Lia Thomas Just Became the First Transgender Athlete to Win an NCAA Division I Title

Despite ongoing controversy, the University of Pennsylvania swimmer went on to make history as she won the women’s 500-yard freestyle event on Thursday.

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, in swim gear and goggles, poses before a swim meet
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University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, 22, is making quite the splash in the sports world — and for good reason. On Thursday, Thomas became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I title after finishing first in the women's 500-yard freestyle event with a record time of 4:33.24, according to CNN.

Thomas, who previously competed on the men's swim team at Penn, joined the women's team for the 2021-2022 season after undergoing two years of hormone replacement therapy, she explained in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated. Since then, however, the athlete's sparked a wave of controversy and national debate on whether trans women should be able to compete in women's sports. (FYI, the NCAA rules allow athletes to change gender categories at the discretion of the national governing body of that sport, which is also subject to ongoing review and recommendation by an NCAA governing board, according to the association.)

"I try to ignore [negative comments] as much as I can," Thomas told ESPN after Thursday's race. "I try to focus on my swimming and what I need to do to get ready for my races and block out everything else."

Despite the backlash of others, including some of her teammates who anonymously requested that she be held out of the conference championship (which runs from February through March), Thomas has proved time and time again that she won't let anything get in the way of her doing what she loves: swimming. So, you can either get behind her or, well, don't, she explained to Sports Illustrated. "The very simple answer is that I'm not a man. I'm a woman, so I belong on the women's team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets." (Related: What People Always Get Wrong About the Trans Community, According to a Trans Sex Educator)

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas accepts the winning trophy for the 500 Freestyle finals during the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on March 17th, 2022
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Other trans athletes, such as Schuyler Bailar (who became the first known transgender man to compete on a Division I men's swim team back in 2015), have also recognized and applauded Thomas' efforts and perseverance. "It's a symbol of Lia's resilience," Bailar told ESPN."The fact that she's able to show up here, despite protesters outside, people shouting and booing her, I think it's a testament to her resiliency. And it's also a symbol that we can both be who we are and do what we love."

Thomas is set to compete in the 200-yard freestyle on Friday and the 100-yard freestyle on Saturday.

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