Two months after becoming the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship, former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas pushed back on some of the criticism she received during the 2021-22 season in an exclusive interview with ABC News and ESPN.
Thomas, who declined all interview requests during the NCAA swimming and diving championships in Atlanta in March, found herself at the center of a national debate over who gets to compete in women’s sports.
“The biggest misconception, I think, is the reason I transitioned,” Thomas said. “People will say, ‘Oh, she just transitioned so she would have an advantage, so she could win.’ I transitioned to be happy, to be true to myself.”
Thomas swam on the Penn men’s swimming team for three seasons, before joining the women’s team after a gap year when the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 season for all sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She made national headlines following her performance at the Zippy Invitational in Akron, Ohio, in December 2021, when she posted the nation’s fastest times in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle. At the NCAA swimming and diving championships in March, Thomas won the 500 freestyle, and placed fifth and eighth, respectively, in the 200 and 100 freestyle.
Her participation and success drew criticism from teammates, competitors and other members of the swimming community, including former Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, who tied Thomas for fifth place in the 200.
“What are we trying to protect?” Gaines said in an interview with ABC’s “Nightline.” “If our priorities are fairness, which it should be in sports, why are we completely neglecting that for one person or a small group of people?”
Thomas’ name was invoked in statehouses across the country as legislators introduced bills designed to restrict transgender athletes’ ability to compete in sports, sometimes impacting athletes starting in elementary school. The bills, they said, were needed to protect the sanctity of women’s sports.
Thomas told ESPN that she doesn’t buy it.
“Trans women competing in women’s sports does not threaten women’s sports as a whole,” Thomas said. “Trans women are a very small minority of all athletes. The NCAA rules regarding trans women competing in women’s sports have been around for 10-plus years. And we haven’t seen any massive wave of trans women dominating.”
Thomas said that she began hormone therapy in May 2019, following the conclusion of her sophomore year. Thomas said she had experienced gender dysphoria and stress on her mental health, which led her to medically transition. At the time, she said, she figured her swimming career was over.
Prior to Thomas’ senior season, the NCAA required transgender women to undergo 12 months of hormone therapy to become eligible for competition in the women’s category. When Thomas began her senior season in November 2021, she’d undergone 30 months of hormone therapy.
In January, the NCAA announced a change in policy, saying it would rely on the policies of the national governing bodies for each sport to determine eligibility. USA Swimming announced an updated policy on Feb. 1, 2022, that required 36 months of testosterone suppression and evaluation of eligibility for transgender women by a three-person panel, but the NCAA did not adopt that policy for its 2022 swimming and diving championships. Instead, the NCAA required compliance with the previous policy and a demonstrated testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per liter.
Still, some of Thomas’ critics have argued that her participation takes opportunities away from cisgender women.
“We always look for win-win solutions,” three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist and founder of Champion Women Nancy Hogshead-Makar told ESPN in March. “But when it comes to transgender women’s inclusion into the female category, we need to prioritize fairness for biological women in sport. A category that is for half the world’s population is worth defending. Only then can we talk about ways to include transgender men and women, ways that respect everyone with all their differences and that don’t harm biological women.”
But Thomas said she sees no viable option, at least in swimming, for a middle ground.
“If you say, like, you can compete, but you can’t score or you’re in an extra lane nine, that’s very othering towards trans people,” Thomas said. “And it is not offering them the same level of respect and opportunity to play and to compete.”
Besides, she said, it’s imperative to remember that transgender women are women.
“It’s no different than a cis woman taking a spot on a travel team or a scholarship. It’s a part of athletics, where people are competing against each other. It’s not taking away opportunities from cis women really. Trans women are women, so it’s still a woman who is getting that scholarship or that opportunity.”
Thomas graduated from Penn earlier this month and will be attending law school in the fall. She plans to focus on civil rights and public interest law.
“Having seen such hateful attacks on trans rights through legislation, fighting for trans rights and trans equality is something that I’ve become much more passionate about and want to pursue,” she said.
When asked whether she would do it all over again, even after all the criticism she has received, Thomas paused.
“I would say yes. I’ve been able to do the sport that I love as my authentic self.”