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The Politics of Swimming

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

This morning I woke up to news of Florida Governor DeSantis and his proclamation about swimmer Emma Weyant and Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer from UPenn. It’s all over the news and my social media feeds. I don’t remember seeing him at the pool.

I am the mother of a young, female swimmer. We spent her spring break in Atlanta watching the NCAA women’s championships at Georgia Tech. We were there, all day, every day, and here is what really happened.

Tuesday, 10am.

We flew from Florida to Atlanta. It was uneventful although anytime we mentioned where we were going and why, someone brought up the transgender swimmer. It had been in the news quite a bit but to this point, it hadn’t become a water cooler talking point.

Our agenda was to spend my daughter’s break watching the greatest swimmers of today compete.

My goal was to show her that these girls are worthy of being her heroes. Movie stars, pop stars, tv stars get our misplaced admiration. A Stanford swimmer with the grades to be a student and the years of disciplined training to make their D1 team is exactly the role model our girls need. I’ll take Georgia’s Payton Palsha over Taylor Swift any day.

Payton has been in the water since she was 6 months old. She went to the Olympic Trials while still in high school. She was named USA Swimming Scholastic All-America all four years of high school. She swam four years for Arkansas, setting multiple school records. Now a graduate student at UGA in her fifth year of eligibility, she swam what I believe may be her last swim at this NCAA national event. After her final event, teammates, coaches and competitors hugged her and congratulated her on a phenomenal race and career.

Afterwards, she came into the stands to see her parents. Having spent time with us during the week, they pointed us out. Payton, exhausted from an incredible race and dealing with the emotional tidal-wave of her entire career undoubtably washing over her, came over to meet my little swimmer. In that moment she displayed more grace, personal leadership and kindness than all of Hollywood, Broadway and Nashville combined. These are the heroes we should follow. These are the bubble gum card heroes. These are the women our Nation’s girl’s need to hear and see.

Beautiful Payton and my girl.

Discussion Point #1

If you want to support women’s sports, actively support a women’s sport or a woman in sport.

Your hashtag on social media, while trendy, isn’t doing much to elevate a young girl in her athletic pursuits or a financially struggling girls’ team secure the funding they need for equipment and coaches. We were probably one of the only non-family members at the pool that week yet half the world was chatting about it on social media. Where was the Stanford or Michigan or Texas alumni of greater Atlanta? Where was the Georgia area parents clubs of the Naval Academy? I’ll always support my service academies first and for our Naval Academy ladies swimming that week, we were a cheering crowd of 2.

Tickets sell out pretty fast for the big football games – the Michigan teams, Cal and Stanford, Army and Navy. Most football games draw big crowds. They sing their fight songs and motivate their athletes. Swimming is no different except the races are faster, more exciting and you can be home before halftime of your other game.

My daughter’s favorite was the Michigan group. She was shouting their 123 GO BLUE chant all the way home. Well done, folks.

To #savewomenssports you need to donate, fundraise, and attend WOMEN’S SPORTS. Swimming World Championships will be in Greensboro, NC April 26-30. US Nationals will be in Irvine, CA Aug 2-6. Your town has a girls’ team. It may be softball or soccer, field hockey or track and field. Plug in. Be a banner sponsor. Donate a case of water or Gatorade. Show up. It makes all the difference.

On the second day, the first full day of prelims with an evening final, we arrived to protestors outside. On the far side of the street were a handful of pro trans athlete activists. They seemed to be college students, fringe element with colorful hair and unconventional fashion sense. They were quietly holding their signs and often looked bored as if whoever put them up to this picked the wrong day. In front of the pool complex were women with “Save Women’s Sports” signs. Older and much more organized, they had blow horns and a clear message that no one seemed to argue with. I instructed my daughter to be polite but not make eye contact or engage with either group. That wasn’t our purpose for being there and the last thing I need is to have my young daughter in some propaganda campaign.

The third day it rained. Then it stormed! The “Save Women’s Sports” group was smaller but they were there. The opposition didn’t show up.

