Suzy Weiss contemplates the Transgender swimmer who is breaking all the Woman’s Swimming Records.
Watching Lia Thomas swim is more relaxing than watching the other swimmers on the women’s team. Thomas glides easier—her competitors in the Harvard pool have to kick much more frequently than she does but get less far—and her shoulders almost swallow the straps of the one-piece running down the center of her back as her body torques. She’s better at swimming. She’s built for it.
Thomas, 22-years-old and a fifth-year senior, is the star swimmer on the Penn women’s team—and a transgender athlete who swam for her first three years on the men’s. The tallest swimmer on her team by at least a head, she has to crouch a little to get in the Quakers’ huddle.
Thomas started making headlines in early December, when, at the Zippy Invitational in Akron, she set two national records in the 500- and 200-yard freestyle events. She beat her closest competitor, another Penn swimmer, in the 1,650-yard freestyle by 38 seconds. Since then, she has continued to smash records.
Lia Thomas isn’t just a swimmer. She’s become a totem in the culture wars, making abstract debates—about the tradeoffs between inclusion and fairness, about the tension between identity versus biology, and about the complications of treating sex as a mental fact and not a chromosomal one—real and radioactive. Her presence—and dominance—in the water has been confounding observers and many of the parents gathered at the Harvard pool to watch the Ivies. They wonder whether they are witnessing the beginning of the end of women’s sports. …
I sit as close as I can to the pool deck, next to the dad of a Brown swimmer. “I’d point my daughter to you, but she told me I’m not allowed to point,” he tells me. I ask him what he thinks of Lia Thomas. “I see someone who is beating people badly, and it’s not fair,” he says as we watch the first heat of the 500-yard freestyle prelims, a race that Thomas ends up winning by seven-and-a-half seconds. “But I’m also seeing that people aren’t talking to her, her teammates aren’t encouraging her. She’s like an island, alone. It can’t feel good to know that there’s nobody in the stands who is happy you won.”
Ben Timlin, 34, drove over from Arlington, Massachusetts to “witness history.” He’s not into women’s swimming or sports, but he’s been following the story. “I’m rooting for the girl from Penn to smash all types of records so I can see everyone’s head explode,” he says. “It’s the same reason why it was fun to watch Donald Trump. It was a wrench in everything.”
On Thursday, when Thomas posts a pool record for the 500, winning by about a half a length of the 25-yard pool, Timlin stands up and pumps his fists. …
Thomas will get to compete at the NCAA championships next month. And that the parents of the female swimmers she’s trouncing are very annoyed.
One Penn dad, whose daughter swims against Thomas in distance events, tells me he places the blame “squarely on the NCAA.” His wife chimes in: “The NCAA has done biological women, and her, wrong and they need to fix it.” A Brown dad says the NCAA ruling adds up to “weasel words.” A Princeton dad tells me that “either the people supporting this are on the wrong side of history, or it’s the end of women’s swimming.”
The parents’ longer-run fear is that college coaches will start recruiting trans athletes, and that female athletes who have worked tirelessly in high school won’t get a fair shot. They say their daughters can’t reasonably train harder, lift more, or do anything to overcome the biological facts that make Thomas impossible for them to beat. The NCAA and Ivy League are essentially telling their daughters, they say, to set their hopes on second place.
When Thomas won the 500 free, I started chatting with a security guard. What did he think when she won? “Speechless,” he said. “Just speechless.” What did he think the solution was? Will the league change course? “Nothing will change. This is Harvard. There’s no controversy. No racists,” he said. Then, with a wink, “Everyone is equal.”