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A ‘highly charged’ year for Princeton swim: How Lia Thomas’s participation sparked tension behind closed doors

<h6>Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

This past January, Bret Lundgaard, head coach of the Princeton women’s swim and dive team, sent an email informing the team of an upcoming meeting to be held with members of the men’s diving team. This meeting would include a diver who has been outspoken about their identity as a queer and nonbinary athlete. Lundgaard’s email stated that, apart from himself, meeting attendees would include Director of Athletics John Mack ’00 and the director of the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC), among others.

“Tuesday PM there will be an OPTIONAL meeting,” Lundgaard wrote in the email. “That discussion will have parameters on it. It is an optional meeting because John doesn’t want you all to perceive that the divers’ behavior is sponsored.”

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“If the divers do not communicate appropriately or continue to verbalize their own cognitive distortions, John will pull the plug on the meeting and not subject our team to any more of this nonsense,” he continued.

Two people present at the meeting provided context to The Daily Princetonian about what happened. According to both, Lundgaard apologized to the divers for his language in the email. 

“It was what [Lundgaard] would admit was a poor choice of words and really gave context to what he was saying in the email to the team,” Mack said.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Lundgaard said that “nothing in the email” sent to the team in January “was intended to reference the trans community in any way.”

The coach’s email came in the wake of national controversy surrounding Lia Thomas, a transgender female swimmer who competed for the University of Pennsylvania at the time. Thomas’s participation in the women’s category became a flashpoint for a year’s worth of discussions among the Princeton swimming and diving community.

The ‘Prince’ reached out to both Thomas and Mike Schnur, the head coach of Penn’s women’s swim and dive team. Thomas did not respond to a request for comment. Schnur declined to comment. 

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Thomas’s participation made national news following her record-breaking performance at the Zippy Invitational in December 2021. Weeks earlier, Thomas broke a record set by a Princeton swimmer in the 500 freestyle at an Ivy League meet against Princeton and Cornell — igniting heated discourse within the University athletics community.

In January, members of the Princeton women’s swim team met privately with the executive director of Ivy League Athletics, Robin Harris, according to The New York Times. In their conversation with Harris, the team argued that Thomas, as a transgender woman athlete, had an unfair biological advantage against other female athletes. According to the Times, one member said at the meeting that ignoring Thomas’s advantages “was to undermine a half-century fight for female equality in sport.”

Despite her meeting with Princeton’s team, Harris held her ground: the Ivy League would not change its guidelines regarding the participation of transgender athletes. 

The ‘Prince’ reached out to all 18 members of the women’s swim team in the classes of 2023, 2024, and 2025 for comment. Every member declined to comment or did not respond.

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An investigation by the ‘Prince’ found that differing views on whether or not Thomas should be allowed to compete in the women’s category created a culture of tension and mistrust for many students in the Princeton swimming and diving teams. Over the course of the spring semester, members of these teams participated in several emotionally-charged meetings in which conflicting feelings about transgender participation in women’s sports sometimes surfaced.

Through emails obtained by the ‘Prince’ and interviews with students and alumni affiliated with the teams and with Mack, the ‘Prince’ charted the course of these meetings, revealing a complex landscape of deeply felt personal stakes for student athletes amid disagreements playing out on a national scale. 

“There isn’t a middle ground”: National reactions to Thomas’s success as a transgender athlete

Thomas’s success first garnered attention from the Princeton swim community in November 2021. 

In an early-season meet against Princeton and Cornell, Thomas earned NCAA season-best times in the 200 and 500-yard freestyle. In the 500 free, Thomas broke the Ivy League record with a time of 4:35.06. Prior to the meet, Princeton junior Ellie Marquardt had held the Ivy League record with a time of 4:36.37, set in 2020. 

Marquardt did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the ‘Prince.’

Thomas began competing with the Penn women’s team in the 2021–22 season. She competed in the men’s category from 2017–20. By the 2021–22 swimming season, Thomas had undergone hormonal replacement treatment (HRT) for more than two years — more than what was required of her to join the women’s team according to the 2021 NCAA guidelines, which regulated the participation of transgender athletes, at the time. 

As a result of undergoing HRT, Thomas lost about an inch of height and her muscle strength decreased — she was no longer able to maintain the speeds she once swam. 

Thomas went on to break several records in the women’s category. In February, Thomas placed first in three individual events at the Ivy League Championships hosted by Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. In the 500 freestyle, Thomas’s time of 4:37.32 earned her the pool record, in addition to first place.

