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Penn swimmer Lia Thomas had a record-breaking week at the Ivy League Championships

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas looks on after winning the 200 yard freestyle during the 2022 Ivy League Women's Swimming and Diving Championships at Blodgett Pool on Friday, in Cambridge, Mass.
Kathryn Riley
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University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas looks on after winning the 200 yard freestyle during the 2022 Ivy League Women's Swimming and Diving Championships at Blodgett Pool on Friday, in Cambridge, Mass.

BOSTON — University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas is a three-time Ivy League champion.

A 22-year-old trans woman, Thomas came in first in the 200-yard, 500-yard, and 100-yard freestyle events at this week's Ivy League Women's Swimming and Diving Championships at Harvard University's Blodgett Pool.

Her showing cements her position as a top competitor at the NCAA swimming championships in Atlanta next month.

Thomas had already qualified for the national competition at a meet in December — but it was unclear if she'd actually be able to compete after a surprising mid-season rule change from the NCAA.

Thomas broke several records at the pool, which is in Boston, across the river from Harvard's Cambridge campus. Her 500 free time of 4:37.32 on Thursday was a pool best; her 1:43.12 time in the 200 free on Friday shattered the previous pool record, as well as the Ivy League's meet record. And on Saturday she smashed another pool and Ivy League record, coming in at 47.63 in the 100 free.

An Ivy League announcement that played over the public address system each day stated a no tolerance policy against transphobia, as well as racism and homophobia.

It's the first season this announcement has been played before events, said Ivy League spokesperson JJ Klein, as it was drafted right before COVID canceled the 2020-21 season.

Competitors, teammates, and spectators at Blodgett Pool seemed supportive of Thomas. Swimmers in adjacent lanes gave her the customary congratulatory fist bumps after her wins — and the crowd cheered for her victories.

One parent in attendance expressed sympathy for the UPenn swimmer.

"For Lia to be up on the blocks and looking around, and all the world is talking about her, that's just a huge burden on her," said Peter Larsen, whose daughter Clare competed against Thomas for Columbia in three events. "I think people have to remember that this young girl is dealing with a lot herself, and have some support there."

USA Swimming had released a policy in early February that would have excluded Thomas from the meet. It required a trans competitor to receive hormone replacement therapy for 36 months, and Thomas has been doing it for 33 months.

But on Feb. 10, the NCAA announced it wouldn't adopt the new policy until the 2023-24 season — greenlighting Thomas to compete in this season's culminating events.

The Austin, Texas, native has been thrust into the national spotlight for her record-breaking performance on the Penn women's team. She competed her first three seasons at Philly's Ivy League university on the men's team.

Through a spokesperson, Thomas and her coaches have declined to comment until the end of this season. When reached by Billy Penn, all her close competitors and their coaches also declined to comment, or didn't answer repeated requests for comment.

She isn't the only trans competitor making a splash at the Ivy League championships.

Yale's Iszac Henig is a transgender man who hasn't started hormone replacement therapy yet, so he can continue to compete on the women's team. He won the 50-yard freestyle in 21.93 seconds on Thursday, breaking the Blodgett Pool record. He came in second to Thomas in the 100-yard freestyle at 47.82 — which was also faster than the previous Ivy League record.

It's an undoubtedly historic moment for elite trans athletes.

Schuyler Bailar, a 2019 Harvard grad and the first trans man to compete for a D1 men's team, attended every day of the meet — holding up a trans flag whenever Henig or Thomas swam.

"I really wanted them to see the support, especially for Lia, who has seen so much negativity, so much vitriol, straight up cruelty. I wanted her to feel seen," Bailar told Billy Penn.

"It's a really important moment for the trans community to say, 'Hey, we can be here, and not only can we be here, but we can thrive.'"

For more head to WHYY's Billy Penn.

Copyright 2022 WHYY

Michaela Winberg