University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer Lia Thomas says she’s “thrilled” to be competing on the women’s team, but apparently not all of her teammates share her enthusiasm.
Two female Penn swimmers told sports website OutKick in anonymous interviews that team members are frustrated and upset as they watch Thomas smash records in her first season on the women’s team after three years as a men’s freestyle standout.
“They feel so discouraged because no matter how much work they put in it, they’re going to lose,” one swimmer said in the Friday report.
She said having Thomas on the women’s team had cast “such a cloud over everything,” a view sharply at odds with the 22-year-old transgender athlete’s upbeat take on the season in her first interview since taking the women’s collegiate circuit by storm.
“I’m feeling confident and good in my swimming and all my personal relationships,” Thomas said in a Dec. 8 SwimSwam podcast. “Transitioning has allowed me to be more confident in all of those aspects in my life where I was struggling a lot before I came out.”
She said the 2021-22 season had been “incredibly rewarding,” citing strong support from her teammates and Penn swimming and diving coach Mike Schnur.
“The team has been unbelievably supportive since the beginning, teammates and coaches as well,” Thomas said. “Mike has been one of my biggest supporters and allies in this process since day one, and I’m very grateful to have that support from him and everybody on the team. I feel very supported, treated like any other member of the women’s team.”
Behind the scenes, however, two teammates told OutKick that Thomas‘ involvement has stoked friction on the team.
One of them said the administration “strongly advised” athletes at a Dec. 8 team meeting to avoid talking to the media about Thomas.
“Pretty much everyone individually has spoken to our coaches about not liking this,” the swimmer said in the first report posted Dec. 8. “Our coach just really likes winning. He’s like most coaches. I think secretly everyone just knows it’s the wrong thing to do.”
1. This is not normal.
2. This is not right.
3. Even if the entire world insists that you say it’s normal and right, you have a moral obligation to reject this madness. https://t.co/SC4yqBkkUS
— Jesse Kelly (@JesseKellyDC) December 9, 2021
Then again, the coaches may have no choice. Under NCAA rules, a transgender athlete may compete on women’s teams after a year of testosterone-suppression treatment, which Thomas has done.
As a male freestyler, the swimmer formerly known as Will Thomas earned second team All-Ivy League honors in 2018-19. Thomas began transitioning to female as a junior during the 2019-20 academic year, calling it a “very awkward phase.”
“I continued to train and then competed as much as I felt comfortable, but being in the early stages of transition, it was a very awkward experience of basically being a woman competing in a men’s meet,” Thomas said. “It was uncomfortable. And so I didn’t compete that much.”
Thomas took the next year off during the novel coronavirus pandemic, then jumped to the women’s team this year following hormone-replace therapy and testosterone suppression.
“Continuing to swim after transitioning has been an incredibly rewarding experience as I can continue to do the sport I love as my authentic self,” Thomas said.
She now holds Penn’s all-time women’s records in the 200 and 500 freestyle. At the Zippy Invitational held Dec. 6-8 at the University of Akron, she set a program, meet and pool record in the 1,650 freestyle, defeating teammate and second-place finisher Anna Kalandadze by a whopping 38 seconds.
Even so, one of her anonymous teammates told OutKick that there was little applause when Thomas touched first.
“Usually everyone claps, everyone is yelling and cheering when someone wins a race. Lia touched the wall and it was just silent in there,” the female swimmer said. “When Anna finished second, the crowd erupted in applause.”
One of the teammates said there is pressure to show support for Thomas in public despite their reservations.
“When the whole team is together, we have to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, go Lia, that’s great, you’re amazing.’ It’s very fake,” the female swimmer said in the first interview.
While Thomas has won praise from LGBTQ advocates as a transgender pioneer, outrage among critics has escalated as her record-smashing season gains attention.
Kara Dansky, author of “The Abolition of Sex: How the ‘Transgender’ Agenda Harms Women and Girls” (2021) and a University of Pennsylvania law school graduate, said she was “appalled at this situation.”
“[I]t is disturbing that UPenn would do this the year before Title IX turns 50,” she said in an email. “These young women deserve a fair shot at competition, and it is demoralizing for them to have to compete against male athletes. My alma mater should be ashamed of itself.”
SBNation’s Outsports swung back with a Thursday op-ed defending Thomas and blaming the outrage on “anti-trans panic.”
“Enough with calling trans women ‘cheaters’ after every win,” said the op-ed by Karleigh Webb. “Cheating denotes that a rule has been broken. If you are coming at Lia Thomas with the charge that she is a ‘cheat,’ show me a rule she’s broken and quote it directly from the NCAA regulations.”
Nobody has accused Thomas of violating NCAA rules, but her critics have argued that the rules are unfair to female-born athletes. The Washington Times has reached out to the NCAA and Penn Athletics for comment.
Penn’s Lia Thomas Opens Up On Journey, Transition To Women’s Swimming https://t.co/c0fx9HgNr5— SwimSwam (@swimswamnews) December 9, 2021
Thomas said she expected public pushback, although “to the extent it has blown up, we weren’t fully expecting.” She said she ignores it.
“I just don’t engage with it. It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t. That’s all I’ll say on that,” Thomas said.
As for her record-breaking performances, Thomas said “I’m very proud of my times and my ability to keep swimming and continue competing. They’re suited-up times and I’m happy with them, and my coaches are happy with them. That’s what matters to me.”
Indeed, her times in the 200 and 500 freestyle this year lead the NCAA, fueling speculation that she could make a run at the records held by Olympic champions Missy Franklin and Bethesda native Katie Ledecky at the NCAA Division I championships in March.
One of the anonymous female swimmers said the prospect of an Ivy League freestyler challenging those records illustrates the absurdity of the situation.
“The Ivy League is not a fast league for swimming, so that’s why it’s particularly ridiculous that we could potentially have an NCAA champion. That’s unheard-of coming from the Ivy League,” said the second female swimmer quoted by OutKick.
So far, Lia Thomas has not surpassed those times, but Will Thomas did. His best times in the 500 and 1,650 on the men’s swimming team are faster than Ledecky’s NCAA records.
“On paper, if Lia Thomas gets back down to Will Thomas’ best times, those numbers are female world records,” said the second swimmer.
OutKick said the Penn female swimmers requested anonymity based on concerns about retaliation from the university and activists, with one saying she worried about being able to find a job after college if she went public.
The Quakers make their next appearance at the Jan. 8 meet at home against Dartmouth.
As far as one of the Penn female competitors is concerned, the writing is on the wall for women’s sports.
“When I have kids, I kinda hope they’re all boys because if I have any girls that want to play sports in college, good luck. [Their opponents] are all going to be biological men saying that they’re women,” she said. “Right now we have one, but what if we had three on the team? There’d be three less girls competing.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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