When it came time for the NCAA Championship meet in March, Thomas became the first openly transgender athlete to win a national collegiate swimming title with a time of 4:33.24 in the 500 free — just 1.75 seconds ahead of the University of Virginia’s Emma Weyant.

Courtesy of @PUCSDT/Twitter.


Thomas might be the first transgender athlete to hold such a title, but she’s not the first to compete for one. Natalie Fahey, a transgender woman and former swimmer for Southern Illinois, also competed in the NCAAs. But unlike Thomas, Fahey did not break records, earn a title, or receive as much backlash. 

“After I transitioned, I was solidly middle ground. I didn't come in and break any records. I only competed at a conference, but certainly just the fact that I'm not as good as Lia is, weighs into that,” Fahey told ABC News. 

For Thomas, however, the more she continued to shave seconds off her times, the more people began pushing back on her presence on the women’s team. 

Several people affiliated with Penn swimming expressed their opposition to Thomas’s participation to Sports Illustrated (SI) in an article published in March. All spoke anonymously, with one expressing concerns of being labeled transphobic. 

“We support Lia as a trans woman and hope she leads a happy and productive life, because that’s what she deserves. What we can’t do is stand by while she rewrites records and eliminates biological women from this sport,” a parent of one of Thomas’s teammates said in the SI piece.

“If we don’t speak up here, it’s going to happen in college after college. And then women’s sports, as we know it, will no longer exist in this country,” the parent added.

Schuyler Bailar — the first openly transgender swimmer in the NCAA — criticized those who claim to support Thomas’s transition but not her participation in women’s sports. Bailar competed with the Harvard men’s team from 2015–19. 

“There isn’t a middle ground. You don’t get to slice me in half and be like, ‘Yes, you are a man here but not here,’ or, ‘Yes, Lia is a woman but not here.’ We don’t exist in parts. Our transness is not something we can just take off and put over here. We are whole people,” Bailar said in an interview with CNN.

On Jan. 6, the Ivy League released a short statement in support of Thomas’s participation. The statement affirmed that under all NCAA and Ivy League policies, Thomas was eligible to compete in the women’s category. 

“The Ivy League reaffirms its unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive environment for all student-athletes while condemning transphobia and discrimination in any form.”

“How do we process this?”: Princeton women’s team reacts to Thomas’s participation in women’s category

Throughout the 2021–22 season, members of the Princeton women’s swim team grappled with a range of conflicting emotions. A recent swim team alumna told the ‘Prince’ that although many voiced a general support for LGBTQ+ rights, the team atmosphere was marked by frustration towards Thomas’s participation. The alumna spoke with the ‘Prince’ on the condition of anonymity and will be pseudonymously referred to as Sandy for the purposes of this story. 

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Sandy said that Thomas had every right to participate in the competition.

“There are so many different facets to look at, and my stance on it has always been [that Lia] followed the rules that the NCAA put out,” Sandy told the ‘Prince.’ “Her testosterone is at the level that the NCAA told her it had to be. She actually transitioned for an additional year, so from that perspective, she deserved to compete.”

“Her times were fast, but there are girls that could have gone faster than that time and have gone faster than that time. It was big because she won, but when you look at the times, that's the time that a normal, fast woman would have gone,” Sandy said. 

Still, as a former swimmer herself, Sandy said she continues to grapple with the question of transgender athletes’ participation in women’s sports. To her, the issue is not as clear cut as some have made it out to be.

“It's tough, but then you also look at it and you feel like she's tall and she's got more endurance,” Sandy said. “That's where you're like ‘Do I frame this in my mind as just a really talented female athlete? Or do I get mad about it and blame it on the transition?’ I think a lot of that frustration comes from talking yourself [into] circles.” 

Sandy said that her confusion and frustration reflected much of the sentiment expressed by others on the Princeton women’s team. Based on her conversations with teammates, Sandy said that the team’s pushback against Thomas does not necessarily come from a place of animosity. 

“Most of the people that you'll find on the women's team are super supportive and wonderful, especially with LGBTQ rights,” Sandy said.

“People have a whole range of emotions. It was probably just confusion. It's because this is a situation that no one [has] had to encounter before,” Sandy said. “A lot of it was just like, ‘Okay, how do we process this?’”

Mack, the Director of Athletics, expressed a similar sentiment. 

“When I think about the Lia Thomas situation, I think the really important context to come to is understanding that it was, and still remains, the single most highly charged, highly emotional, highly sensitive issue in all of global sports,” he told the ‘Prince.’

