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 against some of the criticism she received during the 2021-22 season in an exclusive interview with ABC News and ESPN.
Thomas, who turned down all interview requests at the NCAA swimming and diving championships in Atlanta in March, has found herself at the center of a national debate over who can compete in women’s sports.
“The biggest misconception, I think, is why I made the transition,” Thomas said. “People will be like, ‘Oh, she just transitioned to have an edge, so she could win. I made the transition to be happy, to be true to myself.”
Thomas swam on the men’s swim team at Penn for three seasons before joining the women’s team after a year off 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 2021, when she posted the fastest times in the nation in the 200 and 500 yard freestyle. At the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in March, Thomas won the 500 freestyle and she placed fifth and eighth respectively in the 200 and 100 freestyle.
His participation and success drew criticism from some 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 should be the case in sport, why are we completely neglecting this for one person or a small group of people?”
Thomas’ name has been invoked in state houses across the country when lawmakers introduced bills to restrict the ability of transgender athletes to participate in sports, sometimes affecting athletes as young as grade school. The bills, they said, were necessary to protect the sanctity of women’s sport.
Thomas told ESPN she’s not buying it.
“Trans women who participate in women’s sports are not a threat to women’s sports as a whole,” Thomas said. “Trans women are a very small minority of all athletes. NCAA rules regarding trans women participating in women’s sports have been around for over 10 years. And we haven’t seen any massive wave of trans women dominating.”
Thomas said she started hormone therapy in May 2019, after her second year. Thomas said she suffered from gender dysphoria and stress on her mental health, which led her to a medical transition. At the time, she says, 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 become eligible to compete in the women’s category. When Thomas started her senior season in November 2021, she had been on 30 months of hormone therapy.
In January, the NCAA announced a policy change, saying it would rely on the policies of each sport’s national governing bodies to determine eligibility. USA Swimming announced an updated policy on February 1, 2022, which required 36 months of testosterone suppression and evaluation of transgender women’s eligibility by a three-person panel, but the NCAA did not adopted this policy for its 2022 swimming and diving championships. Instead, the NCAA required compliance with the previous policy and a demonstrated testosterone level of less than 10 nanomoles per liter.
Still, some of Thomas’ critics have argued that her participation takes away opportunities for cisgender women.
“We’re always looking for win-win solutions,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming and founder of Champion Women, told ESPN in March. “But when it comes to including transgender women in the women’s category, we must prioritize equity for biological women in sport. A category that involves half of the world’s population deserves to be Only then can we talk about ways to include transgender men and women, ways that respect everyone with all their differences and don’t harm biological women.”
But Thomas said she sees no viable option, at least in swimming, for middle ground.
“If you say, for example, you can compete, but you can’t score or you’re in an extra lane nine, that’s very different towards trans people,” Thomas said. “And it doesn’t give them the same level of respect and the same opportunity to play and compete.”
Also, she says, 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 part of athletics, where people compete. It doesn’t really deprive cis women of opportunities. Trans women are women, so it’s always 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 plans to focus on civil rights and public interest law.
“Having seen such hateful attacks on trans rights through legislation, the fight for trans rights and trans equality is something that I am much more passionate about and want to pursue,” he said. she declared.
When asked if she would do it again, even after all the criticism she received, Thomas quit.
“I would say yes. I got to play the sport I love as an authentic me.”