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Iszac Henig (left) and Lia Thomas (right), representing Yale and Penn respectively, share a hug after racing the 100-yard freestyle event. Credit: Jesse Zhang

ATLANTA — Penn women’s swimmer Lia Thomas placed eighth at the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving National Championships in her last swim of a historic season that has spotlighted transgender inclusion in sports.

After she touched the wall in 48.18 — achieving her third straight podium placement in three days — she pulled herself out of the pool and headed to the podium with fellow trans athlete and Yale University junior Iszac Henig, who finished fifth. Both swimmers — with "Let trans kids play" written on their arms — shared a hug and posed for photos, with Thomas flashing her signature peace sign.

"It was very important to me that I do it, and I was glad that Lia joined me in doing so," Henig told The Daily Pennsylvanian in an interview after the race. "I think there's so many bills right now in so many different states that bar trans people, trans women especially, from sports. And I think being able to speak out against that using this platform that I have is really powerful for me."

Thomas and Henig — who swims on the women’s team — have raced together before, most recently in the Ivy League Championships. Thomas bested him then to win the event, while he took second place.

"She's an incredible athlete, right?" Henig said. "So [I have] a lot of respect for that. And she's also, like, a friend. And that's, you know, it's so fun to race your friends, it's fun to have someone to push you to go faster."

Henig added that the negativity some media outlets have directed toward trans athletes has been "tough," but navigating the season has made his friendships stronger.

"There are so many different things that are actually risking women's sports, you know, unequal pay and equal coverage from news networks. That's far more important to me than, you know, someone's birth gender," he said.

While Thomas didn’t capture a second NCAA title in the 100-yard freestyle — which instead fell to University of Virginia swimmer Gretchen Walsh, who earned a pool record — she ended up two places higher than her original seed. 

Leading up to the preliminary event, Thomas had been seeded to place 10th — which would have landed her in the consolation heat rather than on the podium. Friday morning, however, she achieved her top time of the season and entered the finals seeded fourth. 

Throughout her NCAA Championship journey, Thomas has faced transphobic vitriol in both the media — from right-wing sources such as Fox News and Daily Mail — and in protests held by Save Women’s Sports and Concerned Women for America on Thursday afternoon outside the meet.

Despite this, several of Thomas’ competitors have come out in support of her participation. Olympic medalist and University of Texas swimmer Erica Sullivan — who came third to Thomas when she became the first transgender woman to win an NCAA Division I Championship title — authored a Newsweek op-ed in support of her on Friday titled “Why I'm Proud to Support Trans Athletes like Lia Thomas.”

Sullivan wrote that as an LGBTQ athlete herself, she is frustrated that Thomas has been “unfairly targeted” for being a transgender woman.

“I feel incredibly grateful that coming out as gay never kept me from being able to participate in the sport I love,” she wrote. “All athletes—including transgender athletes—deserve to be respected and included, exactly as we are.”

Similarly, after Stanford University swimmer Taylor Ruck out-touched Thomas in the 200-yard freestyle final Friday evening, she shook her hand.

"There's been chatter about Lia being here, but I just try to zone everything out," Ruck told ESPN in a post-race interview. "I was excited to be able to race someone who goes so fast.”

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.