Swimmer Lia Thomas Becomes First Openly Transgender Athlete to Win Division I National Championship

Lia Thomas
Lia Thomas
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswir

Lia Thomas has made history once again, despite ongoing national debate.

The University of Pennsylvania swimmer, 22, became the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in any sport Thursday, finishing first in the women's 500-yard freestyle event with a time of 4:33.24, according to ESPN.

She pulled ahead in the final 150 yards for her season best time, finishing 1.75 seconds ahead of University of Virginia's Emma Weyant, who took second place. Thomas is also set to compete in the 200 and 100 freestyle events.

RELATED: U. Penn Swimmer Lia Thomas 'Couldn't Get out of Bed' Before Coming Out as Transgender

"It means the world to be here, be with two of my best friends and teammates and be able to compete," Thomas told ESPN in a post-race interview.

In recent months, Thomas' thriving athletic career has served as a lightning rod for outrage over trans women in sports. Last year, Pennsylvania introduced HB 972, also known as the "Save Women's Sports Act," which calls for students to play on a team consistent with the sex they were assigned at birth.

When asked about how she deals with being under the spotlight, Thomas replied, "I try to ignore it as much as I can. 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."

Save Women's Sports founder Beth Stelzer was among those protesting Thomas' victory, draping a banner with the organization's name over the railing in the stands, according to ESPN. They were met with counter-protests from Georgia Tech students.

Thomas previously swam for UPenn's men's team for three years before coming out as transgender. She joined the women's team in her senior year and has since set several records, drawing national attention from those on both sides of the debate.

Lia Thomas
Lia Thomas

Hunter Martin/Getty

Last month, 16 of her teammates anonymously sent a letter to school and Ivy League officials attempting to block Thomas from the championship, arguing that she "holds an unfair advantage," according to The Washington Post.

In response, more than 300 NCAA, Team USA and Olympic swimmers came out in support of Thomas and all transgender and nonbinary athletes in a letter urging the NCAA not to give into the outrage.

RELATED VIDEO: Leyna Bloom Makes History as First Transgender Model on Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Cover

"With this letter, we express our support for Lia Thomas, and all transgender college athletes, who deserve to be able to participate in safe and welcoming athletic environments," they wrote. "We urge you to not allow political pressure to compromise the safety and wellbeing of college athletes everywhere."

The NCAA has consistently stood in support of transgender student athletes. "This commitment is grounded in our values of inclusion and fair competition," the organization shared in a statement last year.

Although Thomas is the first openly transgender athlete to win a D-I title, runner CeCé Telfer previously became the first to win an NCAA title with the 2019 Division II championship in the women's 400-meter hurdles.