Lia Thomas likely wasn’t thinking about making local or national history as she approached this season. It would be the first for the Penn senior competing in her truth as a transgender woman, and she was coming off a lost season in 2020-2021 when Ivy League swimming was cancelled due to COVID concerns.
Yet she is already making a big name for herself, winning three events and setting three school records and two Ivy League records at the Zippy Invitational at the University of Akron this past weekend. In two of those events she met the NCAA’s “A” qualifying standard in the events, which gives her an automatic bid in the events to the national championship meet in Atlanta next March.
Yet just having the opportunity to compete on the women’s team is a revelation for Thomas.
“The process of coming out as being trans and continuing to swim was a lot of uncertainty and unknown around an area that’s usually really solid,” she told Penn Today in June. “Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?”
On Friday night, she opened up the Zippy Invitational with a tour de force in the 500-yard freestyle. A strong start gave her a nearly 1-second lead through the first 50 yards. She consistently extended the advantage enroute to a runaway win in 4:34.06, finishing 14 seconds ahead of teammate Anna Sofia Kalandaze in second.
The final result also rewrote the meet record, Akron’s pool record, the Penn school record she broke two weeks ago, and the Ivy League record.
Her winning effort was part of a busy day. Thomas was the lead leg on a Penn 200 freestyle relay ever the ended up fourth and was the anchor leg on a 400 medley relay effort that also came fourth. She also tested herself in the 50-yard freestyle sprint and wound up sixth.
Saturday’s session featured the other event that gained her national attention. Two weeks ago, Thomas bested both Penn’s record and topped the NCAA season chart in the 200-yard freestyle at a home meet against Princeton and Cornell.
From the start, Thomas set the pace and dared her opposition to try the match it, just as she did in the 500. She swam with efficiency and power to continually stretch the lead to nearly seven seconds to win at 1:41.93.
The effort again netted a pool and meet record, lowered her existing school and league marks, and put herself in the entry list at 200 free for the NCAA Championships. She has also swam a leg for Penn’s second-place run in the 800-yard freestyle relay.
Thomas also won the 1650-yard freestyle, setting meet, pool and Penn school records in that event, winning the race by 38 seconds with a time of 15:59.71.
Thomas is the first trans woman to compete in NCAA women’s swimming since Southern Illinois’ Natalie Fahey (above) took the blocks at the 2019 Missouri Valley Conference swimming championships, as far as Outsports is aware.
Only one trans student-athlete we know of, Montana track and field athlete June Eastwood, has won a Division I individual conference title. Only one out trans student athlete, Division II Franklin Pierce track athlete CeCé Telfer, has won an individual national championship and achieved All-American designation.
Thomas has the opportunity to match those achievements. Because of her strong swims in the 200 and 500 free this weekend, she will have a chance to become the first transgender student-athlete to be a Division I All-American, or even national champion.
With the excellence of the weekend has come some of the same vitriol that Eastwood, Telfer, and many other trans women in sports have faced. Certain websites and media outlets have been rather demeaning from the New York Post deadnaming her, to UK-based Daily Mail making it a point to show pre-transition photos in a form of backdoor passive-aggressive misgendering.
The same sources, and many others, generally fail to report the fact that the NCAA transgender student-athlete policy is entering its 11th year, but they do make frequent mention that Thomas competed on the men’s team for two full seasons.
For Thomas, the next outings start with dual meets in January leading up the Ivy League Championships at Harvard February 16-19, and from there to the NCAA’s in March.
Her performances to date have been an example of what she affirmed in that summer interview.
“Being trans has not affected my ability to do this sport,” Thomas said. “Being able to continue is very rewarding.”