Discussion Point #2

If you’re going to take a side, be sure you’ve thoroughly thought through both positions. If you’re going to get in the fight, be sure you’re passionate enough to withstand the storms.

The rest of the week had on and off activists but the news crews were camped out regardless. They had an agenda.

Inside, the atmosphere was electric! We sat in front of a pair of grandparents from Wisconsin. Their granddaughter, a freshman named Paige McKenna, was a standout and we will follow her enthusiastically both because she’s destined for continued greatness and because we want her grandparents to adopt us.

photo courtesy of Instagram

Several people afterwards talked about booing inside. Perhaps once, someone did. But the entire crowd seemed to be cheerful, almost in unison, as if they all got some memo to just be quiet.

And we were.

“In lane one from Ohio State is….” RAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH from the crowd

“In lane two from Texas is…..” RAHHHHHHAAAAAHHHH from the crowd

“In lane three from UVA is….” RAHHHHAAAAHHHHHH from the crowd

“In lane four from UPenn is Lia…” silence.

“In lane five from Michigan is….” RAHHHHAAAHHHHH 123 GO BLUE

It was respectful and put the emphasis on the other women competitors vs bringing down the one recent addition to the female field.

Discussion Point #3

A silent protest is still a protest. You can protest but you must respect other’s opinions and everyones humanity. There was one couple who did stand and applaud every time Lia Thomas swam. At first I was ticked at them for breaking the collective rally cry of quiet. But my anger softened to sympathy. I don’t know them but considering we were probably the only non-family members in attendance, perhaps they were Lia’s parents or relatives. Maybe they just didn’t want to add to the emotional and psychological pressure put on these swimmers. Because for all my disgust at Thomas for pursuing this course of competition despite the unfair advantage, (and UPenn for encouraging it), she is still someones child. Someones grandchild. And adding to someones psychological pain is a travesty. Make sure you value every person for they are made in the image of God and be respectful of that life. We can respect a person and simultaneously disagree with their opinions and/or actions. We are currently failing at this as a society. We owe it to ourselves and the preceding generations to get that right.

I support every individual person and their right to live their life however they want to live.

As in ALL people and ALL things, there are consequences to our actions. In this case, the consequence is you do not get to use your biological advantage to dominate women. Have a transgender team. A brilliant swim dad on our team suggested a time delay if you’ve gone through puberty as a man. There are options that need to be explored.

Discussion Point #4

Why does it matter? As a forty-something year old woman, I am the product of the culture that resulted in the “Me Too” movement. After grad school I applied to work for a political party in California. In my first meeting with members of the all-male committee, one of them asked me in a laughing, flirty way, what color bra I was wearing. I offered to take my shirt off in the restaurant to show him. I could have filed some sort of lawsuit but I’d rather stand up to assholes and bullies.

He was attempting to use his power and position to dominate me.

Thomas is using her natural power as a (formerly?) biological elite male athlete to dominate women – women who have worked tirelessly to touch the wall first.

Women have been working HARD to have a seat at the table, a voice in the fight, to touch the wall first – for over a century.

Rachel Levine, a Biden appointee, was sworn in to the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps – making her a four-star admiral. Recently, USA Today named her one of their Women of the Year in 2022, recognizing women who have made a significant impact. Simone Biles was also nominated. Ms. Biles became a fierce advocate for mental health at the 2021 Summer Olympics. She rose through the ranks of elite athletics, becoming the most decorated female gymnast of all time. She rose through the ranks as a woman. Admiral Rachel Levine also rose the ranks. She attended Harvard, Tulane Med School, did her residency at Mount Sinai, worked at Penn State Medical Center – all as a man. There were no glass ceilings, no male authority figures from the good ole boys club telling her no. It wasn’t until 2011 that Dr. Levine became a woman. So when we celebrate her incredible career, let’s make sure we acknowledge it in its correct context. Lia Thomas and Dr. Levine have both accomplished great success in their respective fields but the foundation of their success – their rise through the ranks – was as men. Coming in second at the wall, losing out on a position to one of these two, makes you think we’ve gone from “me too!” to “what about me?”

