Now after the NCAA Women's Swimming Championships, many swimmers and parents are comfortable expressing their concerns about the inclusion of a biologically male, transgender woman in the competitions. Leading up to the race and during the meet, coaches discouraged any public statements from the competitors related to the controversy.
McAuley Aquatic Center at Georgia Tech during the 2022 NCAA D1 Swimming & Diving Championships. Credit: Sun Devil Athletics
We made contact with one swim mother, Mrs. Kimberly Laning, whose daughter is a fifth-year swimmer for the Arizona State University Sun Devils. Erica Laning is from Knoxville, Tennessee, and became a Pac-12 Champion after winning the 500 free. She achieved her second consecutive Top-15 Finish in Atlanta on Day 3 of the NCAA Championships, scoring 13th in the 500 Free. Transgender swimmer Lia Thomas was decorated first, followed by Virginia Freshman Emma Weyant.
The Lia Thomas controversy, which many have called 'unfair', prompted Mrs. Laning to send this letter to the NCAA concerning the championships:
She was having a hard time.
We all were.
After twenty years of being a swim family, our youngest was staring at her last year of eligibility.
Sure the pandemic and all it brought with it has been challenging, but a child who cries when there’s no 1650 for her to compete in when she’s 8 years old, doesn’t back down from a challenge.
What would come next?
What would it be like to be a retired athlete at 22?
How would we spend our Spring breaks, Christmas breaks, Summers, without the rigors of the competitive swim cycle?
So thank you ….
Thank you for proving me right when I told my little girl the world would under-value her no matter how hard she worked.
Thank you for putting the revenue generated by a media “event” above the mental toll this would have on these young women.
Thank you for reducing the pinnacle of Women’s swimming competition to a farce.
Thank you for reminding us that in the end, it is only a sport.
We will move on.
No looking back.
The last session cannot come soon enough for this soon to be ex-swim mom.
- Kimberly Laning
Our Editor-in-Chief, Micah Paul Veillon, sat down with Mrs. Laning to discuss the NCAA swim and dive championships, Lia Thomas, and her experience in a life that has revolved around her daughter’s swim career.
Mrs. Laning began by saying that her daughter started swimming at the same time she learned to walk. At four years of age, her daughter began to swim competitively, and her swim career became serious at around the age of seven. In fact, Mrs. Laning said that her daughter has a brother who is five years older than her and also was a competitive swimmer. He was one of the top high school swimmers in the nation but decided not to become a college swimmer because of the extreme sacrifices required to compete on that level. For swim families, this life requires that you are all in. Mrs. Laning told me that since the age of six, every break from school (Fall, Christmas, Spring, and Summer) is dedicated to swimming, whether for training or a meet. She described swimming:
“It quite literally becomes your life. And it has been our life for over twenty years.”
For many, competitive swimmers have practices twice a day, often beginning at 5 am. Credit: MySwimPro
When asked if Mrs. Laning had happened to run into any instances similar (even vaguely) to the Lia Thomas ordeal earlier in her daughter’s swimming career, without hesitation, she answered "yes," specifically when efforts to enforce “fairness” in swimming competitions were purposefully undermined. She explained that when her daughter was doing just recreational summer league swimming in their hometown, the kids who also swam competitively year-round were not allowed to swim in the 'rec' league championships in the summer. When her daughter began swimming in a bigger league at the age of 7, she learned that:
"They have a whole group for swimmers who train all year, but if they don't swim in a meet, then technically, by the rules, they are allowed to swim in the end of summer championship that is supposed to be for the [rec] summer league swimmers. ... If you train every day and then swim against children who only train 90 days a year, that doesn’t seem fair to me."
Mrs. Laning used this as a lesson for her seven-year-old daughter.
"That is an unfair advantage – and it is not winning; it’s cheating.”
She then said that the Lia Thomas situation is an exact parallel in her eyes.
“It is about fair sportsmanship; you can't go into something with an unfair advantage and feel like that’s a win. Ethically, that's cheating. It’s pure and simple. Where's your moral compass?”
Mrs. Laning then further detailed her opinions on Lia Thomas swimming in the women’s NCAA league:
"The women who were born women and are competing at NCAA championships have trained their entire lives to be there. My daughter knows girls who have trained their entire lives and can’t get there. They don’t make the time standards. This is the pinnacle of women's swimming. I've heard Olympians say that the NCAA Championships are harder than the Olympic Trials because it's so competitive, and it's such a big deal. There's a lot of pressure. There's school, and you only get four years of eligibility, so you have to use them wisely."
She went on to say that for someone to come out of the ranks of male swimming, who did not do all that great, and in a year and a half become the top female swimmer is an unfair advantage:
"I’m no doctor, I'm no biologist, but even I have eyes to see that someone who’s been swimming for a year and a half in a league where those girls have trained their entire lives to be there, it diminishes their life's work, and that is hurtful. ... They have 'unleveled' the playing field, it is not good sportsmanship."
