Outrage over Lia Thomas’s NCAA Championship win is unjustified

Maddie Hayden, Guest Writer

Illustration by Micky Flores-Nieves

In March 2022, Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer, placed first in the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving National Championship, finishing with a time of 4:33.24. Her win sparked huge outrage, in and out of the swim community, with people calling for the removal of trans athletes from women’s sports.

As someone in the swim community, I heard opinions from both sides, and decided to do research for myself to see if she had an unfair advantage in her races.Thomas’ stats show that her biological sex is not what caused her to win her race. in fact, if she would have competed in 2017 against Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky, she would have placed 12th.

In 2017, Katie Ledecky, the record holder in this event, finished her 500-yard freestyle with a time of 4:24.06, almost 10 seconds faster than Thomas. In fact, Thomas wouldn’t have just lost in 2017, she would have only placed first in one out of the last 10 seasons. And, according to USA Swimming, she finished as the 15th fastest 500 swimmer in the meet’s history.

Not only did she underswim swimmers from past years, she also didn’t outswim a number of competitors at the championship meet. During the championship meet, 27 records were broken, and Lia Thomas didn’t break any of them. In addition to not breaking any records, she also didn’t place first in her other events, finishing fifth in her 200-yard freestyle and eighth in her 100-yard freestyle.

I think it is important to note that the swimmer who finished second to Thomas only finished 1.75 seconds after her. In a distance event, this is not a huge amount of time. It is important to see that Thomas did not absolutely destroy her competition, as it was a fairly close race.

After she came out as transgender in 2018, Thomas underwent hormone therapy which resulted in decreased muscle mass and height. She was required to swim on the men’s team at University of Pennsylvania during the 2019-2020 season and took the 2020-2021 season off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some argue her overall rankings while competing on the men’s team show that she had an unfair advantage. While on the men’s team, she had ranked 554th in the men’s 200-yard freestyle, 65th in the 500-yard freestyle, and 32nd in the 1650-yard freestyle.

These appear to be vastly different rankings compared to her ranks at the 2022 championship. However, I think that these comparisons are not fair. For one, her rankings while swimming on the men’s team were during her sophomore year of college, while the 2022 meet was during her senior year.

There’s no way to tell how much technique and mindset improvement occurred over those two years, not to mention two more years of training under her belt. Those who have been competitive swimmers understand how much of a mental game it is. Comparisons are difficult because they are being made over two completely different points in time.

Another point to show this is that her body composition changes could have reduced her capacity in long distance events, while increasing her capacity for sprint events. While competing on the men’s team, she was ranked highest in the 1650-yard freestyle, which she did not even swim at the NCAA championship this year, most likely because she did not qualify for it or because she was not ranked very high in it.

In addition, during the 2021-2022 season, she managed an all-time career best in her 50-yard freestyle, finishing at a 22.78. During that same season, her 100-yard freestyle time was only 0.19 seconds slower than her personal record while swimming for the men’s team. On the other hand, her 1650-yard freestyle time was 1 minute and 5 seconds slower than her personal record while on the men’s team, a 1% increase versus a 7% increase.

No one can say that Thomas would not have placed first in an event during her senior year if she hadn’t transitioned, and that’s why this comparison is not fair.

In many instances, athletes will hit their stride at different points in their careers. Thomas could have simply hit her stride during her senior season, just like I did when I was in high school. Also, her times while competing on the women’s team are on par with other female athletes.

Overall, I think it’s safe to say that the outrage over her win is hugely unjustified.