Context matters.

Discussion Point #5

Why are we politicizing everything?

The entire world has faced a global pandemic together. It should have been a unifying experience – one where neighbors support neighbors, countries support countries, Americans rallied for Americans. Instead, it became political. Questioning the vaccine or mask mandates in any way made you conservative, anti-science, a republican on the fringe. Not questioning made you a follower, a liberal, a democrat on the fringe. Why did we allow this to happen? It divided families that should have rallied around each other and made the home a safe place to questions, research, follow the science or not. Instead, it lined the proverbial pockets of the news networks.

This swimming debate is now becoming political. Gov. DeSantis, regardless of what you may think of him, chose to make a public decree about the winner of the 500 free swim race. Conservative news networks are running it as the top story. At first, I cheered the Governor for saying what I had been feeling. But when my emotions calmed and my reason kicked in, it felt so Kardashian. Why not allocate funds to girls sports? Why not make a proclamation to add funding to physical education in schools? Create more avenues for girls across the state of Florida to be physically active or appoint a state commissioner to oversee fairness in sports. Instead, he did the equivalent of putting out a sign in his front yard – a verbal hashtag without actually doing anything to save women’s sports. But he made the nightly news reel!

Supporting our girls – supporting our girls in sport – supporting girl’s sports should never be a conservative or liberal issue. It should be a uniting, unifying, national issue.

After Lia Thomas won the 500 meter free race, photos surfaced all over the internet and news that showed, for the first time, the clear size difference between her and the other competitors. Until that point, we had mostly seen her in the water, diminishing the physical dichotomy.

Thomas had two more events – the 100 and the 200 free. I believe she was projected to dominate in both. Instead, she came in fifth and eighth place. What happened? Did the sudden turn in popular opinion and media attention get to her? I hope not. As I said before we should never inflict or encourage emotional or psychological pain on anyone. It’s also possible her PR team, seeing the sudden downturn of support and the continued negative trajectory of the conversation, told her to throw the races. I wish I could ask her what happened and how she felt about it. I hope someone does because whatever happened, she’ll need some real support. My hope is she made the conscious decision to stop dominating the very gender she’s so drastically trying to become.

I love being a woman. I love my curves, my softness, my femininity. Coming up through the world as a woman meant l had to deal with the all types of women (and we are not easy to deal with!) I had to go through puberty as a girl which is not for the weak. I lived in an all-girls house in college where we had to navigate our periods syncing up and running through all the toilet paper in 5-7 days each month. I had to fight alongside other girls for the attention of certain boys and nurse my fellow girls through terrible heartbreak. I’ve supported my girlfriends and had them support me through pregnancy, miscarriages, births and breast feeding. Our bodies are incredible and capable of incredible things. It makes me appreciate the success of elite female athletes like Simone Biles and Emma Weyant.

We’ve got this. We don’t need any pinch hitters subbing in the ninth inning. We’re good.

I love being a mother. I love that my daughter is pursing competitive swimming. I loved watching the women at the NCAA championship meet and exceed their preconceived limits. I hope we can all rally around these girls, around women’s sports and women in sports in a real, meaningful way.

To the incredible athletes we met last week, thank you for your years of discipline, perseverance and dedication. Thank you for being role models for my girl and her teammates. (Shown below: Ohio State, U of Missouri, UVA and Emma Weyant)

To women athletes throughout history who have paved the way for us to have this conversation, thank you.

1976 Olympic Gold Medalist Wendy Boglioli

To my ten year old daughter, never give up. Embody perseverance and resilience in all aspects of sport and life. Support your teammates and all other girls. Be an encourager. I love you and I’m cheering for you.

Run to win.

#women #EmmaWeyant #swimming #floridaswimming #swim #transgender #sport #savegirlssports #desantis #ncaa #savewomen039ssports #liathomas #athletes