“I’m a woman, just like anybody else on the team.”
This is what Lia Thomas told Sports Illustrated in a profile ahead of Thursday’s NCAA Championships, where Lia placed first in the women’s 500-yard freestyle. A lot of swimming families like ours have been talking about this story for months, but few of us know Lia’s story beyond what we read in news reports.
What we do know is the story of our own three children. The oldest started swimming competitively for a USA Swimming club when she was 7-years-old and is still swimming five years after competing three times in the NCAA Championships for Auburn University. She was joined in the pool by her little brother who now owns several national records and national championships as well. Our youngest followed her older brother and sister into the pool and is now an NAIA All-American on the Savanah College of Art & Design with her older brother.
All three of our swimmers are perplexed with the swimming and collegiate leaders who are enabling Thomas to compete against and dominate women in the swimming pool. The youngest, who still has three years of collegiate eligibility, faces the real prospect of someday having to face a transgender athlete in the pool that she could never, ever have a chance of beating.
Our son is frustrated as well because his college times are very similar to Thomas’s when swimming for the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team. And like all good brothers, he feels the desire to protect his sisters from what is coming. It makes you wonder: Do the men who run the NCAA and USA Swimming have sisters or daughters?
Our son knows his body is bigger and stronger than his sisters. He knows puberty changed him. He knows that he kept growing into his high school and even college years when his sisters didn’t. He also listened while his sisters read the book “Roar” by Dr. Stacy Sims at the beach last summer as they sought to improve their nutrition and training so they could swim faster.
Famous for her TEDx talk “Women Are Not Small Men,” this former Stanford researcher details all of the differences between men and women in her book. Perhaps this one excerpt is enough science for this post:
Pound for pound, men still generally outrun, outwalk, and out cycle us. Female world records from the 800 meter to the marathon are about 11 percent slower than those held by men. Why? Well, for the same reason that a Prius will have to pull some wily moves if it wants to race against a Mustang—we start with a smaller engine. As a woman, you have a smaller heart, smaller heart volume, smaller lungs, and lower diastolic pressure…this also means we pump out less oxygenated blood with every beat—about 30 percent less cardiac output than men.
We are not scientists, but we know men and women are different. This fact does not make us bigots or anti-anyone.
In fact, we can promise you that if Thomas were teammates with our children, they would be good teammates and training partners. If you were to ask, our children’s teammates would tell you that they are fair and inclusive — everything swimming and collegiate officials want them to be.
In the end though, it doesn’t take science for most people to know what is really fair and inclusive. And what is happening in the NCAA is neither. Thomas has rights, but those rights should not trample on the rights of women with smaller hearts to pump oxygen, smaller lungs to breath while coming up for air, smaller hands to pull the water, and smaller feet to propel them across the pool. To put it a different way, you can’t be fair to one by being unfair to everyone else. The right to inclusivity for one should not exclude others from swimming.
Several years ago, our youngest failed to qualify for her high school’s championship team during her freshman year. My wife put her arm around her and looked her in the eye the next day and said two words: “Train harder.” She did and swam on the championship team as a sophomore. Usually, as a parent, you know what to say to your swimmer after a tough swim. “Good job.” “Keep working.” “It will pay off in the end.”
However, what is father or mother supposed to say when their daughter takes second place to a competitor who was training with her as a man two years earlier?
Swimming is a competitive sport but also one of the fairest sports. In the end, you are competing more against yourself than the competition. If your daughter finishes in last place but swam a personal best, you celebrate. If your son wins but fails to drop time and make a cut, you leave disappointed. The one constant in swimming is the clock. As the saying goes, “Time is time.”
With the tick-tock of the clock, politics is left out of the water. If you have one of the four fastest times on the high school swim team, you make the district team. If you are one of the four fastest sprinters, you make the sprint relays. Qualifying for the Zone, Sectional, Junior Nationals and National championships requires nothing more than “making the cut.” If you get the time, you’re in. If you don’t, you are out.
Make no mistake, there are women excluded from this year’s NCAA Championships because Lia Thomas is being allowed to compete. Even today, the woman who took ninth Thursday morning was excluded from swimming in the finals Thursday night. The woman who took 17th doesn’t get a second swim.
As our oldest daughter said to us: “Don’t they understand that all it takes is three transgender swimmers in each event and a woman will never again stand on the podium at any of these collegiate championships ever again?”
Everything we’ve seen so far leads us to only one conclusion about when this will end. It will have to be women who put a stop to this. If women simply refuse to compete under these unfair rules that are excluding them, the leaders of these institutions will be forced to find a solution that is truly fair and inclusive to everyone — and especially women. Hopefully, we won’t be silent when a brave woman or girl is the first to step back from the blocks and take a stand for fairness and inclusiveness.