Transgender swimmer Lia Thomas shrugged off protesters as she powered to a historic victory in the 500-meter freestyle at the NCAA championships in Atlanta on Thursday, in the latest milestone of her controversial career.
The University of Pennsylvania swimmer became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA top-tier title after touching the wall in 4 minutes, 33.24 seconds, more than 1½ seconds ahead of Virginia’s Emma Weyant, who finished in 4:34.99. Erica Sullivan, a silver medalist in the 1,500 at the Tokyo Olympics last year, was third in 4:35.92.
Thomas has dominated the college ranks recently at Penn, where just a few years ago she competed as a man.
Her case has divided opinion, with some — including several teammates — arguing she has an unfair physiological advantage and should be barred from competing, while others say she should be allowed to compete freely as a woman.
Before Thursday’s meet, a small number of protesters gathered outside the venue to demonstrate against Thomas’ participation, waving banners that read “Support Fair Sports for Women and Girls” and “Stand Up 4 Women.”
Speaking after her victory on Thursday, Thomas said she had attempted to mute the controversy surrounding her rise to dominance in college swimming this season.
“I try to ignore it as much as I can, I try to focus on my swimming, what I need to do to get ready for my races and try to block out everything else,” Thomas said after the race at the McAuley Aquatic Center.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations for this meet. I was just happy to be here, trying to race and compete as best as I could.
“It means the world to be here, to be with two of my best friends and teammates and to be able to compete.”
Thomas received a ripple of subdued applause after she was announced as the winner, a pointed contrast to the loud cheering that greeted other leading finishers in the race.
She is also a strong contender in Friday’s 200 freestyle, where she has No. 1 seed with a time of 1:41.93. She is seeded 10th in the 100 free at 47.63.
USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body in the United States, unveiled new guidelines last month that include a more stringent threshold for testosterone.
Although not mentioning Thomas by name, the rules were widely seen as an attempt to make it harder for her to compete at this week’s championships.
The NCAA, however, subsequently announced that the new rules would not be applied to the championships, saying to do so would have “unfair and potentially detrimental impacts” on athletes preparing for the meet.
Thomas has divided opinion amongst teammates and competitors.
Sixteen swimmers from the Penn team, which has over 40 members, signed a letter arguing she had obtained an “unfair advantage.”
However, more than 300 current and former swimmers signed an open letter calling for Thomas to be allowed to compete.
Among the signatories was Olympic medalist Sullivan, who finished third behind Thomas on Thursday.
Sullivan has been a staunch supporter of Thomas, comparing it with her own decision to come out as gay.
“I was fortunate enough to be welcomed with open arms in the swim community when I came out as gay,” Sullivan said in a statement.
“Just with my own personal good experience of coming out and feeling all that love and support within my swim community, I feel like Lia deserves the same thing.”
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