I want to first establish who I am and why I am putting this piece together. This is not being offered to take a position on the subject and is intended to be unbiased. I am a former NCAA swimmer and a current swimming journalist with years of experience combing through and interpreting data in the sport. Swimming is undoubtedly a complex sport filled with nuances and hard to interpret data which makes sport-specific knowledge and experience with swimming data crucial when attempting to understand Lia’s collegiate career. The sport has gained recent mainstream attention with the ongoing debate of transgender athlete inclusion in sports – specifically, attention regarding transgender athlete Lia Thomas. I will break down a few of the most commonly misinterpreted pieces of data I see raised in conversation related to Lia Thomas and will also provide my stance on who Lia Thomas is as an athlete. The conclusions expressed below are strictly based on data. Swimming data is widely available at USASwimming.org and swimcloud.com. Swimcloud.com is a swimming results and times database widely used throughout the swimming community as a source to locate a swimmer’s best times and development in the sport and we will lean on their data in this article. To be clear, both sides of the debate are misinterpreting data, and the sport, and you, deserve better.
Lia Thomas’ Career Timeline:
Lia Thomas swam on the Men’s Swimming & Diving team at Penn starting in the 2017-2018 season and competed in two full seasons (2017-2018 & 2018-2019). Lia competed in only part of the 2019-2020 season and had the 2020-2021 season canceled, due to COVID-19. Lia then competed this year (2021-2022) on the Women’s Swimming and Diving Team at Penn. Lia’s fifth year as an NCAA athlete was the result of the NCAA’s decision to grant athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the cancellation of NCAA events in 2020 & 2021.
Misinterpreted Data on Lia Thomas:
- Lia Thomas swam slower in the 2019-2020 season than in the 2018-2019 season
The statement is not false, but it is misleading. According to swimcloud.com, the times recorded by Lia in the 2019-2020 season are only from dual meets and are actually consistent with the dual meet times swam in the 2018-2019 season. For those unfamiliar with the term “dual meets,” I will try to explain. Dual meets are meets that occur during the collegiate season on a weekly or bi-weekly basis until conference championships arrive in late February/early March. During the dual meet part of the season, swimmers break their bodies down through rigorous training in the pool and the weight room with the intent to rest and sharpen (also called “taper”) before their championship meets. The swimmers are exhausted during dual meet season and often perform far from their best times and in an unpredictable manner. Thus, dual meet times in swimming are almost always slower than conference, winter invitational, and championship season times. It is also worth noting that Lia Thomas did begin Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) before the 2019-2020 season.
Below is a table representing a few of Lia Thomas’ dual meet times from the 2018-2019 & 2019-2020 seasons.
These times show an insignificant difference between the two seasons.
- Lia Thomas was ranked #776 in the 500-yard freestyle in 2019-2020
Lia Thomas’ dual meet time was ranked #776 in the country in the 500-yard freestyle in 2019-2020. According to swimcloud.com, the time that placed Lia this low in the rankings was from a dual meet. As discussed above, in the swimming community this dual meet time is not a proper measurement for performance because swimmers typically swim significantly slower at dual meets than at winter invites and conference/national championship season. With this in mind, the ranking for Lia Thomas in the 500-yard freestyle for the 2019-2020 season should not be referenced whatsoever.
- Lia Thomas was ranked #18 in the 1000-yard freestyle in 2018-2019
According to swimcloud.com, Lia was ranked 18th in the NCAA in the 2018-2019 season in the 1000 freestyle with a time of 8:55.75. However, this data should not be referenced without a significant disclaimer. The 1000-yard freestyle is not a contested event at the Men’s or Women’s Division 1 NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships. The event is only swum at dual meets and select championship meets, like the Ivy League Swimming and Diving Championships and various other winter invitationals. Therefore, there is typically not a full field of times from the NCAA to complete accurate rankings in this event. Any reference to Lia’s ranking in this event should include this information.
