Boston — Lia Thomas, a transgender female competing on the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s swimming and diving team, prevailed in the 500-yard freestyle finals at the Ivy League Championships on Thursday, the first of several individual events that Thomas will be competing in over the course of the coming weekend.
Thomas posted an unofficial time of 4 minutes and 37.32 seconds, 7.5 seconds faster than the second-place finisher, Thomas’s teammate Catherine Buroker.
Earlier that day, Thomas finished first in the preliminary race for the same event, earning the first seed going into the finals by a nearly five-and-a-half-second margin in Thomas’s heat. In that race, the swimmer started close to the rest of the competition before easily pulling away as it went on. By the end of the preliminary race, Thomas was more than halfway through the length of the pool before the closest competitor had made her final turn.
On Wednesday, Penn placed third in the 800-yard freestyle relay, largely on the strength of Thomas’s leadoff performance, which gave the team an early lead. Iszac Henig, a Yale swimmer transitioning from female to male, finished just behind Thomas. Thomas and Henig posted the two fastest split times in the relay, and Yale finished second in the race, behind Harvard.
Henig finished first in the 50-yard freestyle championship.
Thomas’s competing has been the source of much controversy. Earlier this season, the swimmer bested the second-place finisher in a 1,650-yard freestyle race by nearly 38 seconds and broke a number of records in various freestyle events.
Thomas sat out the required year after beginning testosterone-suppression treatments — which happened to coincide with the Covid-19 pandemic — before competing as a female, but U.S. Swimming has recently updated its guidelines to require that transgender competitors suppress their testosterone for three years. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) will not enforce the rule until this season is over.
Current NCAA guidelines read: “Many people may have a stereotype that all transgender women are unusually tall and have large bones and muscles. But that is not true. . . . The assumption that all male-bodied people are taller, stronger, and more highly skilled in a sport than all female-bodied people is not accurate.”
Critics of testosterone-based guidelines point out that they do not take into account bone density, accumulated muscle mass, or other considerations.
Anonymously, competitors and even teammates of Thomas’s have expressed frustration with the situation. One competitor told the Daily Mail that competing against Thomas was “intimidating” and said she “knew there was no way I would physically be able to beat her in the race or even catch up to her.”
Meanwhile, 16 of Thomas’s teammates signed a letter asking the Ivy League and NCAA to honor U.S. Swimming’s new guidelines, writing that while they were supportive of Thomas’s decision to transition, “biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over the competition in the women’s category, as evidenced by her rankings that have bounced from #462 as a male to #1 as a female.”