Two months after she became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship, former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas shrugged off some of the criticism she received in the 2021 season. 2022 received in an exclusive interview with ABC News and ESPN.
Thomas, who declined all requests for interviews during the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in Atlanta in March, found himself at the center of a national debate over who can participate in women’s sports.
“The biggest misconception, I think, is the reason I switched,” Thomas said. “People will say, ‘Oh, she just passed, so she would have an advantage, so she could win.’ I stepped over to be happy, to be true to myself. “
Thomas swam three seasons with Penn’s men’s swimming team before joining the women’s team after a short hiatus when the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 season for all sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She made national headlines after her performance at the Zippy Invitational in Akron, Ohio, in December of 2021, when she placed 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, finishing fifth and eighth in the 200 and 100 freestyle, respectively.
Their 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 honesty, whatever it may be in sports, why do we ignore that completely for one person or a small group of people?”
Thomas’ name was invoked in state houses across the country when lawmakers introduced bills designed to limit the ability of transgender athletes to compete in sports, sometimes affecting athletes starting elementary school. The bills, they said, were needed to protect the sanctity of women’s sports.
Thomas told ESPN she did not buy it.
“Trans women competing in women’s sports do not threaten women’s sports at all,” 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 more than 10 years. And we have not seen a massive wave of trans women dominating.”
Thomas said she began hormone therapy in May 2019, following the conclusion of her second year. Thomas said she had experienced gender dysphoria and stress on her mental health, which led her to medical transition. At the time, she said, she thought her swimming career was over.
Prior to Thomas’ senior season, the NCAA required transgender women to undergo 12 months of hormone therapy to be eligible for competition in the women’s category. When Thomas began her senior season in November 2021, she had undergone 30 months of hormone therapy.
In January, the NCAA announced a change in policy, saying it would rely on the policies of national governing bodies for each sport to determine qualification. USA Swimming announced an updated policy in February. 1, 2022, which required 36 months of testosterone suppression and qualification evaluation 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.
Yet some of Thomas’ critics have argued that their participation takes chances from cisgender women.
“We’re always looking for win-win solutions,” three-time Olympic swimming medalist and women’s champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar told ESPN in March. “But when it comes to including transgender women in the female category, we must give priority to honesty for biological women in sport. A category that accounts for half the world’s population is worth defending. Only then we can talk about ways to transgender men and women, ways that respect everyone with all their differences and that do not 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 not score or you’re in an extra job nine, that’s very different for trans people,” Thomas said. “And it does not offer them the same level of respect and opportunity to play and compete.”
Moreover, she said, it is imperative to remember that transgender women are women.
“It’s no different than a cis woman taking a place in a travel team or a scholarship. It’s a part of athletics where people compete with each other. It does not actually take away opportunities from cis women. “Trans women are women, so it’s still a woman who gets that scholarship or that opportunity.”
Thomas graduated from Penn earlier this month and will attend law school in the fall. She intends to focus on civil rights and public interest law.
“After seeing such hateful attacks on transgender people through legislation, fighting for transgender rights and transgender equality is something I have become much more passionate about and I want to pursue,” she said.
When asked if she – even after all the criticism she received – would do it again, Thomas stopped.
“I would say yes. I have been able to do the sport I love as my authentic self.”