Potomac’s Swim and Dive Team travels to VISAA Championship at Liberty University despite its homophobic policies

Ali O'Brien, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Controversy engulfed the end of Potomac’s Swim and Dive Team’s season as it traveled to Liberty University on February 16 to participate in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) State Swimming and Diving Championships. For many of Potomac’s swimmers, their desire to participate in the championships was clouded by Liberty University’s policies toward the LGBTQ+ community. While Liberty University’s official Non-Discrimination Policy states that the university “does not engage in unlawful discrimination or harassment because of race, color, ancestry, religion, age, sex, national origin, pregnancy or childbirth, disability or military status in its educational programs” it leaves out sexual and gender identity in its protection. It proclaims that Liberty University “reserves its right to discriminate on the basis of religion to the extent that applicable law respects its right to act in the furtherance of its religious objectives.” Liberty’s Student Honor Code further states that “statements and behaviors that are associated with LGBT lifestyle are prohibited.” These “behaviors” include “romantic displays of affection with a member of the same sex…and actions confirming denial of biological birth sex” such as “asking to be referred to by pronouns inconsistent with one’s birth sex.” 

Liberty University’s dismissive and disrespectful terminology of “LGBT lifestyle,” and its well-known, discriminatory policies toward the LGBTQ+ community raised concern about attending the championships. Senior Bella van Damme said, “All of us are appalled.” She continued, “as someone that’s part of the community, it just really pisses me off. I hate having to go to a place that I know I’m not accepted.”

VISAA’s decision to host the state championship at Liberty University disappointed many members of the Potomac community. Nonetheless, Athletic Director Erica Woda said, “unfortunately, we do not get a say in a state championship venue, especially for sports like swim where they need to find a venue that is big enough to host.”

Potomac swimmers were allowed to opt out of the meet. In the week prior to the team’s departure for the championship, Potomac’s swim coaches held a meeting to discuss the meet. Ms. Woda said, “we support our swimmers’ decisions. If in fact they decided to walk out or to boycott or not participate at all, we would fully support that.”

Potomac Swim Coach Jason Lu echoed this sentiment. He said, “as a coaching staff we wanted to make sure that the swimmers and students knew that they were supported in how they felt and that a lot of the things, homophobic and transphobic, that stood out in [Liberty’s] documents ran counter to what Potomac and what we as a swim team believe.”

In the meeting prior to the championship, swimmers were able to voice their feelings about the meet. Coach Lu said, “we wanted to make sure that the students felt supported, to make it open for the kids so that they had a space that they felt safe to express their concerns.”

Potomac has taken measures to assure the comfort and safety of the school’s swimmers during the competition. Ms. Woda said, “I was working with VISAA behind the scenes to make sure that an anti-discrimination contract was signed by Liberty under the auspices that they know that our policies and what we believe in are counter to what the university believes in.”

However, regardless of these measures and swimmers’ permission to opt-out of the meet, many felt that put them in an untenable position. Senior Swim Captain Samantha Taylormoore said, “it’s our senior year, and this is also important to us, like the act of swimming with our teammates for our last season.” She expressed her disappointment that “the money we’re giving to that institution is going to places that we do not support.”

Bella added, “I’m not going to back out now because my team depends on me.”

Ms. Woda said, “We will continue to have conversations and write letters if we need to to ensure that our swimmers are not in the situation where there really is no choice if they want to compete for a state championship.” She added, “There’s really no choice for the swimmers and I think that’s what makes me most upset for them because there’s no alternative. It feels like we are just sending out swimmers into an environment that will make them uncomfortable.”

Some seniors on the team decided to wear rainbow wristbands and distribute them to other students to protest Liberty’s policies toward the LGBTQ community. 

Coach Lu supported the students’ initiative. He said, “as a coaching staff we want to teach life lessons through swimming. And that was kind of the goal, like we are here as a team to compete at a state meet, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore everything else.” 

The rainbow wristbands enabled Potomac swimmers to express their disagreement with Liberty’s policies while also allowing them to focus on the competition. Coach Lu said that a lot of the initiative was “swimmer brought up and swimmer led. One thing we mentioned to them was maybe talking to your fellow competitors because that’s how you’re going to enact change.”

Potomac remains hopeful that future competitions will not be held at Liberty University. Ms. Woda said that VISAA is “responsible for ensuring a safe environment for all athletes across all of their sports and I am hopeful that will start to go in the right direction because there is new leadership at VISAA.”