Respect Diversity + Inclusion

Lia Thomas becomes first trans woman to secure national Division I title

(John Bazemore/Associated Press)

Story at a glance

  • Lia Thomas on Thursday became the first trans woman to win a national championship in Division I athletics.
  • Thomas swam a personal best of 4:33.24, winning the 500-yard freestyle event by more than one second.
  • Thomas has found herself caught in the middle of a contentious debate over whether trans women and girls should be allowed to compete on sports teams which align with their gender identity.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas on Thursday became the first openly transgender woman to win national championship in Division I athletics, finishing the 500-yard freestyle finals with a personal best of 4:33.24.

Thomas, a senior on the university’s women’s team, finished more than a full second ahead of the second place finisher, Olympic silver medalist Emma Weyant of the University of Virginia.

Outside the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta, demonstrators representing the group Save Women’s Sports gathered to protest Thomas and the NCAA. They repeatedly misgendered Thomas and launched hateful comments toward the 21-year-old swimmer, with one woman telling a reporter: “I know a man when I see one.”

Thomas has complied with the NCAA’s transgender athlete policy, which requires trans female athletes to complete one year of testosterone suppression treatment. 

The sport’s national governing body, USA Swimming, last month updated its eligibility criteria for transgender athletes in elite competition, requiring trans women to prove that the concentration of testosterone in their blood has been less than 5 nanomoles per liter continuously for at least 36 months, the most stringent of any sports governing body.


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The NCAA in January said it would adopt a sport-by-sport approach where transgender athlete participation would be determined by each sport’s national or international governing body, but the new USA Swimming policy does not automatically apply to NCAA events, which are not included on its list of elite competitions.

Earlier this month, the athletic association announced that it was choosing not to adopt the USA Swimming policy at this time.

Since first making headlines in December, Thomas has been caught in the middle of a national debate over whether transgender women and girls should be allowed to compete on sports teams that align with their gender identity.

The issue has ignited voters mostly on the right, which conservative politicians like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and former President Donald Trump have used to their advantage in their bids for reelection.

Currently, 11 states have laws in place barring transgender girls from competing on school sports teams that match their gender identity. Dozens of similar bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country.

Earlier on Thursday, the conservative evangelical Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) announced that it had filed a civil rights complaint against the University of Pennsylvania for allowing Thomas to swim against cisgender women, arguing that the other swimmers have lost “opportunities afforded to them by law.”

The group in its complaint alleges that UPenn violated Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding, by letting Thomas swim on its women’s team, putting other female swimmers at a disadvantage because of their sex.

The complaint also deadnames Thomas and repeatedly refers to her as a male.

But others have expressed support for Thomas, saying the swimmer has the right to compete on the sports team that matches her gender identity.

“I have great respect for Lia,” Stanford fifth-year swimmer Brooke Forde, who competed against Thomas on Thursday, said in a statement in January. “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.”

“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,” Forde, an NCAA champion in 2019 and a 2020 Olympian, added.

Thomas rarely speaks publicly, but earlier this month gave a rare interview to Sports Illustrated, telling the magazine: “I’m a woman, just like anybody else on the team.”

“I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer,” she said. “It’s what I’ve done for so long; it’s what I love.”


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