Trans swimmer Lia Thomas has a ‘simple’ answer for anybody questioning her right to compete

Lia Thomas clutches the side of a pool during a swimming meet and smiles at other competitors

Swimmer Lia Thomas has said that despite the incessant transphobia she has faced, she just wants “to show trans kids that they’re not alone”.

Thomas, a 22-year-old swimmer on the University of Pennsylvania women’s team, has been hounded by the media for months in transphobic smear campaign.

Understandably, she has largely avoided the press, but this week gave an exclusive interview to Sports Illustrated in which she discussed her journey both as an athlete and as a trans woman.

Thomas has become a vital role model in a country which has seen state after state impose sports bans on young trans people.

She said: “I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone.

“They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.”

This season is Thomas’ first on the UPenn women’s team, after she began hormone therapy as part of her transition in 2019.

Before then she had spent years battling dysphoria but had put off publicly coming out and medically transitioning, fearing it would end her swimming career.

Eventually she came out to her family, who were loving and supportive. But continuing to swim on a team with men, even with the 2020 Olympic trials in sight, was taking a huge toll.

She told Sports Illustrated: “I was very depressed. I got to the point where I couldn’t go to school.

“I was missing classes. My sleep schedule was super messed up. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed.

“I knew at that moment I needed to do something to address this.”

Thomas began hormone therapy in May of 2019, “knowing and accepting I might not swim again”. Quickly, she felt “mentally healthier”.

“The relief it gave me was quite substantial,” she said.

According to National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules, Thomas would have to remain on hormones for a year before being eligible for the women’s team. During this time she came out, first to the men’s swim team and then to the women’s, and began using her new name as the world rang in the new year.

“In a way, it was sort of a rebirth, for the first time in my life, feeling fully connected to my name and who I am and living who I am,” she said. “I am Lia.”

Lia Thomas has a ‘simple answer’ for those who question her place on the women’s team

When Lia Thomas joined the UPenn women’s team, she not only faced criticism from the media but also from her own teammates and university community.

In December, 2021, UPenn parents sent a letter to the NCAA calling for Thomas to be banned from competing, despite her abiding by NCAA rules.

Her own teammates, who reportedly threatened to boycott meets where she was competing, also sent a letter to Ivy League officials, calling for her disqualification from the conference championship meet.

But Thomas has a “simple” response to those who refuse to support her.

“The very simple answer is that I’m not a man, she said.

“I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”

Thomas added: “I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer. It’s what I’ve done for so long; it’s what I love… I get into the water every day and do my best.”

Lia Thomas is in the pool after a swim meet

Lia Thomas finishes the 200 yard Freestyle for the University of Pennsylvania at an Ivy League swim meet against Harvard University on 22 January 2022. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty)

Lia Thomas could one day be an Olympian civil rights lawyer

In the short term, Lia Thomas is looking ahead to the NCAA Women’s Division I Swimming and Diving Championships in Atlanta, Georgia, which begin later this month.

But she also has big plans for the future.

“I don’t know exactly what the future of my swimming will look like after this year, but I would love to continue doing it,” she said.

“I want to swim and compete as who I am.”

Thomas recently applied to law school and is considering specialising in civil rights law, using her own experience to advocate for others.

But this doesn’t mean she’ll stop swimming, and if she can meet the new stricter criteria set out for trans athletes by USA Swimming, she hopes to represent her country at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

In the meantime, she’ll keep shutting down her critics and doing what she does best.

“I don’t look into the negativity and the hate,” she said. “I am here to swim.”