(NewsNation) — A teammate of the transgender swimmer smashing records at the University of Pennsylvania called her school leaders “weak” and said they were afraid of cancel culture while telling NewsNation that Lia Thomas shouldn’t be allowed to swim for the women’s team.
“I do not think that Lia should be competing in (NCAA championships) because there is now one less spot for a cisgender female who is of NCAA championship caliber who will not get to compete,” the swimmer said on the condition of anonymity because she feared backlash. “Whatever heat she’s in, whatever event she’s in, there is no longer a fair and equitable playing field,” she added.
Thomas, 22, began swimming for Penn’s women’s team this season, but swam on the men’s team for three seasons.
She declined an interview for this story, but told Swim Swam that competing for the men’s team was an “awkward experience” because she was transitioning. She recently spoke with Sports Illustrated and said “the very simple answer is that I am not a man. I’m a woman. So I belong on the women’s team.”
The fifth year senior won Ivy League championships and set Penn records in the 200, 500 and 1650 meter freestyle. In the latter race, Thomas beat the competition by 38 seconds. She will compete in this month’s NCAA championship meet in Atlanta.
The anonymous swimmer called the decision makers in her sport and school cowards for not doing what she believes is the right thing: forcing Thomas to keep swimming against men. She believes Thomas’ physical attributes are a credit to her biological sex and represent an unfair competitive advantage against women.
“A 25-year-old can’t decide to swim with the 13s, 14s, because it’s unfair,” the swimmer told NewsNation. “There are categories for a reason because they make sense and ensure fairness.”
The NCAA and Penn did not respond to our request for comment.
The issue has divided the swimming community. In December, concerned parents questioned the fairness of the situation in a letter to the NCAA, the conference and the school. Only Penn responded by saying they wanted to help the “community navigate Lia’s success.”
Recently, Michael Phelps called the controversy complicated and has said there needs to be a “level playing field.”
Caiytlin Jenner, perhaps the most famous transgender athlete, has said she doesn’t think it’s fair that Thomas competes in women’s sports.
“[Thomas’] cardiovascular system is bigger, her heart is bigger, she’s got longer arms and legs,” Jenner said. “I don’t think biological boys should compete in women’s sports”
Until recently, the NCAA’s transgender participation policy deferred to the national governing body in each sport. Last month, USA Swimming announced new rules for transgender women. To compete, they must demonstrate testosterone levels below five nanomoles per liter for three years before competition. They must also provide evidence that they do not have a competitive advantage from being born male.
The NCAA chose not to adopt those new rules. They require demonstrated testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per liter.
Also in February, 16 members of the women’s team wrote a letter to Penn and the Ivy League saying they support Thomas’ gender identity, but when it comes to sports competition “the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity. Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category.”
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medal swimmer and founder of the advocacy group Champion Women, sent the letter on behalf of the swimmers.
“[The NCAA was] more afraid of the ACLU and a lawsuit than they were of biological women,” Hogshead-Makar said. “They expected the biological women to just suck it up.”
The NCAA said it would not change its rules for the 2022 swim season because it “could have unfair and potentially detrimental impacts on schools and student-athletes intending to compete in the 2022 NCAA women’s swimming championships.”
The swimmer NewsNation spoke with believes the school, conference and NCAA are afraid of backlash.
“You’ve not even come close to doing your job,” the swimmer said. “In fact, you’ve done the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, and it’s embarrassing.”
Below is an abridged Q&A with the swimmer, edited for clarity.
Rich McHugh: You’ve chosen to remain anonymous. Why is that?
Penn swimmer: Yeah, because there’s about 2% of the population in this country who attack people, no matter what they say. They don’t actually have an argument and they don’t present any facts or logic … they just want to attack other people and, like, bring people down. And I just don’t really wanna subject myself to that.
Rich McHugh: Lia says she is a woman. Do you agree with that?
Penn swimmer: I agree that Lia identifies as a woman. I think that there is differences between the physiological makeup of a transgender woman versus a cisgendered women.
Rich McHugh: Take us back to the first time that you can recall when, when Lia got in the pool and competed. What was your reaction?
Penn swimmer: I was kind of just shocked that this was here and this was actually happening and there was going to be no one to step in and assist this situation … we were kind of just made to accept it and not question it or say anything.
Rich McHugh: The other teammates who see this the same way that you do, how do they feel about speaking out about this? Are they scared?
Penn swimmer: I think a lot of my teammates are really scared
Rich McHugh: You believe that U Penn has caved to the fear of cancellation?
Penn swimmer: Yeah. A hundred percent.
Rich McHugh: What crossed your mind the first time Lia smashed a women’s record?
Penn swimmer: That our team would never be the same, even in 10 years, 20 years. There’s always going to be these records on the record board that say Lia Thomas. And I just don’t know exactly what it’s a record of. Is it a record of people who identify as a woman, or is it supposed to be a record of people who had female puberty and have all the physiological components of being cisgendered women? Is it a record of that? Because now we don’t have those records anymore.
Rich McHugh: A lot of people say, this is complex. This is a complex issue. Is it a complex issue to you?
Penn swimmer: No, not at all. I don’t think it’s a complex issue. I think it’s very simple. There are differences between males and females.
Rich McHugh: From my understanding, Lia still has male genitalia. Is it a source of discomfort that she is in the locker room with you and, and others on the team?
Penn swimmer: Yeah, it’s definitely uncomfortable … It’s something I know for a fact that me and multiple of my teammates went to the coach about, and we were just basically told to suck it up and, you know, to deal with it.
Rich McHugh: That’s the phrase that they used. Suck it up?
Penn swimmer: Yeah.
Rich McHugh: What’s your message to Penn?
Penn swimmer: Do better, stop being weak and afraid … Do what’s right to support women. I don’t know why supporting women has become such a crazy concept.
Rich McHugh: When you’re watching Lia swim at meets and compete, what’s going through your mind?
Penn swimmer: Frustration. Frustration that this was allowed to happen… The NCAA has never said anything about the situation … but by not saying anything, they were then discriminating against cisgender women.
Rich McHugh: So you feel that you’ve been discriminated against?
Penn swimmer: Oh, a hundred percent. Yes. Yes, absolutely. I’ve been discriminated against and most of my teammates have, too. And other girls who’ve been at meets that we’ve been at or are looking for different finals or spots at NCAAs, they’ve all been discriminated against and the NCAA has allowed it to happen. And it’s shameful.
Rich McHugh: How would you characterize this whole thing?
Penn swimmer: The first word that comes to my mind is insane … I feel like it’s something that’s so basic that people have just somehow managed to twist and make way more complicated than it should have ever been.
Rich McHugh: Should Lia be competing in the NCAAs?
Penn swimmer: I do not think that Lia should be competing in those because … there is now one less spot for a cisgender female … who is of NCAA championship caliber who will not get to compete. … Whatever event [Lia’s] in, there is no longer a fair and equitable playing field.
Rich McHugh: In five or 10 years, let’s say, when we look back on this, how do you think we’re gonna look at this issue?
Penn swimmer: I think we’re gonna look at the people who are making these decisions and were in charge and kind of laugh at them and just ask, “What were you doing? You had the power to change that and you chose not to. You’re kind of a coward for that.”