Lia Thomas Might Be Winning, But She's Not Swimming That Fast

While some sporting pundits are saying that transgender swimmer Lia Thomas is destroying competition in women's swimming events after winning several races this season, the data on finishing times suggests that isn't the case.

The issue of transgender women competing in college swimming contests is dividing the sporting world, with some pundits saying transgender athletes competing against cisgender women is unfair and damaging competitiveness in the sport due to "biological advantages." But Thomas, from the University of Pennsylvania, has broken no rules. She has followed National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and Ivy League regulations since she began her transition in 2019 by starting hormone replacement therapy.

Newsweek analysed the last 10 seasons' fastest times in the women's 500-yard freestyle, as well as the fastest times in the NCAA championship women's 500-yard freestyle for the last decade, using data from SwimCloud.

The data suggests that while Thomas was the fastest swimmer in that category this season, she actually would have been the fastest swimmer in only one of the last 10 seasons. In most of those previous years, her fastest time would only have got her to second at the most, and in one year she would have come as low as 12th.

The only other season she would have gotten the fastest time was in 2019 to 2020. That year, Emma Nordin of Arizona State University recorded the fastest time at 04:33.74. Thomas's best time in the 2021/2022 season was 04:33.24.

Fierce Debate

In the 2016-2017 season, Thomas's 2021-2022 time would have ranked her 12th. The fastest time that year was from Katie Ladecky from Stanford University, who finished at 04:24.06, nearly 10 seconds faster than Thomas in the most recent season.

Looking at the last 10 NCAA free title races, in the 500-yard freestyle category, Thomas would have only come first in two of those races over the last 10 years. In the women's 500-yards freestyle in 2022, Thomas came first with a time of 04:33.24. She would have finished first again in 2021, as Paige Madden won that with a time of 04:34.61. Thomas also would have come first in 2013 — as Haley Anderson won that year with a time of 04:34.66.

Thomas's presence in women's college swimming competitions has ignited debate, and in previous races some people have even refused to clap her after she won, instead waiting for the runner up to finish before cheering.

Among the people who have spoken out against Thomas competing are former Olympic athlete Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner has claimed that Thomas wasn't the rightful winner of the 500-yard freestyle final at the NCAA college championships.

The debate has also reached the political benches. On March 3, Iowa became the 11th state to pass a law forbidding trans women from competing in women's sporting events.

Conservative Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also said that Thomas wasn't the rightful winner. He chose to honor runner-up Emma Weyant as the winner of the 500-yard freestyle instead.

British Olympic swimmer and silver medallist Sharron Davies also argued Thomas shouldn't be allowed to compete in female swimming.

Although she has said that she didn't want trans athletes excluded, Davis argued that it was unfair for cisgender women that Thomas was competing against them. In a column on the matter for the conservative Daily Mail newspaper, Davis also incorrectly said that Thomas was 6 ft 4 in tall; she is actually 6 ft 1 in.

Davies revealed on Twitter on Wednesday that she had received several threats after sharing her opinion.

"I've received several threats to myself and my work because I present evidence based facts on the unfairness of male inclusion in women's sport," Davies said. "I will not stop bringing these actual facts into the light or be bullied into silence."

Lia Thomas
Transgender woman Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania talks to a reporter after winning the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA Division I Women's Swimming & Diving Championshipon March 17, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. Although some pundits have suggested that Thomas is destroying competitiveness in women’s swimming events, after winning several races this season, data on finishing times suggests that this is not the case. Justin Casterline/Getty