Two months after becoming the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship, former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, in an exclusive interview with ABC News and ESPN, shares some of the criticism she faced during the 2021-22 season had been pushed back.
Thomas, who turned down 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 misunderstanding I think is the reason for my move,” said Thomas. “People will say, ‘Oh, she only switched to have an advantage so she could win.’ I’ve moved on to being happy, being true to myself.”
Thomas swam on Penn’s men’s swim team for three seasons before switching to the women’s team after a gap year when the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 all sports season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She made national headlines after her performance at the Zippy Invitational in Akron, Ohio in December 2021 when she set 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-meter freestyle and finished fifth and eighth in the 200-meter and 100-meter freestyle, respectively.
Her participation and success drew criticism from teammates, competitors and other members of the swimming community, including former Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, who placed Thomas in fifth place in the 200.
“What are we trying to protect?” Gaines said in an interview with ABC’s Nightline. “If our priority is fairness, which should be the case in sports, why do we completely neglect that for one person or a small group of people?”
Thomas’s name was shouted in state buildings across the country when lawmakers introduced legislation aimed at restricting the ability of transgender athletes to compete in sports, sometimes affecting athletes beginning in elementary school. The bills, they said, were necessary to protect the sanctity of women’s sport.
Thomas told ESPN that she’s not buying it.
“Trans women competing in women’s sport do not threaten women’s sport as a whole,” Thomas said. “Trans women are a very small minority of all athletes. The NCAA rules for trans women competing in women’s sports have been around for more than 10 years. And we haven’t seen a massive wave of trans women dominating.”
Thomas said she started hormone therapy after completing her sophomore year in May 2019. Thomas said she experienced gender dysphoria and mental health stress, which led her to make a 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 in order to be eligible to compete in the women’s category. By the time Thomas began her senior season in November 2021, she had been undergoing 30 months of hormone therapy.
In January, the NCAA announced a policy change, saying it would base its determination of eligibility on guidelines from national governing bodies for each sport. USA Swimming announced an updated policy on February 1, 2022 that would require 36 months of testosterone suppression and eligibility assessments for transgender women by a three-member panel, but the NCAA did not adopt that policy for its 2022 Swimming and Diving Championships. Instead, it called for it the NCAA compliance with the previous guideline and a proven testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per liter.
Still, some critics of Thomas have argued that her participation deprives cis women of opportunities.
“We’re always looking for win-win solutions,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist and founder of Champion Women, told ESPN in March. “But when it comes to including transgender women in the female category, we must prioritize fairness for biological women in sport. A category that applies to 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’s differences and don’t harm biological women.”
But Thomas said she doesn’t see a viable option for a middle ground, at least in swimming.
“If you say you can keep up but you can’t score or you’re on an extra lane nine, that’s very different from trans people,” Thomas said. “And it doesn’t give them the same level of respect and opportunity to play and compete.”
Also, she said, it’s important to remember that transgender women are women.
“It’s no different than a cis woman accepting a spot on a travel team or a scholarship. It’s a part of athletics where people compete against each other. It doesn’t really take away 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 be entering law school in the fall. She plans to focus on civil rights and public interest.
“Having seen such hateful attacks on trans rights through legislation, the fight for trans rights and trans equality is something I’ve become much more passionate about and want to pursue,” she said.
When asked if she would do it again despite all the criticism, Thomas paused.
“I would say yes. I was able to play the sport I love as the authentic me.”