ATLANTA — Penn women's swimmer Lia Thomas made history again this evening, becoming the first transgender woman to win an NCAA Division I Championship title amid ample support, protests, and a media frenzy.
When Thomas' name was announced prior to the 500-yard freestyle final, there was palpable tension and relative quiet. As she swam, the stadium's seats — nearly sold out at $120 each — were packed with spectators.
"I try to ignore everything as much as I can. I try to just focus on my swimming and do what I need to do to get ready for my races and just try to block out everything else," Thomas told ESPN directly after the race. "It means a lot to be here."
After the race, Mike Flynn, Georgia Tech’s assistant athletics director for communications and public relations, told members of the press that while all champions were told they would be required to participate in a press conference, Thomas “has declined to participate in the press conference.”
Thomas touched the wall in 4:33.24, marking her best time of the season and setting Penn's program record, which she broke earlier this season.
Though her time was still 9.18 seconds away from Olympian and Stanford University graduate Katie Ledecky’s NCAA record, Thomas has drawn national attention for breaking Penn program and pool-specific records throughout a tumultuous season.
In December, Thomas broke the Penn record for the 500-yard freestyle at the Zippy Invitational, and a pool record in the same event at February’s Ivy League Championships. That weekend, she led the team to a historic third-place finish in the Ivy Championships, winning three individual events — the 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle, and 500 freestyle.
Her preliminary time of 4:33.82 had previously been her personal best and the top seeded time leading into the evening's finals.
Earlier in the day, protestors — many from out-of-state groups such as Concerned Women for America, who said they were protesting in an effort to “save women’s sports” — gathered outside the aquatic facility to oppose her participation.
Additionally, many Georgia Tech students — some of whom were representing LGBTQ+ student groups, and some of whom happened upon the scene — formed a counter-protest.
“We don't want to, like, necessarily curtail their freedoms. We just want to provide a counter narrative and, like, make a lot of people to know that real Georgia Tech students want to feel safe," Naiki Kaffezakis, the president of the Grad Pride organization at Georgia Tech, told The Daily Pennsylvanian.
On Feb. 10, the NCAA announced that it will 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. Both the Ivy League and Penn Athletics have come out in support of Thomas.