Yale senior Iszac Henig and Penn senior Lia Thomas had never met until their schools competing in a dual swim meet in January. Their paths to history converged amid a global pandemic and growing national assault on transgender rights.
Their stories mirror what you find in sports from time to time, some of greatest stories beginning buried in past results where perhaps a few observant fans will get to say “we saw them when.”
Two weekends in the Ivy League in 2019
It’s doubtful many who attended either Ivy League swimming championship meet in 2019 would have thought that two competitors who didn’t win would three years later becomew the first transgender student-athletes to qualify for an individual NCAA Division I national championship.
Feb. 21, 2019 — Iszac Henig, then a true freshman at Yale, finished fourth in the Ivy League women’s championship final in the 50-yard freestyle.
Mar. 2, 2019 — Lia Thomas, then a sophomore at Penn, finished second in the Ivy League men’s championship final in the 1650 free. It was the third second-place effort for Thomas at the meet.
A strong, promising sophomore campaign hid a lot of what was going on underneath for Lia Thomas at the time. Tussling with gender identity since high school, the strain of the internal fight intensified.
“I tried my best to inch closer to coming out to close friends, a couple of coaches,” she told Sports Illustrated in an article March 3. “But in that depressive, very struggling state of mind, it’s hard to make progress when so much of my energy was trying to get through each day.”
May 2019 — Thomas begins feminizing hormone replacement therapy. By NCAA regulation she would have to be on HRT for at least 1 year to be eligible for competition as a woman student-athlete if she wanted to do so.
The strain eased after that. She swam for the men’s team at the start of the 2019-2020, competing in four meets, yet pulled back from competing as the changes caused by HRT began to take hold.
Change during the COVID crisis
Feb. 22, 2020 — Henig swims to third place in the Ivy League women’s championship final in the 100-yard freestyle, inching closer to a goal of an individual league championship.
Mar 14-15, 2020 — Yale University and University of Pennsylvania issue shutdown of physical campus due to COVID-19.
Mar. 19, 2020 — Statewide shutdown order in California, Henig’s home state.
The pandemic changed their individual lives, and what began with Idaho would place them and all transgender Americans under a microscope. The explosion of hundreds of pieces of proposed, debated, or passed legislation, some of it designed to keep trans youth from competing in interscholastic and intercollegiate athletics in their gender category, would stretched to 38 states by 2022.
Nov. 11, 2020 — Ivy League cancels winter sports 2020-2021 academic year
The pandemic also meant time to ponder what was to come and if their sport would be a part of it. Henig decided to take the year off from school entirely. In the hiatus, he stepped into his identity as a transgender man and had affirming top surgery.
He also came to one more decision: Starting hormone replacement therapy could wait.
His teammates at Yale have been his support. He’s been a pillar of the women’s team as they strived to dominate Princeton and Harvard for the league championship. “I value my contributions to the team and recognize that my boyhood doesn’t hinge on whether there’s more or less testosterone running through my veins,” he stated in a Pride Month special in the New York Times last June. “At least, that’s what I’ll try to remember when I put on the women’s swimsuit for competition and am reminded of a self I no longer feel attached to.”
Thomas also took a year off, but her hopes stayed on the table. She wanted to compete authentically in the sport she said is “a huge part of my life and who I am”.
“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 pondered in a June 2021 interview with Penn Today. “Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?”
Jun. 1, 2021 — Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed ban on trans student-athletes competing in their gender category into law, becoming the ninth governor to make such legislation law.
Oct. 25, 2021 — Texas governor Greg Abbott signed similar trans student-athlete ban into law, becoming the 10th governor do so.
Nov. 5, 2021 — Lia Thomas wins the 100 freestyle (50.35), 200 freestyle (1:46.92) and anchored a winning 200 medley relay win in Penn’s dual meet with Columbia. These are her first competitive collegiate events since the 2019-2020 season
Dec 3-5, 2021 — Thomas set Ivy League and Penn records in the 200 freestyle (1:41.93) and 500 freestyle (4:34.06) in addition to putting up NCAA A-spec national qualifying times at the University of Akron Zippy Invitational. That same weekend, Fox News airs the first of 32 separate reports attacking her between this weekend and January 12.
Jan 8, 2021 — Penn hosts Yale for a dual meet where Henig and Thomas meet for the first time and compete against each other in the 100-yard freestyle. Henig won the race with Thomas finishing sixth. According to the Daily Mail, an anonymous member of the Penn swim team accused Thomas conspiring with Henig to engineer a result where she would lose.
Feb 3, 2021 — South Dakota governor Kristi Noem signs the nation’s 11th law banning trans student-athletes from competing in their gender category.
Feb 15, 2021 — Missouri Republican U.S. Representative Vicky Hartzler unveils a television ad for her run for U.S. Senate which shows Lia Thomas prominently within the 30 second spot.
One Weekend in the Ivy League in 2022
Three years earlier, Iszac Henig and Lia Thomas were largely afterthoughts for most people watching the two different Ivy League title meets. In 2022, they were two of the most discussed collegiate swimmers in the nation.
One day before the start of the 2022 Ivy League women’s swimming and diving championships, Lia Thomas’ pictures were plastered on a U.S. Senate campaign television ad. Both were the subject of discussion since they met each other at Penn’s senior day meet the month before.
Both seem to come into the championships meet tuning out the news and the noise. As Henig said in an interview in the Hartford Courant in January, “I’m just some dude who gets to play his sport at a really cool level. I’m just here to go fast and have a good time.”
He did go fast and put up a great time. In the 50 freestyle championship final he raced to the individual Ivy League championship he has worked for since freshman year. His time of 21.93 seconds was also his ticket to making the NCAA championship field in the event.
Thomas has been the target of a nightmarish assault since she put up brilliant times in December, but this championship weekend was a dream. She brought home wins in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle. She swam a leg for the first Penn quartet to win an Ivy League title in a relay event. She also garnered swimmer-of-the-meet honors.
Henig and Thomas also had a rematch from their tilt at Penn with higher stakes, in the 100-yard freestyle championship final.
Three years ago, he was in the wake of a teammate who set meet and school records. In the morning prelims, Henig broke the conference-championship record.
Next to him would be Thomas. Three years ago, she was just a step below an Ivy League championship in three different races. She entered the 100 free final with two individual titles in hand that were a long time coming.
Next to them both was Princeton’s Nikki Venema. She was the defending Ivy League champion in the event.
From the starting horn, Henig dove out with purpose. The first half of the race saw him up front, Thomas was stroke-for-stroke in second with Venema just behind.
At 75 yards Henig and Thomas were dead even. Coming off the flip turn to the final length to finish, Thomas had a slight lead.
Each stroke in that final stretch seemed to emphasize what it meant from them to be in this moment: two competitors who are both trans in the sport they loved and wanting to win.
Thomas reached first in 47.63 seconds, breaking the the championship meet mark Henig set in the prelims. Henig was second in 47.82, Venema hung on for third place.
They hugged across the lane lines in wide smiles that lasted through the podium ceremony. Not only was it the first time you had two transgender athletes fighting in a Division I conference final, they finished one-two.
Both will head to a national championship opportunity earned not just this year, but through perseverance in their pasts.
Three years ago both were in the chase but felt out of place. This week both enter the chase at peace with themselves and now with a chance to place the titles “All-American” and “National Champion” next to their names.