The NCAA and lawmakers have failed women athletes in allowing biological men to compete with them in college sports, increasing numbers of women are saying.
In September, the female swim team at Roanoke College in Virginia was informed an athlete from the men’s team, who took last year off to transition, would be returning to compete as a female, according to Daily Mail.
Kate Pearson, captain of the sophomore swim team, Lily Mullens, the junior captain and Bailey Gallagher, the senior captain, said they were shocked by the news.
“Nobody knew what to do. Nobody thought that it would honestly get here. A lot of people, knowing this individual, thought that it wouldn’t get to the point of competition,” Mullens said.
The transitioning swimmer had been a strong contender in the men’s division, finishing ninth in the 500 freestyle and eighth in the 100 fly in the college’s NCAA Division III conference. During the first few practices this year, the transgender swimmer almost beat Mullens’ current school record in the 50 freestyle.
Mullens argues she was in peak fitness and gave everything she could to get that record. Yet the trans swimmer came off a year’s break and already was challenging the women’s school records at the first practice of the year.
“It’s just so defeating,” Gallagher said according to Daily News. “It’s like, why would we even jump into the pool, and even try to compete against this person? Because we know our best will never compete with their best, right?”
Even more starkly, University of Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas, the first transgender swimmer to win a women’s NCAA Division I national championship, had been ranked 462nd in the male’s division before transitioning.
Following the announcement of the trans swimmer’s addition to the Roanoke women’s team, the captains decided to hold a meeting with the team to discuss their feelings about the situation.
“Everyone basically was like, ‘We do not want this to happen,” Pearson said according to Daily Mail. “And you could tell people were getting kind of like amped up about it. And we were all emotional. Just like: no, no, what, what the heck?”
Pearson said the captains had a sense of relief that the team shared the same concerns over the situation, but questioned what they could do to ensure change.
“Honestly, that meeting was very powerful for us to walk out of there and understand we’re all on the same page. Because we have other people on the team who identify in the LGBTQ community who were sitting there, right there with us.
“Our coach had even said to us that he had never seen our team so unified on one thing.”
Still, the college wasn’t budging on allowing the trans swimmer to compete as a woman.
“We were told that even if our whole team stood against it and refused to compete, the swim coach would be able to compete with just that person on the team. They could just have a one-person team,” Pearson said, according to the New York Post.
“So, the one transgender athlete could stay, and our coach would have been fine. He told us that, and that was a big kind of stab in the chest for all,” Pearson said, according to Daily Mail.
The coach instructed them to write the trans swimmer a letter outlining their concerns. In it, the team took pains to explain it wasn’t a personal matter, that they supported the individual as a person, but not as an athlete due to the “many biological differences.”
“And we repeated multiple times: this is not anything personal against you as a person. We support you in your transition,” Pearson said. “But it’s just solely based on the swimming aspect of things.”
The trans athlete decided to share the letter with student advocacy groups on campus, while admitting to not even reading the entire letter after seeing team members opposed his participation.
“So that was the first kind of straw – not even hearing us. And it continues throughout the whole period of just not even listening to what we had to say at all,” Pearson said.
Following the letter, the coach called a meeting with the entire time, male and female, to address the situation. When the team tried to express its point of view, the transgender individual expressed having suicidal feelings and having thought of jumping off one of the campus’ buildings.
After that, the team was asked to vote in an online poll on whether to allow the swimmer to remain on the female team. The team voted yes, though after the meeting members admitted feeling pressured to approve the trans athlete’s participation.
The team wrote another, longer letter expressing its concerns, and all but one member of the team signed it.
Ultimately, the team was informed that the trans swimmer withdrew from the women’s team, as the college was still researching whether the athlete was eligible to compete with the women.
“None of us want a person to quit the sport that they love,” Pearson said. “We just want everyone to compete in a way that is fair. So, the individual quitting was not what we all wanted, in a sense. It was like, we just wanted everyone to have a fair shot at competing and swimming.”
The Roanoke captains and others are outraged that such a situation is still being allowed to go on.
“There’s so many ‘grown ups’ around that should be making these decisions,” Pearson said. “That’s part of their job. It was just a hot mess – I was like, what is happening?”
“It was so exhausting – every aspect: emotionally, physically, mentally,” Gallagher added. “It was just the longest month of our entire lives.”
The women are now campaigning to get their voices heard, with the help of former Kentucky swimmer-turned-activist Riley Gaines, as well as former Lia Thomas teammate Paula Scanlan, the Independent Women’s Forum and the Independent Council on Women’s Sports (ICONS).
The Roanoke captains recently held a press conference at their college asking for more information around the issue. ICONS, Independent Women’s Forum, Gaines and Scanlan were all present to support the women.
“I am so proud of these girls for standing up for themselves,” Scanlan, a Stand with Women spokeswoman, posted on X. “I am here in Roanoke to support them today and can’t wait to hear their stories and stand with them!”
Gaines added in her own post:
“Soooooo proud to stand with Roanoke College women’s swim team today as they held a press conference calling for the NCAA, their university, and lawmakers to implement policies to protect women’s sports! How many more girls have to lose out on opportunities for us to say “NO”?”
“Swimming has been the most important thing in my life,” Pearson said, “and we need the NCAA and lawmakers to step up and address this issue. Our situation was resolved, but how many of these cases need to happen before something gets done?”