Penn swimmer Lia Thomas leaves Ivy League meet a four-time champion, but questions remain

BOSTON -- Miki Dahlke looked on as University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas sliced through the Blodgett Pool water on Friday night at the Ivy League women's swimming championships. Thomas, who is a transgender woman, was swimming the 200-yard freestyle, an event in which Dahlke held the meet and pool records.

It was hot in the stands, as the mixture of warmth and moisture made it feel like a sauna. Dahlke, who graduated from Harvard in 2020, was sitting with other Crimson swimming alumni. She looked on as Thomas pulled away from the field in the final 50 yards, touching the wall in 1 minute, 43.12 seconds, 0.66 seconds ahead of Dahlke's meet record, and nearly 2 seconds ahead of her pool record. By the end of the meet, Thomas' name had supplanted Dahlke's on three records, including the two set in this race.

"Records are made to be broken," Dahlke said. "I am a faster swimmer because of fast swimmers of the past, and the future of swimming will be faster because of the women at the top of the NCAA today."

Eight days prior, Dahlke signed a letter released by Athlete Ally and organized by fellow Harvard alum Schuyler Bailar. Bailar was the first known transgender athlete to compete on a Division I men's team. The letter expressed support for Thomas and was signed by more than 300 members of the swimming community, from current collegiate swimmers to alumni to Olympians.

"I signed the letter because I believe Lia should have the same opportunity to compete in a sport she loves just like any other woman in the NCAA," Dahlke said. "I think it's important to create a safe space for all athletes in sport."

Thomas burst onto the scene in December by setting the nation's top times in the 200 and 500 freestyle at a swim meet in Akron, Ohio. Her performance raised questions about fairness and inclusion -- and whether those ideas were mutually exclusive or coexisting goals. Dahlke occupies a unique space in this debate, one that will continue as Thomas heads to an even larger stage at the NCAA championships in Atlanta from March 16-19.

But over the course of the four days of the Ivy League championships, a meet where Thomas was awarded the high-point scorer on Saturday after becoming the only swimmer to win three individual events, there were few signs of conflict. But of course, it was there; it had to be. There had been public outcry throughout the season, including from some members of the swimming community. At Blodgett, though, few athletes were willing to speak, and there was no required media availability at the meet. So within the community of current swimmers and their families, the frustration, for those who felt it, was not apparent.

Much of the criticism aimed at Thomas has happened anonymously. Throughout the season, teammates have made anonymous comments to media outlets, stating that they felt Thomas' inclusion on the women's team was unfair. On Feb. 1, three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar submitted a letter to the Ivy League on behalf of 16 anonymous members of the Penn women's swimming and diving team and their families, arguing that Thomas had an unfair advantage and asking the Ivy League and Penn not to pursue legal action if Thomas had been barred from NCAA competition (that did not happen).

"I felt like I needed to do whatever I could to help [my daughter] with this situation," a parent of one of the 16 swimmers said to ESPN in an interview before the Ivy championships. "I didn't think she should just have to roll over and accept it."

This was a season characterized by attention: so much of it driven by Thomas' inclusion and success in the pool. On Jan. 19, the NCAA altered its policy for transgender athletes, beginning a game of hot potato that heightened scrutiny and tensions without meaningful resolution. The original policy required a calendar year of testosterone suppression for transgender women to be eligible to compete in championships, and it applied across all NCAA sports. The new approach phased out that policy in favor of those developed by individual sports' national governing bodies.

How that would be implemented and what it meant for Thomas were unknown. The NCAA said the reason for the policy change was to bring the organization in line with the approach taken by the International Olympic Committee, which announced a policy shift in November 2021 that empowered international federations to develop specific policies for each sport. But to some, the NCAA changes felt targeted.

"It's clear to me that the publicity and the success that Lia [Thomas] has been having elevated this issue at the NCAA," Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said in the wake of the NCAA's announcement. "I do believe that the NCAA missed an opportunity to be a leader, and instead tried to avoid having the NCAA policy be the focus of the attention, because Lia has met the NCAA policy that had been in existence for over a decade."

On Feb. 1, USA Swimming sent the proverbial hot potato back to the NCAA when it announced its new policy for transgender athletes. The policy applied to USA Swimming members, designated elite events (which did not include the NCAA championships), and swimmers wanting to be eligible for American records, which begins with the 13-14 age group. USA Swimming's policy required transgender women who wanted to compete in the women's category to present evidence that they have no competitive advantage to an independent panel for review, and to maintain a testosterone level below 5 nanomoles per liter for 36 consecutive months.

If the NCAA adopted those rules for the 2022 winter championships -- as the Jan. 19 announcement opened the door for -- it would have been impossible for Thomas to compete for a national championship. Thomas has said she began hormone therapy in May 2019, or 34 months prior to the 2022 NCAA championships.

Instead, the NCAA announced on Feb. 10 that it would not implement USA Swimming's policy for the 2022 championships. Thomas would be eligible by being in compliance with the previous NCAA rules and after submitting a one-time serum level that proved her testosterone is under 10 nanomoles per liter.

It was against this backdrop, under an Ivy League banner proclaiming "8 Against Hate," that the Ivy swimming community congregated at Blodgett Pool this week. Inside the concrete walls of the pool, discussion of changing rules and policies and questions of fairness faded to the background.

Parents exchanged details in the stands of which kid was theirs and talked about the travel rigors of being a swim parent with multiple children competing for multiple schools. One of the Princeton swimmers wore a tiger onesie with an orange cowboy hat. Every night before the finals sessions, team chants rippled over the pool deck as each school staked its claim. And Princeton brought a cowbell that had even the Harvard team dancing to the Tigers' chant by the end of the week. (Harvard might have also had a cowbell, but it was hard to tell. There was a surprising amount of cowbell.)

There were many great moments throughout the week. In a showdown between Thomas and Yale junior Iszac Henig, a transgender man, in the 100 freestyle, fans waved their pom-poms and cheered as the two turned for the wall on the final lap of the race, neck and neck. Thomas ended up getting the edge and out-touched Henig at the wall. The celebration from Thomas was the most exuberant she'd been all meet.

The crowd stood on its feet cheering for Harvard senior Felicia Pasadyn in the 200 backstroke as she chased down her own meet record. She came up short of that mark, but the crowd roared anyway as she established a new pool record. After winning the 100 fly, Princeton junior Nikki Venema collapsed into her teammates' arms, full of emotion. The races and competition were exciting, everything else be damned.

Thomas' performance did nothing to quell the argument that her inclusion was unfair. Of the 10 meet or pool records set during the week's finals, Thomas was part of six of them. When she dives into the pool in Atlanta next month, she will by vying for bigger championships and bigger records. There will be more attention, and more outrage.

But at Blodgett Pool, when her name was called, the crowd cheered. In the pool and on the podium, her teammates and competitors shook her hand and wished her well. The tension that had been following Thomas around like a haze on a foggy morning dissipated within the walls of this pool, during this week.

But it was still there; it just lingered out of view. For now.