Penn swimmer Lia Thomas has largely avoided interviews and media throughout her high-profile and controversial season.
As she has balanced a grueling, Division I athletics training schedule and Ivy League course load, Thomas has also faced the national spotlight on her transgender identity, cruel media reports, and public threats.
Following one podcast interview she did last year, the nation heard from Thomas in an exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated, which posted online Thursday and is in the April issue that hits newsstands March 24.
Penn athletic director Alanna Shanahan and swimming coach Mike Schnur declined to be interviewed for the Sports Illustrated story.
Here are a few takeaways:
Before transitioning, she was at a breaking point mentally
In interviews with Sports Illustrated’s Robert Sanchez, Thomas talks about the mental struggles she faced before coming out as a transgender woman.
She began feeling disconnected from her body in her senior year of high school, Sanchez writes, and after she joined Penn’s swim team in 2017, the feeling intensified. She realized she was trans and came out to her family later that year, and they were supportive.
She returned to Philadelphia for her sophomore year, and had not yet come out to friends or teammates. She remained on the men’s team, and her feelings of dysphoria grew. She said she became depressed, especially after the season ended.
“I got to the point where I couldn’t go to school. I was missing classes,” she said. “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.”
She began hormone replacement therapy in May 2019, “knowing and accepting I might not swim again,” she said. “I was just trying to live my life.”
Immediately, she said, she started to feel better. She came out to her team in the fall of 2019, with the support of Coach Schnur. She took a gap year in 2020 to preserve her final year of eligibility amid COVID-19, then returned in fall 2021 on the women’s team.
Thomas’ goal is to make it to the Olympics
Thomas, a senior who will graduate this spring, has applied to law school, with an interest in civil rights law and working with marginalized groups.
She said she wants to continue swimming through law school, with a goal of competing at the 2024 Olympic trials. USA Swimming told Sanchez that if she meets the eligibility criteria for trans athletes — testosterone levels below 5 n/mol; on hormone therapy for 36 months; and a panel of three “medical experts” determine that she has no “unfair advantage” — it would have no issue with Thomas representing the United States in Paris.
Groups continue to strategize on how to prevent her from competing
Some groups — including nearly half of Thomas’ teammates — have lobbied against Thomas’ right to swim, arguing that because she went through male puberty, she retains physical advantages that make her competing unfair.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimmer turned lawyer, has been outspoken in the conversation.
On the agreement that he not report attendees’ names or specific quotes, Sanchez joined a Jan. 24 virtual meeting organized by Hogshead-Makar, where more than 250 people — including “former Olympic swim champions, current and former collegiate swimmers and coaches, Penn parents, and several current members of the USA Swimming board of directors” — discussed how to prevent trans women from competing in women’s college sports.
Sanchez reports that the group discussed whether Georgia, where the national championship will be held in two weeks, could pass a law ahead of time to ban her presence. The group also mentioned a swimmer boycott, but that got little traction.
‘I belong on the women’s team’
Some of Thomas’ teammates and their parents have said they support Thomas as a person, and her gender identity, just not when it comes to competition. “It’s not transphobic to say I disagree with where she’s swimming,” one anonymous parent said.
Thomas disagreed with that, and said there is no such thing as half support.
“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.”
Her team remains divided
The team dynamic has spiraled throughout the season, with women who spend hours together every day confronting each other about rumors and anonymous quotes spreading across the internet.
“It’s disgusting and it’s cruel what’s being done to Lia,” Hadley DeBruyn, a Penn sophomore swimmer, told Sanchez. “Sometimes, this doesn’t even feel like a team.”
Thomas, though, just tries to block it out. She has asked her parents and friends not to engage, and did not criticize her teammates.
“I don’t look into the negativity and the hate,” she told Sanchez. “I am here to swim.”