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Transgender swimmers Lia Thomas and Iszac Henig brought the national spotlight to the Ivy League Championships this week and are going home conference champions as debate rages over eligibility rules.
Penn’s Thomas and Yale’s Henig dominated in the pool during their individual events.
Thomas’ got off to a bit of a slow start at the conference championships. She narrowly kept Penn in the lead during the first leg of the 800 free relay Wednesday. But the Quakers finished behind Princeton and Yale.
Thomas raced in her first individual event Thursday and won convincingly.
The senior got off to a slow start in the 500 free and had to come back against Princeton’s Ellie Marquardt. But Thomas pulled away by the midpoint of the race. She finished in a time of 4:37:32 and took home first place, giving the Quakers 32 points for the total team rankings.
Thomas finished about seven seconds ahead of teammate Catherine Buroker to pick up the victory and set a record at Harvard University’s Blodgett Pool.
Thomas’ breaking of records wasn’t over.
On Friday night, Thomas set a record in the 200-yard freestyle competition on her way to another conference title. She finished in first place with a mark of 1:43.12, setting a record for the event and at Blodgett Pool.
Henig didn’t leave the pool empty-handed either Thursday night.
Henig won the Ivy League Championship in the 50 free. Henig, who is transitioning from female to male and uses male pronouns, defeated Princeton’s Nikki Venema with a time of 21.93.
On Friday, Henig finished third in the 100-yard butterfly, recording a time of 52.82. Venema finished in first at 52.42 and Harvard’s Abigail Carr posted a 52.69.
Not everyone was pleased Thomas was eligible to compete.
ESPN Plus commentator Alex Vispoli said Thursday he and fellow announcer Adam Giardino spoke to Penn coach Mike Schnur and relayed the coach’s thoughts during Thomas’ 500 free event.
“He says after what she has been put through, he calls her ‘the bravest kid that he’s ever met. All of the attention that has been bestowed upon her says that she has unbelievable courage,'” Vispoli said, relaying Schnur’s message.
“And he has known Lia for a long time. And the one thing that has always shined through when it comes to Lia is her love of swimming and how much she loves the sport. And that should be one of the main takeaways, and the love that somebody has for a sport for that to be so big in this sport should certainly be appreciated.”
Giardino added, “And it’s a sport, swimming, that you really do get to put in the work and see the results. You get to put your head down sometimes. I think a lot of us during the pandemic, I think we found things that are stress relievers. Swimming is certainly something she has taken to and is something that, above all else, she’s incredibly talented at.”
Thomas did have some supporters at the pool, too.
An “8 Against Hate” sign was displayed above the pool between flags representing each of the Ivy League member schools, and several athletes were seen wearing shirts with the same slogan.
A debate has raged on whether it was fair for Thomas to compete as a transgender female against biological females. Over the course of the season, Thomas has dominated in the pool and was thrust into the national spotlight after her performance at the Zippy Invitational.
Last month, the debate finally reached the NCAA’s doorstep. The governing body for college athletics announced its updated transgender participation policy, saying eligibility would be determined on a sport-by-sport basis. If there is no national governing body for the sport, then the NCAA sport will follow the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) policy.
The NCAA said its policy would become effective March, starting with the Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, March 16-19.
On Feb. 1, USA Swimming updated its policy requiring transgender athletes who are competing at an elite level to have small levels of testosterone – half of what Thomas was allowed to compete with – for at least 36 months before being eligible. Thomas’ future in the pool was immediately uncertain.
However, the NCAA said last week the Administrative Subcommittee of the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CMAS) decided that it wouldn’t alter its testosterone guidance after all, stating that “implementing additional changes at this time could have unfair and potentially detrimental impacts on schools and student-athletes intending to compete in 2022 NCAA women’s swimming championships.”
The decision cleared the way for Thomas to compete in the NCAA Championships.
‘Struggling a lot’
Thomas has spoken publicly only once, on the SwimSwam podcast in December. She said at the time she was beginning to find some kind of peace after feeling like she was “trapped” in a man’s body.
“I’m feeling confident and good in my swimming and all my personal relationships, and transitioning has allowed me to be more confident in all of those aspects of my life where I was struggling a lot before I came out,” she said.
Henig told The Associated Press before the NCAA’s updated transgender participation policy was announced that constant alterations weren’t necessary.
“At every level, from elementary to collegiate, trans athletes have been competing for years, and the extremely negative predictions about what will happen to sports have already been shown to be false,” Henig said. “In every sport, at every level, there is a wide range of athletic abilities on display. Trans athletes are no different and don’t change this.”
Henig is from California and has been competing for Yale since 2018.
Henig has had his breasts removed but wrote in a New York Times column in June he was not taking hormones yet because he wanted to compete in the pool.
“As a student-athlete, coming out as a trans guy put me in a weird position,” Henig wrote. “I could start hormones to align more with myself, or wait, transition socially and keep competing on a women’s swim team. I decided on the latter.
“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. At least, that’s what I’ll try to remember when I put on the women’s swimsuit for the competition and am reminded of a self I no longer feel attached to.”
The Ivy League Championships end Saturday with six swimming events on the docket – 1650 free, 200 backstroke, 100 freestyle, 200 breaststroke, 200 butterfly and 400 free.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.