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Lia Thomas becomes 1st transgender woman to win NCAA swimming championship

Thomas has followed NCAA and Ivy League rules since she began her transition in 2019 by starting hormone replacement therapy.
/ Source: AP (Associated Press)

Lia Thomas took control in the final 100 yards of the 500-yard freestyle to make history Thursday as the first transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming championship.

Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania senior who entered the NCAA women’s swimming and diving championships as the top seed, had a season-best time of 4 minutes, 33.24 seconds.

Lia Thomas in a blue swim cap and mirrored goggles takes a breath as she swims freestyle in a lane framed by blue and white lane lines.
University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas swims in the 500 Freestyle finals during the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on March 17, 2022 in Atlanta.Rich von Biberstein / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“I didn’t have a whole lot of expectation for this meet,” said Thomas, a former male swimmer for UPenn. “I was just happy to be here and race and compete the best I could.”

Virginia’s Emma Weyant was second at 4:34.99.

The race was close until the final 100 yards, with Weyant and Erica Sullivan of Texas pushing Thomas for the lead. The three swam in lanes three through five, adding to the drama, with Thomas in the middle.

Thomas wearing a fleece-lined jacket and her swimsuit holds a wooden trophy while holding up a peace sign in front of blue and silver balloons and a step-and-pose wall with the NCAA logo.
Thomas accepts the winning trophy for the 500 Freestyle finals.Rich von Biberstein / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As was the case in Thursday morning in a preliminary win, Thomas was stronger at the end. She won the preliminary race at 4:33.82.

Sullivan was third at 4:35.92. Stanford’s Brooke Forde was fourth at 4:36.18.

Thomas also is the top seed in the 200 freestyle Friday and is the 10th seed in the 100 freestyle Saturday.

Related: Trans swimmer Lia Thomas shares her story with Sports Illustrated — ‘I belong on the women’s team’

Thomas has followed NCAA and Ivy League rules since she began her transition in 2019 by starting hormone replacement therapy.

The inclusion of the transgender swimmer created controversy, even within the sport. There were fewer than 10 protesters outside the Georgia Tech facility, and some carried banners which read “Save Women’s Sports” in the stands.

On the left, a rainbow flag flanks several young people holding signs in support of Thomas, including one that says "Hate has no place at GT." On the right, a group of protesters hold green and white signs, including two that say "save women's sports."
On the left, counter-protesters supporting Thomas gather outside the national championship event. On the right, people protesting Lia Thomas hold signs. Getty Images

“I try to ignore it as much as I can,” Thomas said. “I try to focus on my swimming .. and just try to block out everything else.”

Thomas spoke with ESPN immediately after the race but would not participate in the official news conference, as required by the NCAA. Since participation is required, possible action could come following evaluation by the NCAA’s swimming and diving championships committee.

Tennessee’s Julia Mrozinski won the consolation final with a time of 4:37.35. Northwestern’s Lola Mull was second.

CORRECTION (March 18, 2022 at 11:20 a.m. ET): This article has been updated to clarify that Lia Thomas was formerly a male swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania.