ATLANTA — Penn swimmer Lia Thomas’ collegiate swimming career ended with an eighth place finish in the 100-yard freestyle on Saturday. Thomas, a transgender woman, posted a time of 48.18 seconds, 0.81 seconds slower than her qualifying time of 47.37 seconds.
Virginia freshman Gretchen Walsh won the title in 46.05 seconds to land her first individual NCAA championship. It was a familiar spot for Virginia swimmers, who won seven individual titles and four relays to propel the Cavaliers to their second straight national championship in dominant fashion.
Walsh, who was part of all four of Virginia’s winning relays, got off to a slow start in the 100, but gained steam over the final 50 to pass Alabama senior Morgan Scott.
Yale junior Iszac Henig, a transgender man, finished with a career best 47.32 seconds to tie for fifth place. Henig is eligible to compete in the women’s category because he hasn’t begun hormone therapy.
Thomas was in eighth after the first 50, and Henig was in fifth, which is where they both ultimately finished. Thomas was the only finalist to go slower than her qualifying time.
During introductions, as has become customary at this meet, Thomas’ name was met with scattered cheers, a couple of boos and noticeable quiet.
Thomas and Henig came into the 100 free final as the fourth and eighth seeds, respectively. They both finished their qualifying heats in second place. The last time they squared off was in February at the Ivy League championships. Thomas got the better of Henig there, taking home the conference title. In Atlanta, Henig avenged that loss.
“It was electric,” Henig said to ESPN. “Lia and I are friends, and it’s always nice to swim against your friends and have someone up there that you know. It was incredible.”
On the podium after the awards ceremony, Thomas and Henig posed for a photo together and embraced in celebration. Both swimmers wrote “Let trans kids play” on their arms for the race.
“There are so many bills in different states right now trying to ban trans women from sport at all different levels,” Henig said. “We’re not allowed to have anything on our clothes, but the rules don’t say anything about our skin. So I took the platform I was hoping to have to say that trans athletes are just like any other athlete. We deserve to be able to play and build community.”
The 100 free capped a months-long controversy surrounding Thomas. Ever since she won the 200, 500 and 1,650 freestyle in Akron, Ohio, at the Zippy Invitational in December, her name has stayed in the news.
First it was gawking at the times she put up and their proximity to Katie Ledecky’s 500 freestyle and Missy Franklin’s 200 freestyle records. Although Thomas was 10 seconds off Ledecky’s pace and over 2 seconds off of Franklin’s, she was seemingly within striking distance in December.
Many in the swimming community wondered how fast Thomas would be after a season of training and a full taper heading into the NCAA championships.
That core question was finally answered in Atlanta. Thomas competed in three individual events: the 500, 200 and 100 freestyle. She made all three championship finals (A-finals in swimming parlance), making her a three-time All-American. She placed eighth in the 100, tied for fifth in the 200 and won the 500, finishing 9 seconds off Ledecky’s record. Thomas set no pool, meet or American records during the meet. Other than a poolside interview after the 500, she did not speak to media.
“I definitely feel for her,” Wisconsin freshman Paige McKenna said after winning the 1,650 freestyle. “It was tough coming in here, the situation she was in. With this whole experience, people need to learn how to treat other people with more respect. I respect her so much. What she did was really hard and she handled it really well.”
The tension ramping up to Thursday night was a mixture of anticipation, emotion from the protestors inside and outside the pool and uncertainty of how Thomas would perform.
“[Thursday] was tense,” said Elizabeth Beisel, an Olympian and two-time NCAA champion at Florida who worked as an analyst for the ESPN broadcast of the swimming championships. “Everyone was holding their breath on the deck. Lia swam. Lia won. [On Friday] it felt like we were back to a normal swim meet. It’s felt a lot more relaxed as the meet has gone on. It feels exactly like any other NCAA meet.”
The presence on the podium was indeed much like it was a year ago, with the Cavaliers making frequent trips to the top spots. The Cavaliers won with 551.5 points, followed by Texas with 406 points and Stanford with 399.5 points. In typical swimming celebration, the whole Virginia team jumped into the diving pool as “We Are The Champions” by Queen played on the loudspeaker.
Arguably the most impressive champion of all was Virginia junior Kate Douglass, who won the 50 free (20.84), the 100 butterfly (49.04) and the 200 breaststroke (2:02.19) and set American records in all three. Like Gretchen Walsh, Douglass was part of all four winning Virginia relays. Sophomore Alex Walsh, Gretchen’s sister, also won three individual titles — in the 200 fly and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. She was also on three winning relay teams. Her winning time of 1:50.08 in the 200 IM was an American record.
Other notable performances came from NC State’s Kate Berkhoff, who became the first woman to swim the 100 backstroke (48.74) in under 49 seconds. Stanford’s Regan Smith, who won two silvers and a bronze at the Tokyo Olympics, won the 200 backstroke to claim an individual NCAA title to partner with her 800-yard free relay title.
Fittingly, Virginia ended the meet by breaking the American record in the 400 freestyle relay, finishing in 3:06.91.
But for everything that has happened in Atlanta this week, the question of what happens next looms large. When the NCAA announced its new policy on Jan. 19, it opened a can of worms that has yet to be resolved. Until that date, the NCAA policy governing eligibility for transgender women in women’s championships was that they needed to have completed 12 months of testosterone suppression. But the policy put into effect on Jan. 19 deferred policy-making to each sport’s national governing body, effective immediately.
For the purposes of this swimming season, that put the focus on USA Swimming’s policy, which the organization updated in February. That policy, which notably did not apply to the NCAA championships, governs USA swimming members, designated elite events and those who want to be eligible for American records — which begins at ages 13-14.
The policy requires transgender women to go before an independent panel and prove they do not have a competitive advantage over their cisgender peers (the criteria for such proof was not enumerated), and to undergo testosterone suppression for 36 months with their testosterone levels under 5 nanomoles per liter.
The NCAA, however, did not apply those rules to the 2022 swimming championships, and it is unclear how they will apply to swimming eligibility moving forward. But the questions and the anxiety about how Thomas would perform on a national stage have been resolved. The results were mixed.
“I’m all about being a good sport,” Smith said. “I don’t want to send bad vibes to anyone, that’s not who I am. I think everything going on has been really crazy but I just hope things get worked out in the future. And that everyone leaves the situation in a good place.”
Thomas’ swimming career is over. She is the only known transgender woman competing in NCAA Division I athletics at this moment. What happens next when it comes to policy for transgender athletes in collegiate sports is an open question.
Said Thomas on Thursday after winning the 500: “It means the world to be here.”