The eyes of the college swimming world focused on Harvard’s Blodgett Pool over the weekend for the Ivy League Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships. But what happened in the pool was only part of the story.
Lia Thomas of Penn, a transgender woman, and Iszac Henig of Yale, a transgender man, become only the second and third transgender athletes to win individual Division I conference titles. Their participation drew massive media attention to the event, as well as scrutiny in some circles.
Thomas, a senior, is in her first year on the women’s swim team and has already been on the men’s team for three seasons. Henig, a junior, has been able to participate with the women’s team since he did not receive hormone therapy.
On Thursday, Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle final with a time of 4:37.32, setting a new pool record in the event. Henig followed soon after by winning the 50-yard freestyle final with a time of 21.93 seconds, which also set a pool record.
Thomas continued her dominance on Friday night when she won the 200-yard freestyle final in 1:43.12, setting a New Ivy League Dating Record in the event in the process. Henig came third in the 100-yard butterfly final.
And on Saturday they went head-to-head in the 100 yard freestyle final in a photo-finish where Thomas finished first with a time of 47.63 seconds, while Henig came close behind in second with a time of 47.82 seconds, both of which broke the previous competition record of 47.85 seconds.
But the build-up to the Championships has been anything but smooth and for a time it was unclear whether Thomas would be unable to compete after mid-season rule changes.
In January, the The NCAA announced that it would adopt a new policy in which each sport would take over the transgender eligibility requirements of its respective national governing body. Previously, the NCAA had a uniform policy.
Under new rules adopted by USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body, in early February, transgender female athletes would have to meet several requirements to swim, including meeting a testosterone threshold of 5 nanomoles per liter for 36 months, a stricter standard than previous NCAA requirements.
Then, on February 11, the NCAA backtracked, saying “Implementing additional changes at this time could have unfair and potentially detrimental impacts on schools and student-athletes who intend to compete in the 2022 NCAA Women’s Swimming Championships.”
But Thomas faced more than changes in collegiate athletic policy. Throughout the season, detractors ranging from anonymous teammates to national organizations spoke out against Thomas record participation, citing what they say are unfair advantages due to Thomas being male at birth and having previously participated in men’s sports.
But despite these protests, the Ivy League stood by Thomas.
“The Ivy League reaffirms its unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive environment for all student-athletes while condemning transphobia and discrimination in all its forms,” the league said in a statement. declaration from January. The league welcomes [Thomas’] participation in the sport of women’s swimming and diving and I look forward to celebrating the success of all of our student-athletes throughout the season.
At Blodgett Pool, nothing at first glance seemed to suggest that the competitions were at the center of a national debate, not to mention the unusually high number of members of the press.
It was a festive spirit inside, with athletes dancing and laughing poolside while cheering on teammates and fans in the stands waving pom poms and leading organized cheers for swimmers, who raced under a big “8 Against Hate” banner.
When Thomas and Henig’s names appeared on the PA system, most fans cheered politely, not booing or heckling from the bleachers.
But Friday night there was a silent show of support that signified the gravity of the moment. Near the back of the stands, Alejandra Caraballoclinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, held a transgender pride flag for Thomas and Henig’s races.
Caraballo, who was an attorney at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and also at the New York Legal Assistance Group’s LGBTQ Law Project and is transgender, told GBH News that she wanted to support the two swimmers amid some negativity surrounding their participation.
“I just think right now with so many bills being passed to ban trans kids from playing sports, to ban their health care, I think we really want to show that we have sports heroes, we have successful people, thriving and doing well, living authentically as themselves,” she said. “Especially for our trans youth who are currently being targeted across the country. They have people to turn to and they can [say] “I can be Iszac, I can be Lia” and have something to admire beyond all the hate that awaits them.
The Ivy League did not respond to GBH News’ request for an interview with Thomas, Henig or anyone else who could talk about their impact this season, a situation similar to those other outlets encountered during championships.
But their performances spoke for themselves. And when Thomas and Henig were in the water, it seemed like all the tags and titles had been washed away. For a few brief moments, they were just swimmers.