been updated.

ATLANTA — In the seconds after becoming the first known transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I championship, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas lingered alone in Lane 4 of Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center on Thursday night. There was no one to hug, no big smiles to flash. As some of those who finished behind her chatted while bobbing in the water, Thomas quietly pulled herself from the water and stepped onto the pool deck.

Her victory in the 500-yard women’s freestyle final did not receive special recognition. No booming proclamations were made. When her name was announced as the race’s winner, the small swim arena was filled with quiet, polite applause. Though her presence throughout a fifth-year senior season during which she competed as a woman for the first time has drawn considerable attention — along with several protesters outside the swim arena’s entrance — her NCAA title was treated as routine.

Sally Jenkins: Lia Thomas's swimming is getting swamped in other's fears

Her winning time of 4 minutes 33.24 seconds was equally unremarkable — and well behind Katie Ledecky’s 2017 NCAA record of 4:24.06.

“I try to ignore everything as much as I can,” Thomas told an ESPN interviewer poolside right after the race. “I just try to focus on my swimming and do what I need to do to get ready for my race and just try to block out everything else.”

Then she ducked into a holding area behind the winner’s stand set up near the arena’s far wall, a few steps from the diving pool. A few minutes later, she appeared with the other seven competitors from Thursday’s final, carefully climbing to the highest step, reserved for the winner, where she stood quietly with a team jacket draped over her shoulders, holding an NCAA championship trophy.

Thomas smiled nervously and flashed a peace sign. Most of the other swimmers on the podium clapped silently when her name was announced, but otherwise there was no other interaction. The three women who finished behind her posed for a group photo. Thomas stood by herself and said nothing.

Sixteen Penn swimmers say trans teammate Lia Thomas should not be allowed to compete

Later, a Georgia Tech spokesperson said Thomas, who has declined most interview requests this season, would not attend the winner’s news conference. The spokesman said that while the news conference is required of all race winners, the NCAA will not review her refusal until after the championships.

Thursday’s event was the first of three in which Thomas will compete at these championships. She is the top seed for Friday’s 200-yard freestyle and the 10th seed for Saturday’s 100-yard freestyle.

Though the atmosphere inside the arena was generally polite, tension lingered outside as several members of a group called Save Women’s Sports stood along the walkway into the building, holding signs and occasionally chanting “Save women’s sports.”

From Opinion: Don't forget the other women in the pool

During a rally held not long after Thomas breezed through her morning heat to reach the night’s final, several of the group’s members stood behind a microphone stand attacking Thomas’s presence at the race, complaining that she should not be competing despite meeting the NCAA’s medical requirements for a transgender person to race against women.

“If we don’t stop this and put an end to this, we will no longer have girls’ and women’s sports,” said former Cal State Fullerton women’s basketball coach Barbara Ehardt, now an Idaho state representative. “You may not have co-ed very much longer.”

A group of students from two Georgia Tech student LGBTQ organizations stood across a small road from the Save Women’s Sports protesters, occasionally shouting support for Thomas. Campus police officers tried to keep the two groups apart, though some members did have heated discussions and a few students who appeared headed into the recreation center held up middle fingers toward the Save Women’s Sports protesters.

“As of now, everyone is in this competition, and I think that maybe like any hate is unnecessary. We are all competitors now, and we are focused on ourselves and our team,” Virginia swimmer Lexi Cuomo said when asked about the protests. (Cuomo did not swim the women’s 500.)

Thomas gave no outward indication that she knew what was happening outside the swim facility as she readied for Thursday’s final, striding to the starting block and barely acknowledging the near-capacity crowd when her name was announced.

Though she got off to a good start, she was in second for much of the race, trailing Texas’s Erica Sullivan. It wasn’t until the 13th lap when she finally pulled ahead, slowly opening a lead. She finished more than a second ahead of Virginia’s Emma Weyant. Sullivan finished third.

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