“I think one of the things that has been really enlightening for a lot of people on campus is this idea of viewpoint diversity and understanding that we can have differing opinions and there are some issues where we will have different groups of people who will never agree,” Mack added.

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Lundgaard expressed his pride in how the team navigated the situation. 

“Our team faced unparalleled challenges last year, and I’m proud of how they handled themselves and represented Princeton and our Women’s Swim [and] Dive Team. We are excited to continue to move forward and keep improving as students, athletes and people,” he wrote. 

“Princeton is not the safe haven it was described to me as when I got here”: Princeton swim community grapples with conflicting views over transgender participation

For Griffin Maxwell Brooks ’23, a former Princeton diver, the team’s pushback against Thomas was and continues to be about much more than just swimming. 

“It is very frustrating to see trans people and trans bodies be so politicized. Even in like the past year, post Lia Thomas controversy — it was kind of what got the ball rolling on this widespread conservative reach to end transgender youth,” Brooks said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’

“I think that this controversy really set in the ridiculous [Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist] TERF narrative that trans women are men dressing as women and invading women's spaces,” they continued. 

As a non-binary queer athlete, former diver on the varsity team, and a founder of Princeton’s Queer Student Athlete Collective (QSAC), Brooks has been heavily involved in the debate on and off campus. After overhearing a conversation between members of the women’s team, Brooks said they went directly to administrators.

“I explained to [Mack] some of the things that I heard,” they said. “[I overheard] women's swimmers talk about how this is the same thing as if a man on the men's swim team put on a wig and swam for the women’s team.”

Mack said he was being approached by a wide array of students on the swim and dive teams. 

“Because Lia Thomas was in our conference and our team swam against Lia, I began to hear from swimmers and divers a lot of questions about how [Thomas’s participation] was being handled,” he told the ‘Prince.’

Brooks said they met with Mack multiple times to request a meeting with the women’s team. At the end of January, the athletics administration set an optional meeting for Feb. 1, the same one referenced in Lundgaard’s email, between the men’s diving team — including Brooks — and the women’s swim and dive team, with the intention of providing a space for each party to communicate their feelings. 

“We scheduled a meeting so that student athletes had the opportunity to share their experience, to share their feelings, anything that they really want to in a healthy environment,” Mack said. “I am by no means an expert, which is why we reached out to the GSRC to have them be present to make sure that the conversation was being had in a way that was healthy and safe for everyone present.”

According to Brooks and Mack, Lundgaard apologized to the divers during the meeting for the language of his email, which included the phrase “if the divers … continue to verbalize their own cognitive distortions.” But for Brooks, the apology ultimately felt disingenuous.

“The apology clarified that he meant in no way to refer to my queer identity as ‘cognitive distortion,’ but rather, my beliefs about trans people in sports,” Brooks said. “I suppose it felt disingenuous, since it’s not only hard to believe but also doesn’t justify the use of such harmful language about queer people in general.”

“It was the most ridiculous thing to call my identity and my ideology surrounding who I am ‘cognitive distortion,’” Brooks told the ‘Prince.’ “This is the number one most common transphobic microaggression: calling trans people mentally ill.”

Lundgaard maintained in a statement to the ‘Prince’ that “nothing in the email” was intended to reference the transgender community.

Mack said that he learned about the email before the meeting and had conversations with Lundgaard about it both before and during the meeting. 

“When you're engaging in [difficult] conversations, you don't always articulate things in the right way,” Mack said. “That's why it was really important, I thought, for [Lundgaard] to follow up and to apologize for the misunderstanding of the words that you use, but also to offer the full context of what it was that he was trying to say.”

Sandy told the ‘Prince’ that while she believes Lundgaard’s email contained harmful rhetoric, she feels that his views do not represent the feelings of the women’s team, based on her conversations with her teammates.

“That sentiment does not accurately reflect what the women's team thinks. I'll say that. That was a very pointed email and I know that, from the discussions I've had with teammates, they're much more level-headed,” Sandy said.

Kristopher Oliveira, Director of the GSRC and Assistant Dean in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion since August 2021, was also present at the meeting. In collaboration with the administration and student organizations like Queer Student Athlete Collective (QSAC), Oliveira told the ‘Prince’ that he aims to promote healthy and open conversation.

“As it relates to women’s swimming and diving competition, the GSRC advocates for conversation, dialogue, and actions that center our shared humanity and asks each member of our community to consider ‘who is left out of sports when we advocate for limited participation?’” Oliveira wrote to the ‘Prince.’ 