- Lia Thomas was a “bad” swimmer on the Penn Men’s Swimming Team
While Lia wasn’t an NCAA title-caliber athlete while on the men’s team at Penn, she was far from a “bad” swimmer. Lia’s 1650-yard freestyle time from the 2018-2019 season was just outside of qualifying for the Men’s NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships. For your frame of reference, the Men’s NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships is one of the fastest and most difficult meets to qualify for in the swimming world with roughly the top thirty-one (31) division 1 athletes qualifying in each event.
- Lia is 10-seconds off the Women’s 500-yard freestyle NCAA record now and was 10-seconds off of the Men’s 500-yard freestyle NCAA record on the Men’s team
This statistic is not false, but the context in which it is thrown around is incredibly misleading. The Women’s NCAA record in the 500-yard freestyle is held by Katie Ledecky with a time of 4:24.06. This record is still widely accepted within the swimming community to be one of the most out of reach records in all of NCAA swimming. The Men’s NCAA record in the 500-yard freestyle is held by Kieran Smith with a time of 4:06.32 and was just recently almost broken at the 2022 Men’s NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships by Matthew Sates of Georgia who went 4:06.61 with Jake Magahey of Georgia not far behind him at 4:07.39. There were twenty-six (26) swimmers at Men’s Swimming & Diving NCAAs within 10-seconds of the Men’s NCAA record after prelims while there was only one (1) within 10-seconds of the record after prelims at Women’s NCAAs.
Lia Thomas’ Correct Data:
- Lia Thomas was ranked 32nd in all of Men’s NCAA Division 1 Swimming in the 1650-yard freestyle in 2018-2019
In 2018-2019, Lia Thomas went 14:54.76 in the 1650-yard freestyle at the Men’s Ivy League Championships. This data is available at swimcloud.com. Although it is not confirmed with Lia, this time is likely the result of Lia being fully rested, suited, and shaved for the meet (meaning the athlete is primed to go as fast as possible).
- Lia Thomas was ranked 65th in all of Men’s NCAA Division 1 Swimming in the 500-yard freestyle in 2018-2019
In 2018-2019, Lia Thomas went 4:18.72 in the 500-yard freestyle at the Men’s Ivy League Championships. This data is available at swimcloud.com. Although it is not confirmed with Lia, this time is likely the result of Lia being fully rested, suited, and shaved for the meet (meaning the athlete is primed to go as fast as possible).
- Lia Thomas was ranked T-465th in all of Men’s NCAA Division 1 Swimming in the 200-yard freestyle in 2018-2019
In 2018-2019, Lia Thomas went 1:39.31 in the 200-yard freestyle at the Tennessee Invitational. This data is available at swimcloud.com. Although it is not confirmed with Lia, this time is likely the result of Lia being at least partially rested, suited, and potentially shaved for the meet (meaning the athlete is primed to go almost as fast as possible).
- Lia Thomas did not compete in a full season in 2019-2020
According to swimcloud.com, Lia Thomas only swam in a handful of dual meets during the 2019-2020 season. This data should not be used as a comparison to Lia’s times from other competitive swimming seasons in Lia’s collegiate career because it is incomplete and will more than likely yield false conclusions.
Conclusion: Lia Thomas was a nationally competitive distance swimmer while on the Men’s Swimming & Diving team at the University of Pennsylvania. Lia’s times from the 2018-2019 season in the 500-yard freestyle, 1000-yard freestyle, and 1650-yard freestyle were highly competitive times. However, these times fell short of qualifying beyond the Ivy League Championships. Lia narrowly missed qualifying for the Men’s NCAA Division 1 Swimming and Diving Championships coming in at 32nd in the 1650 freestyle. Lia’s times in the 500-yard freestyle and 200-yard freestyle ranked 65th and T-465th respectively in 2018-2019 for Men’s Division 1 swimmers and were further away from qualifying for the Men’s NCAA Division 1 Swimming and Diving Championships.