There’s a lot to see at this week’s NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving Championships that open today at Georgia Tech. You may have a battle for a team title between powerful Virginia and tradition-laden Stanford. There will be a roster of stellar athletes that include Olympic medal winners in Tokyo last summer and top threats to break through in Paris in 2024.
There is also the lone swimmer representing Yale, and the swimmer from Penn who’s name has been on a lot of lips. They start their quest for national championships and All-American honors Thursday morning.
I hope we can lower the temperature of the conversation about all of these athletes this weekend and let the athletes themselves shine.
After months of pundits, prophets, opinions, TERFs, trans advocates, anonymous voices, and a peeping tom paparazzi in Florida, it’s now just about that action. That thought makes my inner Elvis enter the building.
When the Quakers’ Lia Thomas takes the starting blocks in the 500-yard freestyle, and when the Bulldogs’ Iszac Henig does the same in the 50 free, they will be the first out transgender student-athletes to contest a Division I individual national championship event.
Should they both reach the consolation final or championship final that evening, they will have added more history to their names. Some, unfortunately, will see that as infamy.
It’s that latter possibility that I hope is unrealized. A naive hope to be sure, but one I hold nonetheless. I say this as a message to those who may be “on the fence” about this issue or perhaps say, “I don’t agree with them being able to compete in this context, but I don’t like the treatment they’ve received.”
I hold this hope especially for Lia Thomas. People have talked about the fairness of her being in these championships. I’ve written at length about my answer to that question. By every metric and every rule, she has earned this opportunity on merit. The NCAA, even in their silence of the treatment she has received, affirms this fact.
Understand that underneath the times, the debate, the arguments, the legislation stemming from them, are just two kids who just who want to swim and have the chance to do well one more time.
Stanford Cardinal All-American Brooke Forde, a person who may be facing Thomas for high stakes for herself and her team’s national championship hopes Thursday night should they meet in the 500 free, understands that human calculation.
“I have great respect for Lia. Social change is always a slow and difficult process, and we rarely get it correct right away. Being among the first to lead such a social change requires an enormous amount of courage and I admire Lia for her leadership that will undoubtedly benefit many trans athletes in the future. In 2020 I, along with most swimmers, experienced what it was like to have my chance to achieve my swimming goals taken away after years of hard work. I would not wish this experience on anyone, especially Lia who has followed the rules required of her. I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.” — Brooke Forde
With this mind, I’m hoping everyone of good will, for the sake of all the athletes, will put down the rhetoric and enjoy the meet. Keep the attacks on athletes and one another at bay, sit back and see what happens.
As the championships unfold, perhaps take a minute to engage that opposing viewpoint from a place of discussion instead of debate. You may just find that whom you find “in opposition” may not be as in opposition as you think.
For myself, I’m more engaged in conversation than confrontation, especially when we’re dealing with nuance, and this issue has a great deal of that nuance.
I would suggest to those who may have an issue or questions to get the story behind the story. I would recommend reading what Henig wrote in the New York Times last summer on his coming out. I would recommend reading Robert Sanchez’s profile on Lia Thomas in Sports Illustrated last week.
Lost in much of rhetoric, in my view, has been the stories surrounding what drove these two student-athletes forward. The human calculation that goes beyond what the stopwatch tells you.
That emphasis, contrary to what some believe, doesn’t belittle or diminish anyone. You don’t have to understand their journeys, but respect that they have each put in the work to get this far.
Not a single competitor who will swim a race or attempt a dive this week took the easy way. They all put in the hours and made the commitment for a chance to compete and maybe win a national championship.
Yes, I know the Outkicks, Breitbarts and Tucker Carlsons of the world already have their headlines and talking points ready to spew. There’s no reaching them on this.
Instead, I’m making a call to people and publications of good will who center the well-being and success of the athletes: This is their time, so let the athletes shine.
Let’s remember that all these competitors, be they cis or trans, are somebody’s child, somebody’s kin, somebody’s teammate, somebody’s friend. They are all human and that doesn’t change regardless of what that scoreboard says.
A lot less bite, a lot less bark. No Twitter fights as these athletes spark. Let’s open up our minds and hearts, and that would satisfy me.
Thank you. Thank you very much.