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No, photo of NCAA women’s swimmers not a protest against transgender athlete

A photo of Lia Thomas and three of her competitors was taken out of context after Thomas, a transgender swimmer, won an NCAA national championship event.
Credit: VERIFY
A March 18, 2022 photo of collegiate transgender swimmer Lia Thomas on the first place podium for the 500-yard freestyle at the 2022 NCAA Division I Women's Swimming Championship. The other three competitors posed together for a separate photo after the group's podium photo.

The University of Virginia took home first place in the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming Championship, but one event, in particular, attracted attention above all others: the 500-yard freestyle. The event was won by Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer competing for the University of Pennsylvania, making it the first event in which a transgender woman has won an NCAA Division I national championship in any sport.

One photograph from the event has spread as supposed evidence of the athletes protesting her Thomas’ victory. In the photo, Thomas is standing on the winner’s podium, as three of her competitors pose together on the third place podium, a short distance away from her. The claim has spread in multiple languages — a tweet in Spanish that claimed the swimmers “refused to celebrate” was liked more than 30,000 times.

Even some news stories have implied that Thomas’ peers may have avoided her. “Elsewhere, a Getty photo shows Weyant, Sullivan and fourth place finisher Brooke Forde posing while standing away from Thomas,” a Newsweek article said. “It is unclear whether this was an intended statement from the other swimmers rather than a standard picture where the winner is shot separately.”

THE QUESTION

Does a photo of a group of NCAA swimmers at the podium after the women’s 500-yard freestyle show a transgender woman’s competitors protesting her victory?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, a photo of a group of NCAA swimmers at the podium after the women’s 500-yard freestyle does not show a transgender woman’s competitors protesting her victory.

WHAT WE FOUND

Following her victory in the 500-yard freestyle at the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming Championship, Lia Thomas and her competitors posed for photos at the podiums. In one photo taken by a contributor for Getty Images, Thomas can be seen on the winner’s podium while three of her competitors — runner-up Emma Weyant, third-place finisher Erica Sullivan and fourth-place finisher Brooke Forde — pose together on the third-place podium.

A second Getty Images photo shows Thomas, Weyant and Sullivan all posing on their respective podiums alongside each other.

A third Getty Images photo shows Sullivan giving Thomas a congratulatory handshake while still in the pool. A photo taken by Jesse Zhang for The Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of Pennsylvania’s student newspaper, shows Weyant also exchanged handshakes with Thomas after the latter’s victory.

Sullivan, one of the athletes in the photo, made an Instagram post on March 20 that stated she was “being subjected to false claims” because of her photo with her “close Tokyo homies.”

“Since the photo is still going around I thought it would be easier to post the photo that was intended along with another photo of me shaking Lia’s hand after her AMAZING 500free,” Sullivan said. Her post includes a photo of the three posing athletes without Thomas in the frame. Icon Sportswire, a photo contributor for Getty Images, also took a photo of just the three athletes on the third-place podium.

Sullivan’s mention of her “Tokyo homies” refers to the U.S. women’s swimming roster for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics held last August, in which Sullivan, Weyant and Forde all competed. Thomas was not on the roster.

Sullivan has been particularly outspoken in her support of Thomas. She was one of 310 collegiate swimmers who signed an open letter in February that argued in support of Thomas’ eligibility to compete in women’s swimming events, and wrote an opinion piece published to Newsweek on March 18 titled “Why I'm Proud to Support Trans Athletes like Lia Thomas.” 

“Many of those who oppose transgender athletes like Lia being able to participate in sports claim to be ‘protecting women's sports,’” Sullivan wrote. “As a woman in sports, I can tell you that I know what the real threats to women's sports are: sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay and resources and a lack of women in leadership. Transgender girls and women are nowhere on this list. Women's sports are stronger when all women—including trans women—are protected from discrimination, and free to be their true selves.”

Earlier this year, Forde also publicly came out in support of Thomas by way of a podcast co-hosted by her father, Pat Forde. At 28:50 into a podcast episode published Jan. 24, the elder Forde read out a statement his daughter gave him when he asked her what her thoughts were on Thomas competing against her.

“I have great respect for Lia,” Brooke Forde told him. “Social change is always a slow and difficult process, and we rarely get it correct right away. Being among the first to lead such a social change requires an enormous amount of courage, and I admire Lia for her leadership that will undoubtedly benefit many trans athletes in the future. In 2020, I, along with most swimmers, experienced what it was like to have my chance to achieve my swimming goals taken away after years of hard work. I would not wish this experience on anyone, especially Lia who has followed the rules required of her. I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.”

Neither Sullivan nor Forde have since made statements to indicate they've changed their views on Thomas' eligibility, nor intended to protest her victory in the photoshoot. Weyant has not publicly commented on Thomas’ eligibility or the viral photo.

Thomas also competed in the 200-yard freestyle, where she finished fifth, and the 100-yard freestyle, where she finished eighth.

More from VERIFY: No, top-tier WNBA players don’t make $20 an hour

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