Gary Nager Editorial

When I saw on the news and the uproar on Facebook that transgendered swimmer Lia Thomas had won the NCAA Women’s 500-yard championship, beating out Sarasota native Emma Weyant by 1.75 seconds, I couldn’t help but think about my own mediocre career as a distance freestyle and butterfly swimmer.

I didn’t want to be a swimmer as a kid, but all of my closest friends joined the Hewlett (Long Island) High swim team in 9th grade. At that age, I wasn’t big/tall or good enough to play high school football or basketball, so I accepted that swimming was it for me.

All of my friends were better than I was as a swimmer, especially in sprint events. But, I did enjoy being part of a really good team (we always had guys advance to the State Championship meets and some of them even won their events at the County level and at least made it to the finals in their respective events at States). Two of my closest friends were even good enough to swim for the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, I worked to the best of my ability for four years, doing well enough to earn a varsity letter my junior and senior years, based on my results in dual meets during those seasons. I even made it to the County meet my senior year in the 100-yard fly and 500 free, but did not crack the top-20 in either event, despite swimming PRs (personal records) in both. I believe my 500-free time at the County meet was 5:18, but that was nowhere near my goal of breaking 5 minutes.

Even so, I was in the best shape of my life, so I continued swimming to stay in shape in my two years at SUNY Albany, and I even decided to join Albany State’s team my sophomore year. I was relegated to the events none of the other swimmers wanted to compete in — the 200 fly, 500-, 1,000- and 1,650-yard freestyle — but I only qualified for the Division III State Championship meet in the 1,650. I had put on at least 10-15 lbs. of muscle since high school and swam my P.R. in the 1,650 at State — somewhere over 18 minutes — and also recorded my fastest-ever times in the 200, 500 (5:07) and 1,000 en route to finishing 18th at that meet.

Three months or so later, I transferred to the University of Florida, a long-time swimming powerhouse, and decided to see if I could walk on the men’s team. After the first 200 yards of warmups, I realized I was completely outclassed and got out of the water cursing at myself. The famous then-Gators coach, Randy Reese, put his arm around me and said he could tell I was a competitive swimmer, and that I could stay with the team as the equipment manager and possibly even a meet-day fill-in if I could handle the thousands and thousands of yards per day and still get the kickboards and hand paddles put away at the end of each session. 

Not only did I decline, I joked that I clearly wasn’t even good enough to make the school’s women’s team — and he agreed.

Little did I know, 40+ years later, that anyone would actually attempt such a switch. The former William “Will” Thomas, who says she began feeling transgendered while still in high school, joined the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team as a freshman in 2017 and finished in the top-seven in the same events I swam (500-, 1,000- and 1,650-yard free) at the 2018 Ivy League Championships (for the same Penn team my friends swam for), although Will Thomas did not make the finals in any of those events at the NCAA Championships that year or in 2019, the Texas native’s last year competing as a man.

At the end of 2019, Will Thomas told his coaches that he was transgendered and began undergoing hormone replacement therapy to transition to female that year.

Between Covid and transitioning to female, Lia Thomas (right in picture) didn’t swim as a woman at the 2020 or 2021 NCAA Championships, but resurfaced as one of the favorites in multiple events at this year’s NCAA Women’s meet. Lia not only won the 500-yard final (in a time 13+ second slower than Will Thomas’ PR of 4:20.5), she also finished 5th in the 200 free and 8th in the 100 free.

Now, after previously having met and written stories for the former Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner and his Better Health & Living magazine in the 1980s, I do believe it’s possible for adults to realize that the gender they were born into was somehow a mistake, and I wish Lia Thomas the best of luck in life.  

What I don’t believe is that someone who was born a man should be allowed to compete as a woman at any level of competitive sports. I’m no doctor or geneticist, but I don’t believe suppressing a male’s natural hormones is enough to not give that genetic man an unfair strength and endurance advantage when competing against genetic women.

Like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, I believe that Weyant should have won the 500-free title, although I blame the NCAA for allowing Thomas — or anyone born a man — to compete as a woman at all.

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