WHEN LIA THOMAS’ fingertips break the surface of the water on Thursday at the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta, nobody in the 500-yard freestyle, or in any other race at the NCAA women’s swimming and diving championships, will have navigated choppier waters.

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Thomas, a transgender swimmer at Penn, has sparked searing skepticism with her season-long dominance. Over the next four days, she’ll have three chances to become the first known transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship.

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Although she has followed every eligibility rule and policy set forth by the NCAA, Thomas has landed at the epicenter of debate — in the pool, in the media and in statehouses across the country — about fairness and inclusion and whether those values ​​are mutually exclusive.

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Thomas is not the first transgender athlete to compete in collegiate sports, nor the first to be successful. But no one has spurred deeper division.

She might win, she might finish on the podium, she might not. But whatever the outcome, Thomas’ participation will be a victory for some and a defeat for others. Some will see it as progress and others will see it as regression. Some will cheer and some will object. Everyone, it seems, has already been taken aside.

THOMAS’ LONG ARMS sliced ​​through the water during the 200-yard freestyle at Ocasek Natatorium in Akron, Ohio, propelling her 6-foot-2 body forward. At each turn, her feet popped off the wall to kick-start her journey the other way. This was the second day of a three-day meet, the last stop before finals and winter break.

She already had won the 500 freestyle the day before in comfortable fashion, posting the best time in the country this season. Her time of 4 minutes, 34.06 seconds trailed Katie Ledecky’s record by 10 seconds. Close enough for eyebrows to raise. Thomas was undefeated in her individual events to start the season. As she pulled away from the field in the 200, it became clear that this race would be more of the same.

When she touched the wall, her time flashed on the screen: 1:41.93. It wasn’t just fast; it was eye-popping. She now owned the nation’s top time in two events and was two seconds off Missy Franklin’s NCAA record. And it was only Dec. 4, 2021. The national championships were more than three months away. Who knew how fast she’d be by then?

As news of Thomas’ times leaked out of Akron, it became clear that her life was about to change, that the NCAA swimming season was about to be upended.

The division started within her own team, some Penn swimmers expressed support while others protested anonymously to the media. Barely a day passed without Thomas’ name in the news. As states such as Indiana and Arizona considered legislation that would affect transgender girls’ ability to participate in girls’ sports at the youth level, Thomas was brought up as the reason why such laws were needed.

The controversy was driven by the specter of Lia Thomas the swimmer, but little was known about Lia Thomas the person.

THOMAS, WHO DECLINED multiple interview requests from Sportzshala, grew up in Austin, Texas, as the youngest of three children. She’s been swimming since she was a child, following in the footsteps of her oldest brother, Wes. The two swam for Lost Creek Aquatics, and still hold multiple club records. Lia’s longest-standing record is in the 6-and-under division in the 100-yard backstroke.

Wes went to Penn and swam on the men’s team, and Lia decided that’s what she would do as well, though they never overlapped in school. For three seasons, Lia swam on the Quakers men’s team. She was a distance specialist. But as she began college after graduating from Westlake High School, she also struggled with her identity, according to a Sports Illustrated story. She recognized she was transgender and shared that with her family following her freshman season in 2017-18. In her sophomore season, Thomas placed second in the Ivy League championships in the 500, 1,000 and 1,650 freestyle events. Even with that athletic success, Thomas was struggling.

“I was very depressed,” Thomas told Sports Illustrated. “I got to the point where I couldn’t go to school. I was missing classes. My sleep schedule was super messed up. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew at that moment I needed to do something to address this.”

Thomas began hormone therapy in May 2019, following her sophomore season. She continued to swim on the men’s team as a junior, but sparingly. “It was an awkward experience being a woman competing in a men’s meet,” Thomas said in a podcast with SwimSwam. “It was uncomfortable. So I didn’t compete that much.”

Thomas began swimming on the Penn women’s team in the fall of 2021. The Ivy League canceled all sports in 2020-21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so this season was Thomas’ first opportunity to swim in the women’s category. At the beginning of the 2021 season, the NCAA policy for transgender athletes was that transgender women were eligible to compete in the women’s category after completing 12 months of testosterone suppression. That policy was enacted in 2011 and governed by all NCAA championships, though individual schools and conferences were free to set their own eligibility processes.

