CW: this article includes mentions of transphobia
It’s rare that swimming as a sport is a general topic of conversation outside of Olympic years, but because Lia Thomas’s first place win in the 500-yard freestyle at NCAA DI Swimming and Diving Championships has become a widespread topic of conversation, it’s time for me to get on my soapbox and talk about swimming. As someone who’s been a competitive swimmer for eighteen years, I’ve followed the sport closely for a long time. I hope to contribute to the conversation about supporting trans athletes by breaking down the womens’ 500 freestyle in order to contextualize Thomas’s NCAA win (and to show how particularly insidious the transphobia aimed at her has been). I draw on my own experiences as a swimmer and watcher of NCAAs, and all opinions in this article are my own.
Here’s a quick recap of what put swimming in the news. At NCAA DI Womens’ Swimming and Diving Championships, 5th year Thomas (UPenn) won the 500-yard freestyle, becoming the first transgender woman to win an NCAA title. She won the event in 4:33.24, a personal best. Olympians Emma Weyant (UVA) and Erica Sullivan (Texas) came in second and third places with a 4:34.99 and 4:35.92, respectively. Thomas has been plagued by the attention of conservative media for the past few months. So much attention was brought to her, in fact, that both USA Swimming (the national governing body of swimming) and the NCAA wavered on their hormone replacement therapy requirements for assigned-male-at-birth female athletes, which for some time cast doubt on whether or not Thomas would be considered eligible for NCAA Championships.
I have a soft spot for distance events and swimmers; the 500-yard freestyle and its long-course meters counterpart, the 400-meter freestyle, have been two of my best events throughout my swimming career. So I’m actually really excited to talk about the history of this particular event at the NCAA DI level. Let’s start from the beginning. The 500-yard freestyle is a mid-distance event, and the best 500 freestylers tend to have a solid combination of sprint and distance skills. It requires a very high aerobic capacity, and, in my personal opinion, it’s one of the more painful events in swimming.
It would be impossible to talk about this event without discussing the NCAA record holder (4:24.06) in the 500 freestyle: Katie Ledecky, representing Stanford at the time. Considered one of the best swimmers of all time alongside the likes of Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, and Janet Evans, Ledecky is indisputably the best female distance swimmer in history. She is known for her galloping stroke and for winning races by astonishingly large margins. At the 2016 Olympics, she became the first swimmer since Debbie Meyer in 1968 to win gold in the 200-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle, 800-meter freestyle, and 1500-meter freestyle. Many of her world, American, and NCAA records are likely to remain unbroken for a very long time. It is almost impossible to understate the level of absolute dominance Ledecky, a cis woman, has displayed in mid-long distance freestyle events and the subsequent effect her presence has had in the sport of swimming.
An important note: Ledecky gave up her NCAA eligibility in 2018 and graduated in 2020; but if she were still competing at this championship, the 500 freestyle would be a race for second place even with Lia Thomas in it. Despite her absence, however, the A-final for the 500-yard freestyle at the 2022 NCAA Championships was still a star-studded field. Three of the competitors were silver medalists at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics: Emma Weyant (400-meter individual medley), Brooke Forde (4×200 meter freestyle relay), and Erica Sullivan (1500-meter freestyle).
The race itself was really fun to watch. Sullivan flipped ahead of Thomas at the first 50 and stayed with her for the first half of the race. The entire eight-person field stayed pretty even until the 300-yard mark, at which point Thomas made a pretty significant move. I was particularly impressed by the steady pace that Thomas held throughout the race, the well-executed back half strategy that led Weyant to pull away from Sullivan for a second place finish, and the overall closeness of the event. Thomas won the event in a 4:33.24, which was not only a personal best, but also a UPenn Women’s Swimming record. It was an incredible swim by an outstanding swimmer.
Still, there are a couple really key takeaways from this race that need to be acknowledged. First, Thomas’s 4:33.24 is 9.18 seconds slower than Ledecky’s record of 4:24.06. This is a significant margin in any swimming event, especially at this high level of competition. Second, Brooke Forde, the fourth place finisher with a 4:36.18, has a personal best time of 4:31.34, which would have out-touched Thomas’ 4:33 by a solid two seconds. Third, that night at NCAAs was one packed with fast swims. Among them, the 500 freestyle was the only event that was not won by an NCAA record-breaking swim. Olympians Kate Douglass and Alex Walsh broke the NCAA and American records in the 50-yard freestyle and 200-yard individual medley, respectively.
These are important acknowledgements because the most common accusation levied against Thomas is that she is too fast and too dominant in the events she competes in. As I hope is obvious from my little 500-free breakdown, this is a patently false accusation. In a sport that boasts the likes of Katie Ledecky setting almost unbreakable records and in a competitive field of cis women who have Olympic medals and very fast best times under their belts, Thomas’s performance sits squarely within the norm of elite womens’ swimming. If it would be fair for Emma Weyant, Erica Sullivan, and Brooke Forde to take second, third, and fourth to Ledecky by well over ten seconds, then it ought to be fair for them to take second, third, and fourth to Thomas by two-four seconds.
Discomfort with trans women is more often than not based in damaging stereotypes about what constitutes femininity — many elite swimmers do not fit this mold even if they are cis women. Neither Thomas’s height nor the span of her arms are particularly out of the norm for female swimmers at the NCAA DI level. And it must be noted that though her 6’2 frame definitely helps her swim faster, I know plenty of 6’2 cis male swimmers who couldn’t swim a 4:33.24. Sports, and swimming in particular, are tricky like that. They are arenas where biological advantages and unfairness are par for the course, and yet sometimes those advantages don’t transfer to record breaking performances. Saying simply that Lia Thomas is too tall, too strong, too big, or too “manly” to compete in the womens’ category is transphobia cloaked in misguided concern for women in sports. I don’t want it anywhere near my sport.
To conclude, I hope this article can help dispel some of the more damaging rumors or straw man arguments used to criticize Lia Thomas’s performances at NCAA Championships. She is undoubtedly an incredible swimmer and her win, her inclusion in sports, and more importantly, her dignity, deserve to be respected and upheld.
If you’re looking for more information on trans athletes and how to support trans and nonbinary children in sports, I would recommend checking out Schuyler Bailar, a former Harvard swimmer and trans man who posts information and educational content primarily on Instagram (@pinkmantaray).