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Lia Thomas tied for fifth place in the women's 200-yard freestyle at the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships on March 18, 2022.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

ATLANTA — Penn swimmer Lia Thomas tied for fifth place in the NCAA Championships 200-yard freestyle event as a hectic weekend of media and protests continued.

Taylor Ruck, a four-time Olympic medalist who currently swims at Stanford University, out-touched Thomas by two seconds to win the 200-yard freestyle in 1:41.12 — a pool record — while Thomas finished with a time of 1:43.40, tying with Riley Gaines of the University of Kentucky. Upon Ruck’s victory, the crowd, which includes a large delegation from Stanford, roared in support — notably louder than the polite applause Thomas had received the day before in her 500-yard freestyle victory.

Stanford fans packed the stands for the race, waving red and white pom-poms and chanting in sync. Thomas’ friends and family, some holding trans flags, joined them in cheering — including Schuyler Bailar, the first openly trans swimmer to compete in NCAA Division I swimming. 

“Being able to be here for Lia means a lot to me because I was very alone during my process,” Bailar said. “While I had people who supported me, I didn't have anybody else to look to like, ‘You're also a transgender swimmer.’”

Credit: Jesse Zhang

Schuyler Bailar (right), the first openly trans swimmer to compete in NCAA Division I swimming, demonstrating his support for Lia Thomas along with Alix J. (left), one of the facilitators of the Georgia Tech T+ group, holding a trans flag.

While Ruck was seeded No. 19 going into the meet, she placed first in the prelims for the event Friday morning. She recently returned to swimming in 2021 after taking a two-year hiatus from the sport — impacted by her struggles with an eating disorder, which she opened up to The Globe and Mail about in December. 

A local and national media frenzy has developed throughout the championships — the climax in Thomas’ fifth-year senior season, which has launched a national debate surrounding transgender inclusion and eligibility in women’s sports. 

Since Thursday morning, demonstrators from organizations such as Save Women’s Sports have gathered outside the McAuley Aquatic Center before each of Thomas’ swims to protest her inclusion in the NCAA championship and espouse transphobic vitriol.

Across the street, counter-protesters have been present as well — holding signs denouncing transphobia and waving rainbow and trans flags. 

Both the Ivy League and Penn Athletics have come out in support of Thomas, in addition to over 300 current and former swimmers, who signed a letter in support of her on the same day the NCAA announced that it would preserve her ability to compete. 

In early February, however, 16 Penn swimmers wrote in an anonymous letter that they were opposed to Thomas competing on the women's team — saying she was taking "competitive opportunities” away from them. 

On Feb. 10, the NCAA announced that it would not adopt USA Swimming’s more rigid policies for transgender athletes ahead of this year’s championship, thus preserving Thomas' eligibility to compete in the meet.