April 15, 2022

When University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer Lia Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle event at the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming Championship, she made history as the first known transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in any sport.

But what could have been seen as a milestone for transgender athletes and the LGBTQ+ community was quickly surrounded in controversy. Following her win, this photo quickly went viral online, which many claimed to show the second, third and fourth place swimmers protesting against Thomas’ inclusion in the competition. 

But is that really the case? Here’s how we fact-checked it.

Try a reverse image search

The best way to add context to a photo is by doing a reverse image search. Screenshotting and uploading the photo to Google Images brought up several results.

According to this article from Reuters, the photo actually lacks context. The photo does show University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas standing on a podium by herself, while second-place winner Emma Weyant, third-place swimmer Erica Sullivan and fourth-place winner Brooke Forde celebrate on a separate podium. However, Weyant, Sullivan and Forde competed together in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and, according to the article, were just taking a quick photo together after the official podium photo op took place. 

Reuters also linked to the group podium photo from Getty Images, where all three swimmers are seen standing side by side.

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Another result from the image search was this op-ed from Sullivan that she wrote for Newsweek. She wrote, “Many of those who oppose transgender athletes like Lia being able to participate in sports claim to be ‘protecting women’s sports.’ As a woman in sports, I can tell you that I know what the real threats to women’s sports are: sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay and resources and a lack of women in leadership. Transgender girls and women are nowhere on this list. Women’s sports are stronger when all women — including trans women — are protected from discrimination, and free to be their true selves.”

Go directly to the source 

While the reverse image search was really helpful here, you could have also used another media literacy tip to fact-check this: going directly to the source. Heading over to Sullivan’s social channels, she did post the photo to her Instagram feed with the caption, “Being subjected to false claims on Right Wing media due to this photo with my close Tokyo homies isn’t something that happens every day.”


Needs Context. The viral podium photo simply doesn’t show female swimmers protesting Lia Thomas’ win. The athletes pictured in the photo (besides Weyant) have publicly voiced their support for Thomas and transgender athletes like her.

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