Lea Thomas became the first transgender athlete to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) swimming championship after beating Emma Weyant on Thursday night. While it was a proud moment for Thomas, 22, her controversial victory received mixed reaction from the audience. Among the cheers boos were heard when Thomas was being handed over the winning trophy.
The Pennsylvania swimmer clocked 4 minutes, 33.24 seconds to win the 500 yard freestyle swimming competition in Atlanta on Thursday evening. Just before Lia was handed over the trophy, the crowd were more enthusiastic about cheering Weyant who bagged the second spot at the event. She touched the wall in 4:34.99 in the competition.
Thomas, a transgender woman, was alternately tested by Erica Sullivan (Texas), Olympians Brooke Forde (Stanford) and Weyant during the competition. While Thomas led early, she was passed by Sullivan trailing in most of the first half of the race. In the later half of the race, Thomas and Weyant went stroke-for-stroke. However, Thomas managed to pull away over the final 150 yards to become the first known transgender athlete to win the Division I national championship, according to ESPN.
"It means the world to be here," the trans woman athlete said during an interview with Elizabeth Beisel after completion of the race. Thomas had declined to attend the NCAA-required postrace news conference and told Beisel that she has been avoiding the distractions as college swimmer Weyant, who bagged the second spot in the race to the transgender athlete has been hailed a heroine by the crowd and many on social media even called Weyant the real winner.
"I try to ignore it as much as I can," Thomas said and added, "I try to focus on my swimming, what I need to do to get ready for my races. And just try to block out everything else."
Standing on the podium with her winning trophy, the trans swimmer flashed a peace sign. And the crowd was noticeably silent as Thomas was announced the champion. Thomas is all set to return to the pool on Friday morning for the upcoming 200-yard freestyle prelims. She will also compete in the 100 scheduled for Saturday.
On the other hand, Weyant, 20, who hails from Florida, races for the University of Virginia and had earlier represented USA at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 where she won a silver medal in the 400-meter Individual Medley.