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Lia Thomas speaks on equal opportunity for trans athletes as Penn swimming has sights set on this season

Coach Mike Schnur, who remained silent throughout last year, shook his head, when asked about how he manages the team after last season. “We’re just trying to get everybody to swim fast.”

Penn’s Lia Thomas has “let trans kids play” written on her arm before racing in the 100-yard freestyle final at the NCAA women's swimming and diving championship in Atlanta on March 19.
Penn’s Lia Thomas has “let trans kids play” written on her arm before racing in the 100-yard freestyle final at the NCAA women's swimming and diving championship in Atlanta on March 19.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

Energy soared inside Sheerr Pool, where the Penn women’s swimming team opened its season with back-to-back home meets. Parents in the stands waved their red and blue pompoms, and the swimmers, who stood beside coach Mike Schnur at the water’s edge, cheered for their teammates in the race.

In the crowd, there still was chatter among the parents and students about last season, when transgender swimmer Lia Thomas was a part of the program before graduating in May.

Schnur, who remained silent throughout last year, shook his head Wednesday when asked about how he led the team.

“I’m not talking about Lia,” Schnur told The Inquirer. “I’m just not going to do that.”

Thomas has had Schnur’s support. When she joined the women’s team after competing on the men’s for three seasons, he said to the team, “You couldn’t hope for a better teammate,” according to Sports Illustrated.

“Mike has been one of my biggest supporters and allies in this process since Day 1,” Thomas said in a SwimSwam interview in December 2021.

Thomas went on to win the NCAA championship in the women’s 500-yard freestyle in March, becoming the first known transgender athlete to win an NCAA title in any sport. She also tied for fifth place with former Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines in the 200-yard freestyle. Gaines has frequently spoken against Thomas since.

Thomas’ victory sparked a national debate about who gets to compete in women’s sports. Critics said she was stealing competition from cisgender women and the only reason she medically transitioned was to have an advantage as a swimmer. Thomas, though, just wanted to compete as her authentic self, she told ESPN in May.

After she broke records and won an Ivy League championship, a letter came out in February from 16 anonymous Penn swimmers who felt that Thomas shouldn’t compete as a female athlete. More than 300 current and former collegiate swimmers advocated on Thomas’ behalf.

» READ MORE: 16 Penn swimmers send letter saying teammate Lia Thomas has an unfair advantage

Now, six months later, Schnur said he is focused on training and challenging his athletes. Hard work, he said, is what earns respect.

“We’re just trying to get everybody to swim fast,” Schnur said. “We’re just trying to challenge them every day at practice. ...That’s the idea of what we’re all doing.

“If you’re a great teammate and you inspire your teammates every day, then you’re going to be someone to have respect on our team. Accountability and hard work is something that’s pretty much the culture of this university.”

Thomas started to speak out more following the 2021-22 season. She told ESPN that it’s imperative to remember that transgender women are women.

» READ MORE: Thomas: ‘I transitioned to be happy, to be true to myself,’ not for competitive advantage

She attends Drexel Kline School of Law with a focus on civil rights and public interest law. And even though her swimming career appears to have come to an end, that hasn’t stopped her advocacy for other transgender athletes. Last month, Thomas spoke at the Philly Trans March on the Art Museum steps, sharing her journey and hoping to inspire others that they have a place in sports.

“Swimming and athletics has been an incredibly important part of my life,” Thomas told the crowd. “Since I was 5 years old and I first got into the water, it’s pushed me to grow, to learn, and make friends.

“It made me into the woman I am today, and I love it so much. And so when I realized I was trans just a few years ago, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know any other trans athletes. I didn’t even know if it was possible to be trans and an athlete — to combine the two most important aspects of my life.”

Thomas started hormone replacement therapy in May 2019 and came out to her teammates that fall. She continued competing on the men’s team while taking the suppressants. Although Thomas fulfilled all the NCAA eligibility requirements to compete, there still were disagreements about whether being assigned a man at birth gave her an unfair biological advantage.

“I didn’t know what to do. I was very lost,” Thomas said at the Philly Trans March, referring to the criticism she endured. “I was lucky enough I had friends, coaches, and family who supported me and allowed me the opportunity to continue to swim and do the sport I love.”

Policies for college and youth transgender athletes

The NCAA released an updated transgender policy in January that will be implemented in three stages.

They are in the second stage, which states that on Aug. 1, transgender student-athletes had to provide documentation that meets the 2010 NCAA policy, as well as the sport standard for documented testosterone levels at the beginning of their competition season, then again in six months.

» READ MORE: What trans athlete Lia Thomas teaches us about fairness | Opinion

Besides collegiate sports, there is no uniform policy for transgender athletes in youth sports. Each state has its own laws.

For example, Texas allows student-athletes to participate only in sports that correspond with the sex listed on their official birth certificates. Meanwhile, New Jersey policy states that transgender students may participate according to their sex assigned at birth or with their gender identity.

In Pennsylvania, debate has been ongoing. The House of Representatives approved a bill in April that would prohibit transgender female athletes from competing in girls’ school sports. But in June, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed legislation that would have prevented transgender athletes across the state from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity.

Thomas noted in her speech that she hopes to see changes in the legislation for transgender athletes, especially in youth sports.

“These state legislators just continue to pass incredibly cruel and transphobic bills that are often only targeted at trans children, preventing them from competing and doing sports with their friends and their peers,” Thomas said.

“Depriving them of that opportunity to have sports and to learn and grow from that is unjust. It’s very wrong, but I have faith that as a community we will come together and we’ll fight this.”