Transgender athlete’s skill is reduced to debate fodder

On March 17, 2022, Lia Thomas, a senior at Penn State University, made history by becoming the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I championship after winning the women’s 500-yard freestyle. The aftermath of Thomas’s groundbreaking victory, however, lacked focus on Thomas herself but rather shifted into a political talking point attempting to belittle both the victory and the athlete. 

In her junior year, Thomas came out as transgender and began transitioning using hormone replacement therapy. She followed every guideline set by the NCAA to be eligible to compete in the women’s field, which became official in 2021.

Much of the conversation circulating Thomas is centered on the question of fairness, and if her bigger frame puts her ahead of the other women in the sport. However, when studying how Thomas compares to the rest of the female swimmers, there’s little evidence to suggest her physical stature provides a competitive advantage. 

Yes, Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle, and much of the media coverage will surround that, but I’ve yet to see equal attention given to the fact that she finished last in the 100-yard freestyle. Though news outlets have made it seem as if Thomas is breaking records left and right, her personal bests have suffered between 30 and 70 second losses in each category. Pre-transition, Thomas was sitting around 10 seconds off of the male records, post-transition, she now sits around 10 seconds off of the female records.

“When I saw the news coverage of [Thomas], I was not surprised to see the transphobia that was displayed,” said Rachel Sawyer-Walker, Associate Director of the office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance at Ramapo College. “I found that there only seemed to be a lot of care about women’s sports when a Trans woman wins. It’s honestly disappointing to see that folks ‘advocacy’ is by tearing down Trans women athletes. Some news outlets took Lia’s win as a way to create clickbait and in turn, further the oppression of Trans women.”

Perhaps the most glaring example of Trans oppression in this storyline came on March 22, when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made a proclamation stripping Thomas of her win and declared second place finisher Emma Weyant the “rightful winner.” DeSantis does not have the power to override NCAA titles, so Tuesday’s proclamation was merely symbolic. 

“As someone who is both Trans and does advocacy for the Trans community, it breaks my heart to see another human being be dehumanized as intensely as she is,” said Kian Concert, the student Trans Outreach Coordinator at The Women’s Center and LGBTQ+ Services at Ramapo. “I think the public needs to fully understand why is this assigned male at birth person is allowed to compete with assigned female at birth people. I think we need a lot more education on the topic.”

Someone in opposition of Thomas’ title is Vivian Lucille, a former NCAA tennis player. “As one of the first generations of girls to benefit from Title IX, to see how far we have come and how far we still need to go, it feels like the recent changes to female sports could set women back 40 years,” said Lucille in an interview. “I think about these girls and women today who work so hard to compete for scholarships and accolades, I truly fear this could be the beginning of the end of women’s sports.”

Other NCAA athletes, who have widely been split in support of Thomas, have different perspectives. Some of her teammates have spoken out against her, and others are supporting her through the situation. 

“Thomas is a woman, so she belongs on the women’s team. She deserves the same respect that every other athlete gets,” said Tori Waschek, a junior and a member of the Ramapo field hockey team. “I have the perspective that if one of my own teammates was transgender, I would want them to be able to continue playing the sport they love and I would support them.”

So what’s next for Trans athletes and Thomas? Thomas has stated her intent to compete in the 2024 Olympics for the USWNT. However this was her last year swimming for the NCAA. No matter what happens in the future, Lia Thomas is a ground-breaker in both the sports and LGBTQ+ communities. 

“I understand the primary concern,” Concert said. “I think we need to approach these situations with understanding and ask questions from a genuine loving place, a curious place, and not like ‘you need to go to hell.’ We need to not attack her when you could ask ‘why am I uncomfortable’ and ‘what can be done about it.’”

Photo courtesy of Jim De Ramos, Pexels.