Team co-captain Lily Mullens with other members of the Roanoke College women's swim team. Photo by Emily Hemphill.
Team co-captain Lily Mullens with other members of the Roanoke College women's swim team. Photo by Emily Hemphill.

The Roanoke College women’s swim team returned to the pool this fall prepared to dive into training after its second place finish in last season’s Old Dominion Athletic Conference swimming championships. 

But just a few weeks into the season, the swimmers’ motivation “quickly dissipated” when a trans athlete, who formerly swam on the men’s team, approached the swim staff in September and asked to compete with the women. 

“My defeat was written in biology,” said junior Lily Mullens, a team co-captain. “No heart or grit would overcome the laws of nature.”  

A monthlong controversy ensued, involving almost-daily meetings between both the women’s and men’s teams, swim staff and school administration, as well as the trans athlete, who has not been publicly named. One such meeting included members of both squads voting in an online poll on whether the trans swimmer should be allowed to compete, while the athlete was in the room, according to team co-captain Kate Pearson. Though the results came out in favor of the trans athlete, team members said they felt pressured into voting yes. 

In the end, the trans swimmer withdrew her request to swim with the women, but the members of the women’s team said they still felt that their civil rights had been violated, leading to a news conference Thursday at the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, where they called on the Roanoke College administration, the NCAA and state lawmakers to prevent trans athletes from competing in women’s sports. 

Roanoke College’s statement

Roanoke College issued this statement Thursday:

At the start of fall semester this year, Roanoke College leadership was made aware that a transgender (male to female) student had requested permission to swim with the women’s swim team. The student had competed on the men’s swim team as a first-year student, then took a year off from competition before returning to the sport this season.   

Because Roanoke College is committed to the success and well-being of every student, and because this was the first time Roanoke College had encountered this situation, the administration launched a process to help inform our decision on transgender student-athlete participation in all sports at the College. Our process included analysis of the NCAA policy on transgender student participation in athletics, which states: “Like the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the updated NCAA policy calls for transgender student-athlete participation for each sport to be determined by the policy for the national governing body of that sport.” However, the NCAA also opted for a multi-year phase-in process to the above policy, which has created confusing and contradictory guidance for schools to navigate – particularly since the NCAA has already extended the phase-in process. This confusion puts student-athletes, coaches and college leaders in a difficult and uncertain position.  

The Roanoke College Board of Trustees scheduled a meeting for Oct. 3, 2023, to discuss the College’s policy and future stance. Prior to that meeting, our student withdrew her request for participation on the women’s swim team. With a strong desire to cement our school’s approach to similar requests in the future, the board convened on Oct. 3 as planned and voted to formally adopt the NCAA policy; however, our college will forgo the phase-in process. This means Roanoke College will defer to the policy of the national governing body of each sport regarding student-athlete participation eligibility.  

“In making this decision, the focus of senior administration and the board of trustees was on maintaining fairness in competition and protecting the integrity of all athletics at Roanoke College,” said Roanoke College President Frank Shushok Jr. “We remain committed to supporting our LGBTQ+ community and our student-athletes, all of whom are valued members of our vibrant community.”    

Trans advocates quickly spoke out against the effort, saying that every athlete should be able to compete as their authentic self. 

“Every kid, every person who wants to participate in athletics should be able to do that in a supportive environment, on a team that matches their gender identity,” said Molly Rivera, communications director for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, which operates a health clinic in Roanoke.

“Especially if we’re talking about school-aged people, school, sports and clubs are incredibly important for the development of young people and to help them create spaces where they belong, and can make friends and can have social structures that allow them to thrive.”

Conflict arising from trans athletes joining athletic teams has erupted across the country in a range of sports at all levels of competition. An ESPN article reports that since 2020, “23 states have passed laws restricting transgender athletes’ ability to participate in school sports in accordance with their gender identity.” The House of Representatives passed legislation in April stating that any laws that permit individuals assigned male at birth to participate in female sports are in violation of the Title IX Act. President Joe Biden promised to veto such a bill.

On Thursday, 10 of the 17 swimmers on the Roanoke College roster, and Katie Mullens, the mother of Lily Mullens, spoke of “gaslighting” and “emotional blackmail” that the team went through. Mullens described in graphic detail how violently ill her daughter became due to anxiety.

They were forced to prioritize “a man’s mental health” above their own, according to Pearson. Though the entire squad was not able to attend the event, those present emphasized that the team was united against swimming alongside a trans athlete.

The Roanoke College administration did not provide a response to these comments, deferring to a statement it released earlier in the day in which it announced that it was formally adopting the NCAA’s policy on transgender student participation. This is the first time Roanoke College has been put in such a position, according to the press release. A meeting with the college’s board of trustees had been scheduled for this past Tuesday to review the school’s policy and how it would handle future situations, but the college said that the swimmer withdrew her request to join the women’s team prior to the meeting.