At the Women's Ivy League Swimming & Diving Championships, Lia Thomas won the 400 Free team relay. Credit: USA TODAY Sports
She then detailed her solution to the problem: Someone advising Lia Thomas should have discouraged participating as a competitor and instead encouraged swimming in exhibition. Transgender athletes will not go away, and it will be fair when there are enough people on the same biological plane to have their own heats and divisions.
Mrs. Laning stated that she does not care about Thomas's personal choices:
“We live in America, [Thomas] is allowed to make those choices. But when it comes to diminishing the life’s work of these ladies – and I know how hard they’ve worked – what Lia is doing is unfair.”
Mrs. Laning said that the parents she has spoken to feel the same way about the inclusion of Lia Thomas:
"All the parents of all the girls who are here that I have spoken with feel that it is unfair. ... I haven't spoken with anyone who is in agreement with it."
She stated that though their daughters are putting on brave faces and showing real class, the feeling of their efforts being diminished has hurt. She claimed that most parents have been waiting to speak out because their daughters have asked them to take the high road:
"My own daughter said to me, 'I swim against boys every day, I train with men, this isn't a big deal.'"
It has been hard for parents who wish to speak out because they do not want to steal their daughters' spotlight. Their daughters have worked so hard to reach this apex; except for those who will be Olympians, this is the end of a life’s work.
Reactions of parents and other audience members upon seeing protestors of the NCAA rules as they exited the McAuley Aquatic Center Thursday afternoon. Credit: Nathaniel Greve, The Liberty Jacket
As a mother, Mrs. Laning described what it has been like to watch how the NCAA seems to have depreciated her daughter's efforts:
"I’ve had an unpleasantly physical response to it."
Mrs. Laning recalled her emotions as she watched her daughter compete against Thomas in some of the championship heats:
"I'm trying really hard to sit, my daughter swam directly in heats with [Lia Thomas], and my plan coming was to stand up and turn my back to the pool when Lia swam as my silent protest. But I couldn't do that; it was my daughter's last swim! So I had to watch. I had a visceral lump in my throat the entire time, and it has been very hard ever since to have a positive attitude. ... But my daughter, she's been so strong and taking this like a champ, enjoying this last ride. As her mother, it's my obligation to do so too."
She noted that while the crowd was very respectful, the audience was quiet when Lia Thomas's name was called as Thomas had few teammates there to celebrate.
After winning the 500 Free, Lia Thomas stands on the podium as Emma Weyant (2nd), Erica Sullivan (3rd) and Brooke Forde (4th) pose for a photo-op. Credit: Justin Casterline/Getty Images
She concedes that she believes that the NCAA had their hands tied because the rules in place were not ready for the extent they would be pushed to in these times. She is optimistic that the NCAA will make changes in the future:
"I'm hopeful for the future because that is what I'm most concerned about; the future of the girls who are watching this and getting up at 4:30 am every day to go train because this is their dream."
Mrs. Laning finished by detailing her thoughts on the future of women's swimming. How would the NCAA proceed from here? Would this championship tournament prompt the NCAA to make some changes? She stated that she is hopeful it will and that the guidelines have to keep up with the times to keep the playing field level. She does not precisely know the correct answer, though perhaps letting Thomas swim exhibition at the championships would not have left such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Ultimately she has not lost hope, but she finished by saying that while we live in a country in which Thomas has the ability to make lifestyle choices, this is a confusing time to be alive:
"But it shouldn't come at this price. I mean we are talking about 2% of the population; why does my kid have to sacrifice? [This is] making the majority have to sacrifice for the overwhelmingly small minority. That doesn't make any sense. It's not logical."
She is hopeful this controversy will not discourage all the little girls who dream of competing at this prestigious level:
"It just diminishes all the hard work [my daughter] has done, and it makes me worry for her and other girls who want to do anything in our society. If it's just so easy for their hard work to be thrown away and disregarded, then why bother? I think we’re all feeling a little hopeless anyway. After Covid, we really need to come back stronger and not weaker."
Kimberly Laning is not the only person associated with the championship who has spoken up recently on this topic. On Sunday, Virginia Tech swimmer Reka Gyorgy, who was one place short of competing in the finals, shared a letter she wrote to the NCAA.
Reka Gyorgy, swimmer speaking out about the inclusion of a transgender woman in the NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships. Credit: Virginia Tech Athletics
Reka Gyorgy's letter to the NCAA.
Many other swimmers and parents may begin to speak up now that the championship has concluded. The Liberty Jacket has reached out to several top-scoring swimmers and their families to provide them an opportunity to speak out on an independent free speech publication with as much objectivity and respect as possible.
You can reach out to The Liberty Jacket at firstname.lastname@example.org to send any information about this story to The Jacket staff. This article will be updated as more swimmers and parents speak out. //
Micah Veillon, (Interview)
Nathaniel Greve, (Forward, multimedia, and follow-up)
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