Despite Oliveira’s presence at the meeting, Brooks said they felt the conversation was unproductive. Brooks recalled directing questions towards the women’s team regarding their perspectives towards Thomas’s participation and said that these questions were not answered.

“I immediately tried to initiate [the conversation] like, okay, I want to know, ‘why do you feel uncomfortable? Why are you opposed to transgender people or transgender women in sports?’” Brooks said. “This is a necessary conversation and [their] words have offended an entire community of people.”

According to them, Mack directed the conversation in another direction. Brooks said they felt that Mack’s redirection was a rejection away from an open discussion about transgender women in sports. 

“For me, it's about making sure that we're not [and] that any of the student athletes were not trying to demand answers of other student athletes that they didn't feel comfortable sharing,” Mack told the ‘Prince.’

“I don't remember trying to steer as I didn't see it as my job to steer the conversation into or away from any conversation other than making sure that students were being respectful of each other's boundaries in what they were able to say and what they were free to not say,” Mack said. 

Reflecting months later, Brooks said they were most disappointed by the athletics department’s role in the situation. 

“There’s just this never ending crushing feeling that I have been totally let down by the system,” Brooks said. “Especially with the way things went with the women's swim coach and like the women's swim team, I'm still shocked, retrospectively at just how irresponsibly offensive some of the things that happened were, and how little repercussions happened whatsoever.” 

“It just goes to show that Princeton is not the safe haven it was described to me as when I got here,” they continued.

Courtesy of @PUCSDT/Twitter.


In the spring, Brooks and another swimmer led a conversation with the men’s swimming team. There were no coaches or administrative personnel present at this meeting. A person familiar with the situation said that while members of the team had different levels of support for Thomas’s participation, the meeting was a productive discussion. 

“It was an NCAA-mandated meeting but we ended up chatting about Lia and stuff — overall very productive and benevolent,” Brooks wrote in a message to the ‘Prince.’ 

“It was just a meeting that required us to talk about some sensitive things like consent and alcohol and respecting each other and things of that nature,” they explained. “I took the opportunity to bring up trans eligibility because it felt like sort of an elephant in the room. That [conversation] was pretty constructive and not heated at all.”

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ a member of the men’s swim team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the spring meeting provided the athletes with a comfortable space for growth and education. Those who were present were there to learn about the situation and have a discussion.

“The men’s team was fortunate to have this conversation,” he added. “These spaces don’t happen often, but people were able to be respectful and comfortable with each other.”

National and international guidelines see updates as controversy continues

Following the national controversy of Thomas’s participation in the women’s category, the NCAA initiated a new ruling on Jan. 19 stating that the eligibility requirements for transgender participation will be determined by the guidelines set by the national governing body for each sport. For swimming, this meant that NCAA competition would adopt USA Swimming guidelines for transgender participation, subject to approval by the NCAA Board of Governors.

In early February, USA Swimming declared a policy change that required trans-female athletes to maintain testosterone levels less than five nanomoles per liter for at least 36 months. This new policy change by USA Swimming would have prohibited Thomas from competing in the NCAA Division I championships in March, had the NCAA adopted it.

However, on Feb. 10, the NCAA announced that they would not adopt the USA Swimming rule for the March championships. This decision was announced on the same day that over 300 swimmers signed an open letter supporting Thomas and urging the NCAA to allow her to participate in the championships. 

Thomas also had goals beyond swimming outside of the Ivy League: qualifying for the Olympic trials, as she told Sports Illustrated. However, her goals were quickly derailed following new restrictions by the International Swimming Federation (FINA). 

On June 20, FINA put into effect one of the strictest regulations against transgender participation in the world of international sports — a ruling that effectively bans transgender women from participating in competition, according to The New York Times. 

FINA, recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), is responsible for regulations regarding aquatic sports at the international level. The new policy outlined requirements for both transgender male and female athletes, but the most restrictive guidelines were for individuals transitioning from male to female participating in the women’s category. 

Following the announcement of FINA’s rulings, USA Swimming stated that they would look to see how the FINA guidelines will impact their own before making changes. 

Since the release of FINA’s new policies on June 20, there have not been any updates from the NCAA regarding policy changes on transgender participation, meaning rules for the Ivy League have remained the same.

Thomas has since graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the direct question of competing against her is no longer one that applies to the Princeton team. However, the participation of transgender athletes in sports that align with their gender identity continues to fuel ongoing conversations.

Julia Nguyen is a co-head editor for the Sports section at the 'Prince.' Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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