Georgia Tech hosted the 2022 NCAA women’s swimming championship last week. Par for the course, perhaps — I’d never paid much attention to competitive swimming. But this year was different. Lia Thomas, the 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania athlete swam for the women’s team for the first time after having begun hormone replacement treatment (HRT) while still on the men’s team in May 2019. NCAA rules allow male athletes to compete in the women’s division so long as they have a year of HRT under their belts, and with a little over two years on HRT, 2021/2022 was Thomas’ year. He blew the female swimmers he began competing against out of the water, posting the NCAA season-best times in the 200-yard freestyle and the 500-yard freestyle, as well as setting Penn records in those events and winning three individual races. In the 500 free, he beat the second-place finisher by nearly 13 seconds. In just months, a mediocre male swimmer had become a champion “female” athlete, moving from a #462 ranking in men’s swimming to a #1 ranking in the women’s division.
Penn swim parents as well as some athletes protested, sending letters to the NCAA, Penn, and the Ivy League, asking that Thomas be ruled ineligible for women’s competitions, as he had gone through puberty, which gave him enormous advantages over female athletes. Sixteen members of the UPenn women’s swimming team signed an anonymous letter, saying, “when it comes to sports competition… the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.”
The NCAA didn’t respond to parents, but UPenn’s athletic director, Alanna Shanahan, sent an email to the team, saying that the school “fully support[s] all our swimming student-athletes and want[s] to help our community navigate Lia’s success in the pool this winter.” She added, “Penn [a]thletics is committed to being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all student-athletes, coaches and staff, and we hold true to the commitment today and in the future.” If swimmers were upset about Thomas, Shanahan said, the athletes could “utilize robust resources available to them,” for example, the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services department.
But no amount of therapy can make up for the unfairness of having trained for years, only to lose out to a man, equipped with physical strength and attributes unattainable for women. On Thursday, March 17th, media across the US reported that Thomas had made history, becoming the first “transgender NCAA champion in Division I history” to win the women’s 500-yard freestyle. In truth, he did make history, becoming the first man to accomplish such a feat.
He didn’t do this without push back, though.
When given the opportunity to help plan and commit myself to boots-on-the ground activism for women and girls with one of my favorite organizations, Save Women’s Sports, I jumped at the chance, knowing it was going to be big. What I didn’t know was how big it would be… Nor how big Lia Thomas was.
Coincidentally, The Division 1 athlete (Division 1 is the highest level of intercollegiate athletics sanctioned by the NCAA) stayed at the same hotel as the Save Women’s Sports team the week of the finals. Three mornings in a row, we had breakfast in the same small hotel cafeteria area. Three mornings in a row, Thomas was the biggest person — the biggest man — in the room.
Another D1 athlete there to support our efforts alerted us to his presence. I wanted to storm directly over to him and give him a piece of my mind immediately, but Beth Stelzer, founder of Save Women’s Sports, kindly reminded me to remain professional and composed. I wanted to bring our protest against him right out front of our hotel. I wanted to say something to him.
When we first encountered him in person, on Thursday morning, Thomas faced away from us, his massive broad shoulders were impossible not to notice. I felt my blood pressure rise. He was bigger than his coach and every single teammate I saw. This was obvious even as he sat. Then he stood.
Thomas is about 6’4”, with gigantic hands and feet. He has a very large Adam’s apple, easily seen from over a meter away. There is no confusing this man for anything but what he is. His shoulder length hair with lovely bounce cannot disguise his biology. This is not to say 6’4” women with broad shoulders do not exist, but that Thomas’ sex is not a secret or even questionable. His male sex characteristics are identifiable quickly and effortlessly, not only because humans have evolved to recognize sex, but because his sex is not ambiguous at all.
I suspected Thomas would win the 500 yard freestyle race later that afternoon, and he did, beating out Emma Weyant, Olympic silver medalist, by more than a second, which is a lot in the world of swimming.
Much of what is considered to be the liberal mainstream media reported his win in the women’s division with wide smiles, but few cheered him on at the Georgia Tech complex hosting the championships, and the athlete declined to participate in the post-race news conference required by the NCAA. The brave women of Save Women’s Sports and Standing for Women who traveled from the UK and from across the United States to protest in Atlanta and document this scandalous event booed, naming Thomas as a cheat.
For months leading up to the 2022 NCAA women’s swimming championship, Thomas was featured in numerous media reports, heavily photoshopped — his images manipulated in an attempt to trick the public into believing this man was female enough to compete on the women’s team. Even if I believed “female enough” were something obtainable by a man, Thomas is nowhere near it.
