Like she has throughout the college swimming season, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas carded more wins in the poll. Last Saturday’s tussle on the road against Harvard was no different.
As opposed to Penn’s home meet two weeks ago, there wasn’t a commotion at the meet in Cambridge, Mass. There were no protests or rancor, only a heightened press presence alongside additional security within the venue.
A sizable Harvard senior-day crowd at Blodgett Pool saw the Crimson win the meet, but also saw the Quakers’ Thomas shine. She won the 100-yard and 200-yard freestyle events in addition to taking the anchor leg in the 200 medley relay that finished third, and the second leg as part of a Penn 200-free relay quartet that ended up second.
Thomas’ effort of 1:47.08 in her 200-free win was more than 5 seconds slower than her season-best NCAA qualifying effort of 1:41.93 at the Zippy Invitational in December. It wasn’t a record time, but fans got to see a close, tense race.
Thomas had to fight stroke for stroke with Harvard senior Felicia Pasadyn, one of the most decorated swimmers in the league. Pasadyn got a strong start and powered to a lead through the first 50 yards. Thomas gamely chased to reel in the advantage and snatched the lead heading to the final 50 yards, pulling away to a 1.36 second win.
The 100-free was also a nailbiter with Thomas staving off a strong challenge from Harvard’s Samantha Shelton to win in 50.55 seconds. After a close finish, Thomas received something in stark contrast to reports of booing in the stands and anonymous reports of derision: Shelton reached across the lane lines and the two swimmers exchanged a sporting fist bump.
The relatively calm afternoon in Cambridge came after a week of turbulence. On January 19, the NCAA Board of Governors announced that the transgender student-athlete inclusion policy crafted in 2011 would be replaced by a sport-by-sport approach similar to the International Olympic Committee guidelines that will go in effect in March.
What this means for Thomas’ season is subject to interpretation. Her eligibility could be in the hands of a USA Swimming review panel, per their regulations regarding elite athletes. In turn, the panel would be guided by International Swimming Federation (FINA) regulation involving the outgoing IOC serum testosterone standard of below 10 nanomoles per liter.
Penn’s athlete department has issued a statement of support for Thomas:
Penn Athletics is aware of the NCAA’s new transgender participation policy in support of our student-athlete, Lia Thomas. We will work with the NCAA regarding her participation under the newly adopted standards for the 2022 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship.
The situation now faces a number of unanswered questions in the coming weeks as the NCAA policy mandates documentation four weeks before a championships. The NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships are in March.
The midseason action by the NCAA has left various people on all sides unhappy.
“Given that many NGBs have not created policies for transgender athletes and that policies vary from sport NGB to NGB, tracking compliance is going to be a nightmare for the NCAA,” 2020 Olympic Trials qualifier and trans inclusion advocate Chris Mosier said to ESPN. “This creates many different standards for trans athletes.”
The founder of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, three-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist and lawyer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, fears that the NCAA action would further harm women’s sports. She noted Thomas’ sizzling times this season, which are seen as within striking distance of records held by U.S. Olympic superstars Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin.
“To lose Katie’s legacy to a transgender woman would really set women’s sports back,” Hogshead-Makar said in an interview on ESPN’s SportsCenter January 20.
This week Penn is scheduled to meet West Chester in their final dual meet before Ivy League Championships at Harvard, February 16-19. Should her season extend to the March 16-19 NCAA Championships in Atlanta, she would be the first transgender student-athlete to compete in an NCAA championship in Division I.
What comes up for Thomas in regards to the NCAA championship she has already qualified for by merit is a riddle. How its solved will depend ultimately on who gets to decide on the rules and what rules they put in place.