But Thomas’ times in Akron brought intense scrutiny not just to herself, and not just to her team, but also to the Penn, Ivy League and NCAA policies. One media outlet published tabloid-style photos of Thomas and her teammates while they were training in Florida following winter break.

“It’s been weird because if I stand next to Lia, then suddenly my photograph emerges in some news outlet,” Penn teammate and fellow senior Andie Myers told Sportzshala. “It’s weird.”

Complaints from anonymous teammates about losing opportunities and sharing a locker room with Thomas surfaced in stories.

“I knew that there were going to be people that didn’t want Lia to swim or didn’t think that it was fair, but I definitely was not expecting people to be speaking out like they were,” sophomore Hadley DeBruyn told Sportzshala. “I think that’s what shocked me the most.”

The Penn swimmers’ opposing viewpoints were expressed formally in dueling letters issued in February. On Feb. 1, an unsigned statement was issued by Penn athletics on behalf of “several members of the women’s swimming and diving team” that supported Thomas being part of their team. Two days later, three-time Olympic gold medalist and Title IX advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar sent a letter to the Ivy League and its schools’ presidents and athletic directors on behalf of 16 anonymous Penn swimmers and their families, urging the Ivy League not to take legal action should the NCAA rule Thomas ineligible for the national championships. And on Feb. 10, 310 members of the swimming community, including representatives from each of the Power 5 conferences and five of Thomas’ teammates, signed a letter to the NCAA organized by Athlete Ally and Harvard alum and transgender athlete Schuyler Bailar that expressed support for Thomas.

Few members of the Penn women’s swimming and diving team have spoken on the record. Myers and DeBruyn are two of Thomas’ teammates who signed the letter organized by Bailar and Athlete Ally. None of the 16 swimmers who were represented by Hogshead-Makar in the letter to the Ivy League have shared their identities publicly.

“We respect Lia as a person. We respect her right to live as a woman and her right to do whatever she feels is best for herself in her life,” one Penn parent who supported the Hogshead-Makar letter told Sportzshala. “But at the same time, that shouldn’t mean competing against the biological women and having the full access to the locker room.”

WHEN THOMAS JOINED the Penn women’s swimming team, the NCAA’s 2011 policy on transgender participation was already under review. In October 2020, the NCAA hosted a summit on gender identity and student-athlete participation. The stated purpose of the gathering was to “solicit feedback towards the creation of a consensus framework that might inform policy and practice development in the area of ​​gender identity and participation in collegiate sport…” It was one step in an arduous process to reevaluate the organization’s policy that had been in operation for nearly a decade.

“The whole point of it was to begin the review process of the 2011 policy,” said LGBTQ sports inclusion advocate Pat Griffin, who worked on the first policy. “That process was ongoing. And then, I think, that the board of governors hijacked that process by coming out and surprising everyone.”

On Jan. On 19, 2022, the NCAA announced it would adopt a sports-specific approach that would evaluate national governing body policies and adopt them for NCAA eligibility. At the time, USA Swimming’s policy for elite athletes deferred to the International Olympic Committee policy, but that was also in flux due to an announcement in November 2021 that empowered each international federation to create their own policies, though the IOC would provide guidance.

“They failed women by not prioritizing fairness.”

Nancy Hogshead Makar

The NCAA announcement was met with condemnation and confusion by those who felt Thomas should be eligible to swim and by those who felt she should be ineligible.

“This update complicates the NCAA policy in a way that I don’t believe they are equipped to handle,” duathlete and transgender inclusion advocate Chris Mosier said at the time. “Given that many [national governing bodies] 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. This creates many different standards for trans athletes.”

Hogshead Makar also expressed dismay. “The new NCAA policy sounds a lot like the old one,” she said. “The board hasn’t resolved the intractable balancing between fairness, playing safety and inclusion. They failed women by not prioritizing fairness.”

For Ivy League executive director Robin Harris, the influence of Thomas’ success and attention was…