Female swimmers beaten by transgender athlete stage podium protest at ‘unfair’ result

·4 min read
Emma Weyant, Erica Sullivan and Brooke Forde huddle around the third place position on the podium after Lia Thomas' win - Justin Casterline/Getty Images
Emma Weyant, Erica Sullivan and Brooke Forde huddle around the third place position on the podium after Lia Thomas' win - Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Three college swimmers who were beaten by transgender athlete Lia Thomas posed together on a single podium step, fuelling the controversy over her eligibility to compete in elite women's competitions.

Ms Thomas, 22, made history on Thursday night by becoming the first transgender person to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I title.

Her victory in the 500-yard freestyle in Atlanta received a mixed reaction, with some spectators booing after she beat a Tokyo Olympic Games medallist, who finished third.

By contrast, Emma Weyant, who came in second place, received loud cheers from the crowd, with some on social media declaring the University of Virginia swimmer the "real winner".

Ms Thomas, who competed on the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team for three years before transitioning, beat Ms Weyant by 1.75 seconds, with a time of 4min 33.24sec.

Since moving to compete in women's competitions, Ms Thomas has smashed records and become a focal point in the ongoing debate over the eligibility of trans women to compete in elite women's sports.

Her presence at the NCAA competition, the highest-profile event in American college swimming, attracted protests from self-proclaimed women’s rights protesters in Atlanta.

"There is every feasible way that it is an act of grave cowardice by the NCAA," Kellie-Jay Keen, head of the organisation Standing for Women, told Fox News.

Lia Thomas on the podium with her trophy for winning the 500-yard freestyle in Atlanta - AP Photo/John Bazemore
Lia Thomas on the podium with her trophy for winning the 500-yard freestyle in Atlanta - AP Photo/John Bazemore

Counter-protesters also attended the event to show support for Ms Thomas and rail against transphobia.

During the NCAA's ceremony, second-placed Ms Weyant was photographed sharing a podium step with third-placed Erica Sullivan, a silver medallist at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, and fourth-placed Brooke Forde.

The image of the three athletes clutching their trophies at a distance from Ms Thomas was widely circulated online by commentators, who claim the trans athlete holds an unfair advantage over her rivals.

Angela Morabito, a former Trump administration official, tweeted:

Sharron Davies, the former British Olympic silver medallist and a vocal critic of transgender athletes, later called the result an “injustice”.

'I try to ignore it'

Asked about the reaction to her win on Thursday, Ms Thomas replied: “I try to ignore it as much as I can.

“I try to focus on my swimming, what I need to do to get ready for my races. And just try to block out everything else."

Ms Thomas' performances have propelled her to the fore of a heated debate in the US over how to balance the rights of trans athletes against claims that those who went through puberty as males hold an unfair advantage.

The NCAA currently requires trans women athletes to have one year of hormone replacement therapy to be cleared to participate in women's sports.

Ms Thomas said she started HRT in May 2019 and came out as trans later that year. The NCAA has approved her participation in the women's events.

Lia Thomas, left, accepts the winning trophy alongside second place finisher Emma Weyant, centre, and third place finisher Erica Sullivan, right - Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Lia Thomas, left, accepts the winning trophy alongside second place finisher Emma Weyant, centre, and third place finisher Erica Sullivan, right - Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

However, it has since adopted a set of stricter guidelines that require elite trans woman athletes to have three years of HRT and to prove to a panel of medical experts that they do not have an unfair advantage.

Those rules will be instituted in phases over the coming seasons.

While Ms Thomas' inclusion in elite women's competitions has generally been supported by rivals and team-mates, some have taken issue with her participation.

'Unfair advantage'

Last month, 16 of her 40 university teammates criticised what they saw as her "unfair advantage" in an anonymous letter.

"We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman," the letter read.

But it added: "Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category, as evidenced by her rankings that have bounced from number 462 as a male to number one as a female.

"If she were to be eligible to compete against us, she could now break Penn, Ivy, and NCAA Women’s Swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete.”

In response, more than 300 current and former swimmers signed their names to an open letter defending Ms Thomas' ability to compete.

One of those signees was Ms Sullivan, who battled Ms Thomas for the lead for much of Thursday's race, before finishing third.

Ms Thomas is also favoured to win the NCAA's 200-yard freestyle and 100-yard freestyle this weekend.