University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas becomes the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I title, finishing first in the women’s 500-yard freestyle event Thursday evening.
Thomas, a fifth-year senior, qualified first in prelims of the women’s 500-yard freestyle Thursday morning with a time of 4:33.82. Her time was about three seconds faster than the next closest competitor, Texas freshman and Olympic silver medalist
Erica Sullivan, and represents the fastest time of this NCAA season.
The A final in the 500-yard freestyle are set for 6 p.m. ET.
Thomas also is favored to win the 200-yard freestyle
on Friday and is set to compete in the 100-yard freestyle
With a win, Thomas would be the first transgender athlete to win a D-I title in any sport. CeCé Telfer was the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA title of any kind when she won the 2019 Division II championship in the women’s 400-meter hurdles
Thomas, who previously swam for the men’s team at Penn, has come to personify the ongoing debate
on trans women’s participation in sports and the balance between inclusion and fair play.
She first launched into the public eye with a stunning performance at the Zippy Invitational in Ohio in December
, when she set NCAA season best times in the 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle races. At the Ivy League women’s championships last month, she won the 100-yard, 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle races
With success has come criticism about whether trans women should be allowed to compete
in women’s sports. Her face has been prominently displayed on Fox News and right-wing news sites critical of society’s changing views on sex and gender.
Some of her Penn teammates also have taken issue with her participation. Last month, an anonymous letter written on behalf of 16 of her 40 Penn teammates criticized what they saw as her “unfair advantage,” saying they supported her gender transition out of the pool but not necessarily in it.
In response, more than 300 current and former swimmers, collegiate and elite, signed their names to an open letter defending Thomas’ ability to compete
. One of those signees was Sullivan
, her closest competitor in the 500 free prelim Thursday.
“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.”
What Thomas has said
Thomas previously told the SwimSwam podcast
she realized she was trans the summer of 2018, but kept it secret, wary that coming out would take away her ability to swim.
“I was struggling, my mental health was not very good. It was a lot of unease, about basically just feeling trapped in my body. It didn’t align,” she said.
The NCAA currently requires trans women athletes to have one year of hormone replacement therapy
(HRT) to be cleared to participate in women’s sports. Thomas said she started HRT in May 2019 and came out as trans that fall, and the NCAA has approved her participation in the women’s field.
Through an Ivy spokesperson, she declined to speak to CNN during the Ivy championships. She spoke to Sports Illustrated earlier this month to defend
her ability to compete.
“The very simple answer is that I’m not a man,” she said. “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”
The NCAA has since adopted a set of stricter guidelines that require elite trans woman athletes to have three years of HRT and to prove to a panel of medical experts that they do not have a competitive advantage over cisgender women. Those rules will be instituted in phases over the coming seasons