The first time that university swimmer Sara* heard about Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer dominating the Ivy League conference, she was in the warm-up pool getting ready to race Thomas for the first time.

It was the Cornell-Princeton-Penn tri-meet, and Sara watched as Thomas obliterated all of the other female athletes in the 200y freestyle. 

“My teammates and I were all mind blown that someone could go that fast in a dual meet,” Sara said in an interview with Independent Women’s Forum. “I’m thinking, ‘in an hour I have to race her in the 500[y].’ I was really nervous because the 500 isn’t an event you would get lapped in and I was like, ‘I will get lapped in the 500.’ It’s embarrassing.”

Sara clocked her best dual meet time, but felt that she was going slow compared to Thomas, who didn’t lap her but came very close. Thomas did lap Sara’s teammate in the meet.

“I remember thinking to just try to block her out and to focus on the people that I can race. I just knew that everybody in the swimming world was going to hear about this.”

While swimming on the women’s team this season, after three years competing as a male, Thomas, formerly known as Will, has set pool, program, and meet records, and has also broken several NCAA women’s records. In one event, Thomas was 38 seconds ahead of the next-closest female swimmer.

Thomas is making waves in and out of the pool, and has sparked a national conversation about the fairness of allowing male-bodied athletes to compete on and against women’s teams.

“I’m a firm believer in hard work over talent,” Sara said. “This is a case where it’s not about talent or hard work. You can’t work hard enough to beat someone who is built differently than you.” 

Putting Women Last

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has long supported the participation of transgender, male-bodied athletes, like Thomas, competing on women’s collegiate sports teams.

But now the NCAA says each sport’s governing body must establish its own testosterone rules for participation in women’s sports. The policy makes an athlete’s current hormone levels, rather than biological sex, the criteria for eligibility. In other words, women’s sports are now open to anyone who can suppress his testosterone to a certain level.

This puts female athletes, like Sara, at a competitive disadvantage and takes away opportunities for some women to compete in meets with limited spots.

Standing Up For Fairness

After that first meet, Sara raced Thomas again three weeks later, and this time she was lapped twice by Thomas in the 1650 yard freestyle.

For Sara, whose love for swimming began when she was six months old in Mommy and Me classes at her local pool, the situation is a tough one.

For fear of offending anyone, Sara chose to speak anonymously to IWF.

“When I think about myself and my goals for the season, my number one goal is to score points for my team at the Ivy League Championships in February,” she said. “When Lia is in the event, it’s pretty much given that she’s going to be in the top seed. Knowing that Lia is going to be the top seed makes it like only the top 15 score points because you know there’s no way to beat her.

Sara puts in 20 hours per week training during the season, and knows firsthand the sacrifices that come along with being “good” at her sport. She’s been swimming competitively for 11 years.

“You have to sacrifice time with family, homework time, study time, for your spot,” she said. “There have been a lot of times where I missed out on family trips to the beach for a week because of practice. It is a very big commitment to get to the division one level. But I don’t regret it at all.”

Sara would like to see fairness and a level playing field in her sport but says she feels there’s no one perfect solution to this issue.

“I would never want Lia to lose the ability to swim and compete, but I don’t think she should compete against biological women. If she competes against the biological women, I don’t think her time should count as points or records at Penn, at pool, or at meets.”

*Sara has chosen to go by a pseudonym to protect her privacy. This is a stock photo.

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