Roanoke College Women’s Swim Team members call on NCAA to address trans athletes in sports

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SALEM, Va. – Members of the Roanoke College Women’s Swim Team spoke out publicly after a transgender woman joined their team.

On Thursday, the team hosted a news conference at The Hotel Roanoke, where the athletes spoke out against transgender athletes competing in women’s sports.

“My name is Lily Mullens, a captain of the Roanoke College Swim Team, and I stand with female athletes everywhere,” said Mullens, a junior and captain on the team.

According to Roanoke College, a transgender student - who has not been identified - competed on the men’s swim team in 2021 as a first-year student, then took a year off from competition. Roanoke College said the student asked permission to swim on the women’s team this fall.

Current NCAA policy allows transgender athletes to compete.

But the other teammates said the school ignored their concerns.

“We were emotionally blackmailed and asked to carry the responsibility of other people’s mental health and wellbeing at the expense of our own,” said Mullens. “This has been too great a burden to bear for many of our teammates who have lost hours of sleep, many tears, and the will to train to race a swimmer who has an advantage in the water that our bodies may never possess.”

“Our school was prioritizing one individual swimmer over 17 women whose only request was fairness,” said sophomore Kate Pearson.

“The thought of having to compete against a biological man is a message that women aren’t worthy, that we don’t actually matter,” said junior Susanna Price.

Student-athletes said the situation negatively affected their physical and mental health.

“I could not eat, could not sleep, and spent a lot of time dealing with anxiety concerned with how this was going to get resolved,” said senior Bailey Gallagher.

Lily’s mother, Cady Mullens, said she supports her daughter’s decision to speak out.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we ever imagine that swimming and sports would teach those girls to be quiet, that they would have to compete with men, and to stifle all their excitement and all their hopes and dreams for the benefit of a man,” said Cady Mullens.

Guest speakers included Paula Scanlan and Riley Gaines, both former University of Pennsylvania swimmers and teammates with Lia Thomas, a trans woman. Gaines, a 12-time NCAA all-American swimmer, has advocated against the inclusion of trans-women in women’s sports.

“My team, when we were going through this a year-and-a-half ago, we all felt the same, but we were scared to say it,” said Gaines. “And so to see all of these girls standing together linking arms, I wanted so badly to be a part of that to support them. To show them that they could do this and show them that it’s liberating to speak the truth.”

Roanoke College said the transgender student withdrew her request to compete on the women’s swim team.

The Board of Trustees met on Tuesday and voted to officially adopt the NCAA’s policies on transgender athletes.

After the press conference, Roanoke College released the following statement:

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.”

Roanoke College

You can watch the full press conference below.

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