Lia Thomas makes history as first out trans woman to win NCAA swimming championship

Lia Thomas looks on after winning the 500 Yard Freestyle during the 2022 NCAA Division I Women's Swimming and Diving Championship

Lia Thomas has done what she does best – make history.

Thomas, the swimmer whose record-breaking times on the University of Pennsylvania team made her a star of college athletics, became the first trans athlete to win an NCAA swimming championship.

On Thursday (17 March), Thomas finished first in the women’s 500-yard freestyle with a brisk time of four minutes, 33.24 seconds, according to ESPN.

The Pennslyvania senior was a nail-biting two seconds ahead of University of Virginia’s Emma Weyant, who took second place.

This made Thomas, who entered the NCAA women’s swimming and diving champions as the top seed, the first trans swimmer to make it big in the NCAA.

Hurdler Cece Telfer came before her, as the first openly trans person to secure an NCAA championship three years ago.

Ahead of the 100 and 200 freestyle events, Thomas told ESPN: “It means the world to be here, be with two of my best friends and teammates and be able to compete.”

Lia Thomas accepts the winning trophy for the 500 Freestyle finals

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas accepts the winning trophy for the 500 Freestyle finals. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Indeed, Thomas’ triumph and very participation in the championship is one that comes amid an exhausting national debate over trans athletes in both statehouses and the right-wing media.

As Thomas swam inside the McAuley Aquatic Center at Georgia Tech, a group of 10 anti-trans protesters stood outside. Handing out pamphlets and holding signs reading: “Save Women’s Sports.”

Republican legislators across dozens of states have sought to ban trans athletes people from taking part in girl’s and women’s school sports in recent years.

When asked for evidence as to why legislating a ban is needed, lawmakers often rely on outdated myths or simply come back empty-handed.

While right-wing pundits, including Caitlyn Jenner without a hint of irony, have smeared Thomas’ streak of wins as somehow proof women’s sports must be “protected”.

Thomas even being able to take part in the championships was thrown into jeopardy when USA Swimming announced that trans athletes must suppress their testosterone levels for three years in order to compete.

This would have excluded Thomas from taking part altogether.

But last month the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the organising body overseeing college sports, said introducing this rule in the middle of the season was unfair.

Nevertheless, as Thomas overturns record after record, she has become a vital role model for trans young people across the US.

“I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone,” she told Sports Illustrated.

“They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.”