We stayed at the hotel from Wednesday through to Sunday. On Friday morning, the day after the NCAA awarded Thomas a first place trophy in the women’s 500 championship, we shared eating quarters with Thomas for the second time. I walked past Thomas and we made eye contact. I couldn’t help myself, and said, firmly, just loud enough for him to hear, “NOT a winner!” He made a noise I’ve only heard from men — distinctly male — a very low, deep guttural groan of disapproval. I have tried to replicate it to others, but cannot — my female voice is simply not capable of making very low male sounds. His presence on a woman’s sports team became instantly more unbelievable, something I didn’t realize was possible.
Thomas insists this is an issue of “respect,” and that the world accept his identity without question. “I’m not a man,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.” But Thomas seems not to have considered that his inclusion is disrespectful to women. He is not being threatened by “transphobic” policies, preventing him from achieving in life. Born William Thomas, he is the poster boy for rich, white, male privilege, having grown up in a wealthy part of Austin, Texas, and marginalized by absolutely nothing.
Thomas doesn’t always win. He tied for fifth place in the 200 on Friday after his first place win in the 500, and placed eighth place in the 100 on Saturday, his last day of competition and final race for the NCAA and UPenn. Thomas appeared to have thrown those races — he didn’t seem to be trying, kicking his legs softly, coasting in comparison to the fierce kicks and swift strokes of the women he competed against. I spoke with many who agreed with my analysis — parents, athletes, and fans who have watched women race in the pool for decades also felt he had avoided winning intentionally.
Save Women’s Sports and their supporters protested inside and outside of the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center for three days with very little resistance or disapproval. Numerous people approached us to thank us for standing up for the women athletes. Parent after parent and athlete after athlete told us they felt unable to speak honestly about the unfairness of a man’s inclusion in the division created for women. One mother of a diver told me that her daughter’s sport is subjective, so if she speaks up, and a judge disagrees with her protests against men competing in women’s sports, that judge can dock her points and ruin her chances to win. This mother told me her family is effectively silenced until her daughter graduates, and that this is true for many families she knows, trying to support their daughters’ athletic careers.
I spoke with Rose Pouch moments before she became the first Division 1 swimmer to voice concern and show her face, telling Savannah Hernandez, host of the Rapid Fire Podcast, “it’s a common conception that we are all very disappointed and frustrated.”
“It’s heartbreaking to see someone who went through puberty as a male and has the body of a male be able to absolutely blow away the competition. Then you go into it with a mindset that you don’t have a chance,” she explained. Twitter suspended the Rapid Fire Podcast’s Twitter account after the interview with Pouch got 1.8 million views.
Pouch and another teammate told me they feared speaking out as they would be labelled “transphobic.” I asked if they believe they are transphobic. Both emphatically stated they are not. I asked why they care about being called something they know they are not. It was after speaking at length with Save Women’s Sports activists that Pouch gave her controversial interview. I’m so proud of Rose.
Outside the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, we were met with handshakes, high fives, hugs, thumbs ups, and snacks. Some people brought their own signs, including one man in a three-piece suit who had, “Wrong locker room, bro!” written on poster board, featuring a photograph of Thomas when he was competing on the men’s swimming team. Some joined us in chanting, “Stand up for women, even when they’re swimming!” We worked tirelessly to encourage people to stop being afraid. An elderly man cried, telling me about his granddaughter — a USA Junior National Team member who trained every day, two hours before school and two hours after school, for 15 years. His family shared a deep sense of devastation for the young women who have or will lose opportunities, accolades, and championships to this giant man that everyone knows is a man but is forced to pretend belongs in a space intended for women. I embraced this stranger, and we wept together at the injustice for women and girls in all sports and for my own little girls who will never know single sex competition unless we stop allowing men access to spaces intended for women and girls.
I left Atlanta with a sense of victory, and the knowledge that we inspired people to overcome their fears of being called transphobic in an effort to save women’s sports. Thomas’ presence on a women’s sports team is not a triumph for “inclusion” or “respect” — it is an embarrassment and a scandal. The more of us who show up and tell the truth, the more will feel emboldened to speak up for women and girls, and the more likely it will be that institutions will be forced to stop the lies and show Thomas and other men in women’s spaces for what they truly are: men.
Jeanna Hoch is a staunch supporter of sex-based rights, resources, and protections for women and girls. She has a long history of fighting against the inclusion of men and boys into spaces intended for women and girls. Find her online at jeannahoch.com.