The eyes of the college swimming world were focused on Harvard’s Blodgett Pool over the weekend for the Ivy League Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships. But what was going on in the pool was only part of the story.
Penn’s Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, and Yale’s Iszac Henig, a transgender man, became only the second and third out transgender athletes to win individual Division I conference titles. Their participation brought massive media attention to the event, along with scrutiny from some circles.
Thomas, a senior, is competing in her first year for the women’s swim team and previously competed on the men’s team for three seasons. Henig, a junior, has been able to participate with the women’s team since he hasn’t received 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 not long 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 Friday night when she won the 200-yard freestyle final in 1:43.12, setting a new Ivy League meet record in the event in the process. Henig came in third in the 100-yard butterfly final.
And on Saturday, they faced off head-to-head in the 100-yard freestyle final in a photo finish where Thomas finished in first with a time of 47.63 seconds, while Henig came just behind in second with a time of 47.82 seconds, both of which beat the previous meet record of 47.85 seconds.
But the lead up to the championships was anything but smooth and for a time it was unclear whether Thomas would be unable to compete following mid-season rule changes.
In January, the NCAA announced that it would be adopting a new policy where each sport would take up the transgender eligibility requirements of its respective national governing body. Previously, the NCAA had a uniform policy.
According to new rules adopted by USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body, at the beginning of February, transgender women athletes would have to meet several requirements to swim, including meeting a testosterone threshold of 5 nanomoles per liter for 36 months, a standard that is more strict than the NCAA’s previous requirements.
Then, on February 11, the NCAA reversed course, saying “implementing additional changes at this time could have unfair and potentially detrimental impacts on schools and student-athletes intending to compete in 2022 NCAA women's swimming championships.”
But Thomas has faced more than changes to collegiate athletic policy. Throughout the season detractors ranging from anonymous teammates to national organizations have spoken out against Thomas’ record-breaking participation, citing what they say are unfair advantages due to Thomas being assigned male at birth and having previously competed in men’s sports.
But despite these protests, the Ivy League has 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 any form,” the League said in a statement from January. “The league welcomes [Thomas’] participation in the sport of women’s swimming and diving and looks 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 counting the unusually high number of members of the press.
It was a festive spirit inside, with athletes dancing and laughing poolside while cheering on their teammates and fans in the stands waving poms poms and leading organized cheers for the swimmers, who raced under a large “8 Against Hate” banner.
When Thomas and Henig’s names came up over the PA system, most fans gave a polite round of applause, with no booing or heckling from the stands.
But on Friday night, there was one quiet show of support that signified the gravity of the moment. Near the back of the stands, Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, held a transgender pride flag for Thomas and Henig’s races.
Caraballo, who was a staff attorney at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and also at the LGBTQ Law Project at the New York Legal Assistance Group and is transgender, told GBH News that she wanted to support both swimmers amid some negativity surrounding their participation.
“I just think especially right now with so many bills being passed to ban trans kids from sports, to ban their healthcare, I think we really just want to show that we have sports heroes, we have people that are successful, that are thriving and doing well, living authentically as themselves,” she said. “Especially for our trans youth who are being targeted right now across the country. They have people they can look to and they can [say] ‘I can be Iszac, I can be Lia’ and have something to look up to past all the hate that’s coming their way.”
The Ivy League didn’t respond to GBH News’ request for an interview with Thomas, Henig or anyone else who could speak to their impact this season, a situation similar to those other outlets faced at the championships.
But their performances spoke for themselves. And when Thomas and Henig were in the water, it seemed like all the labels and headlines washed away. For a few brief moments, they were simply swimmers.