Lia Thomas Competing on UPenn Swim Team Was ‘Non-Negotiable’: Former Swimmer

Lia Thomas Competing on UPenn Swim Team Was ‘Non-Negotiable’: Former Swimmer
Paula Scanlan, a former NCAA swimmer, poses for a photo in Washington ,on July 3, 2023 (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Bill Pan
Jan Jekielek

Paula Scanlan, a former teammate of swimmer Will “Lia” Thomas at the University of Pennsylvania, said the school told her that there was no room to debate or negotiate about the transgender athlete swimming on the women’s team.

“I always thought that college is a place where you go and debate. When I got to college, I found that that wasn’t the case,” Ms. Scanlan said in an interview with EpochTV’s “American Thought Leaders.”

Last year, Ms. Scanlan appeared anonymously in the Daily Wire documentary “What is a Woman?” which confronts many aspects of the transgender movement that are often overlooked or deliberately censored in mainstream discussions. She has recently decided to speak out in person, revealing more details about how UPenn handled the introduction of a male-born athlete to the female swim team.

“The documentary was originally supposed to come out when I was going to be still in college,” she told host Jan Jekielek, saying that it was “a little bit scary” to speak about her experience while still at the UPenn. “I think the biggest thing for me was just feeling like I wasn’t courageous enough at the time to do it, and I really needed to get out there.”

A Time of Confusion

“In the fall of 2019, we were told that a member of the men’s team was going to be transitioning to the women’s team,” Ms. Scanlan said. That announcement didn’t fully materialize until the fall of 2021 when intercollegiate sports resumed after the pandemic pause.

“Funny enough, at the beginning, when this member of the men’s team announced the transition, we weren’t sure if Will was actually going to be in the locker room with us,” the young woman told Mr. Jekielek. “Some people would invite Will into the women’s locker room but would give us a warning, say, ‘Hey, guys, Will’s coming in. Is everyone decent?’ So at that point in the fall of 2019, a warning was justified.”

“But for some reason, two years later, there was no warning. Every single day that we changed in the same locker room,” she continued. “So I was asking, ‘What? Just because you’ve declared you’re a woman two years ago, then it [became] somehow okay [for you to use women’s locker room], when everything about you is still the same?’”

“That’s something I found very, very confusing, that just because you declare something is true in a short amount of time, it is suddenly true.”

The change prompted Ms. Scanlan to look up the rules by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), the governing body of competitive college-level sports. The rules at that time required male athletes to have undergone one year of testosterone suppression treatment in order to compete on a women’s team in any sport.

“It was at that point I started to see that the NCAA had these policies that were deeply flawed,” she said. “It didn’t take into account skeletal structure, muscle, muscle mass, lung capacity, heart size, and other factors that differentiate men and women.”

As Ms. Scanlan and other critics pointed out, those factors did appear to have helped Mr. Thomas succeed extraordinarily in competing against women. Last March, he won the NCAA championships in the 500-yard freestyle race with a time of 4:48.25, beating out the second-place finisher, Tokyo 2020 Olympic 400-meter medley silver medalist Emma Weyant, by more than a second.
“When we started talking about what the policy was and how it wasn’t fair, people started throwing out the word ’transphobic,'” the former swimmer said. “I never thought that pointing out that men and women are different would classify as hate speech.”

In the Name of Inclusiveness

“We were told that we have to be inclusive in every single part for someone to feel comfortable with their new gender identity,” she said. “And it’s all about being inclusive at every single part of women’s spaces and women’s rights that they need to now be included on.

But this effort to achieve inclusiveness actually went far beyond just locker room accommodations to the point that it restricted what Ms. Scanlan and her team members could think or talk upon.

“At the beginning, you could talk to people, you could have one-on-one conversations with anyone on the team. And people had different opinions,” Ms. Scanlan recalled, noting that while some of her teammates expressed much frustration over Mr. Thomas’ newly-found consecutive success, others saw his presence as but a mere annoyance. “But in general, I would say, most people you would have a one-on-one conversation with would ... had at least some level of uncomfortability with it.”

The university, apparently having sensed this uncomfortability among the women on the team, stepped in to address the issue. The solution, according to Ms. Scanlan, was to ask them to shut up.

“As the season went on, the University started coming in and telling us to stop speaking about it and that Lea swimming was a non-negotiable,” she told Mr. Jekielek. “They told us not to speak to the media ... and we [would] regret speaking out if we do.”

“We couldn’t even talk to ourselves,” she continued. “There were people who were scared to even voice their opinions in their own head. There were people in their own minds that changed their opinion. There was a girl who was very upset by it, and she suddenly changed her opinion after meeting with the school—I think her parents also told her as well that there was nothing she could do about it.”

In a team meeting, which Ms. Scanlan said only happened because Mr. Thomas became the center of a national controversy, UPenn officials brought in psychological experts and asked the team members to make counseling appointments if they felt “uncomfortable with the situation.”

“I think bringing in psychological services. I think it was a crazy step,” she said. “I understand bringing in the head of the athletic department. I understand even bringing in the LGBT Center. But psychological counseling was scary because, in my mind, that’s almost equivalent to re-education.”

“That really showed me that they wanted us to think differently, not just help us be comfortable with the situation that we were in.”

With all that going on, Ms. Scanlan also noticed a shift in the campus culture. Her first year at UPenn saw now-Daily Wire’s Candace Owens delivering a speech, but even that bit of openness has eroded over the years, to the point that inviting someone who is even remotely right-leaning to speak on campus would draw fiery protests.

“So I just saw that there was there was no debate. They wanted everyone to think the same thing. And there was no room for dissenting viewpoints,” the new UPenn graduate said. “I knew that colleges were more left-leaning, but I always thought there was room for the opposite opinion. By the end of college, I found that that wasn’t the case.”

A Lookback to Family History

When asked about her Taiwanese heritage, Ms. Scalan said a part of her belief in engaging people with different viewpoints comes from a very unpleasant page of history.

According to Ms. Scanlan, her grandfather worked as a journalist reporting the circumstance in post-World War II Taiwan. His coverage particularly concerned the 2/28 Incident, where Taiwan’s Japanese-educated populace, deemed disloyal and ideologically dangerous by the ruling nationalist Chinese government, were systematically purged in an effort to secure one-party control over the island following the end of the war.

“It was an attempt to suppress the thought of the people,” she explained. “My grandfather’s family members were almost killed during that. A lot of them actually ended up getting banished instead, and they had to move to other countries.”

What immediately followed the 1949 incident was a 38-year island-wide suspension of the freedom of assembly, speech and the press. To this day, the incident remains arguably the most sensitive and divisive topic in Taiwanese political discourse, where people hold drastically different ideas on what actually happened, ranging from anything between a fascist massacre of innocent people to a heroic crackdown on communist insurgency.

“A big part of my family history is him encouraging all viewpoints,” Ms. Scanlan said, describing the experience of having her op-ed taken down as something that connected her to her grandfather.

“That was something that really turned on my gears and [made me] saying, ‘Oh, this is like my family history, I gotta do what my grandfather did,’” she continued. “That was very interesting to have that perspective of knowing what countries can look like without freedom of speech.”

“And that’s something that is very scary, like the 2/28 Incident where they were killing people that had viewpoints that dissented what the government wanted,” Ms. Scanlan added.

“Obviously, we’re not there as America. But I see how starting with restricting freedom of press and freedom of speech gets you there.”

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