“In making this decision, the focus of senior administration and the board of trustees was on maintaining fairness in competition and protecting the integrity of all athletics at Roanoke College,” Roanoke College President Frank Shushok Jr. said in the statement. “We remain committed to supporting our LGBTQ+ community and our student-athletes, all of whom are valued members of our vibrant community.”    

The NCAA’s policy defers to the national governing body of each sport to decide on student-athlete eligibility, meaning swimmers must abide by USA Swimming regulations. The criteria for elite-level athletes requires that they provide evidence to a panel of three medical experts that “the prior physical development of the athlete as a male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors” and that their testosterone levels cannot exceed acceptable levels, according to the USA Swimming rules.  

Men naturally have a bigger lung capacity and muscular differences, all of which provide men with a biological advantage over women, Halli Gravley, an ambassador for Young Women in America, said at the news conference.

Six others came to the podium to protest the presence of trans athletes in female athletics, representing organizations that sponsored the event: Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative women’s group originally formed to support Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearing when he faced an allegation of sexual harassment; Women’s Liberation Front, whose top focus area as stated on its website is abolishing gender ideology; Concerned Women for America, a self-declared socially conservative and evangelical organization; and Women’s Declaration International, which states that it is “dedicated to protecting women’s sex-based rights” rather than gender. 

Riley Gaines, a 12-time All-American swimmer from the University of Kentucky, and Paula Scanlan, a former swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania, were featured speakers. The two recently garnered national attention by speaking out against another trans swimmer, and Scanlan’s old teammate, Lia Thomas. When competing as a male Division I swimmer in the 2018-19 season, Thomas ranked 65th nationally in the 500 freestyle. In March 2022, she won the national championship when she competed as a woman. 

“Quite frankly, I’m mad with another mediocre male athlete coming to swim for a women’s team and smashing female records,” said Gaines. “We have weak leaders who are fine with women being collateral damage as long as they are kind and inclusive. They are sending a message that women are not worthy and exist to validate male dignity.” 

The press conference — and the presence of groups from outside the region — drew strong reactions from local trans advocates.   

“Riley Gaines has traveled to states where she does not live in, she’s not part of the community,” said Rivera. “She’s not part of the states. She doesn’t vote for these legislators. She’s not part of these communities. They are going around the country peddling the same stories with concerns that are trumped-up in order to attack trans people.” 

In an open letter titled “Hate Has No Place in Roanoke, Virginia,” groups and individuals including the Roanoke Diversity Center, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, Vice Mayor Joe Cobb and city councilman Peter Volosin “denounced the presence of national anti-transgender hate groups and speakers” and said they stand in solidarity with all members of the transgender community. The letter now has more than 100 signatories. 

“These are all organizations that are functionally anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ in many cases,” said Rivera. “And what they’re saying today in Roanoke is nothing new. They’ve been saying this across the country. We don’t believe that reflects the Roanoke community. We believe the Roanoke community is inclusive and welcoming to everybody. And it’s really unfortunate that they’re coming to Roanoke to spew this hate.”

Volosin, a former collegiate swimmer at Brown University, believes that gender plays less of a role in the pool than many think, and that what matters more is the hard work swimmers are willing to put themselves through.

“As somebody who used to be a swimmer, who swam as a closeted gay person, I know what pressures and emotional energy, mental energy, physical energy it takes to hide who you are and try to compete,” he said. “We should be allowing people to compete as their authentic selves. It doesn’t matter what your body is like, it’s what you put into the pool. And if other people want to blame someone for being transgender for beating them, then they need to take a look in the mirror and get back in the pool and start swimming again.”

Roanoke College is a private Division III college with less than 2,000 students, but its women’s swim team has now received national and international attention with articles in the Daily Mail and the New York Post

In an interview with the New York Post, Mullens, the co-captain, recalled her experience during the team’s first training session with the trans athlete.  

“I have tied for our 50 freestyle record, which is 23.93,” Mullens told the Post. “I did that time when I was suited up, in shape, tapered — everything I could be, to go that time. The individual gets up on the block [during training] and swims a 50 freestyle and goes a low 24. Right on. So, best time ever.”

The Roanoke College swimmers said they empathize with “anyone who is struggling” with gender identity but object to swimming alongside someone assigned male at birth. 

Marshi Smith, cofounder of the Independent Council on Women’s Sports, interrupted halfway through the conference to read a statement from Attorney General Jason Miyares, who stated his support for the team and said that “we cannot allow the Biden administration and radical left to roll back progress in the name of false equity.” Smith then went on to claim that the NCAA is “devoted to discriminating against its female athletes” and “is married to making a mockery of women in sports.”

Emily Hemphill is a freelance journalist from Elliston. She received a bachelor's degree in political...