SWIMMING IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Lia Thomas just wants to swim. This week, she’ll compete at the NCAA championships amid a national debate on trans athletes.
When Lia Thomas glides through the water, she’s weightless, free from the outside noise.
When the buzzer sounds and she dives into the pool, there’s no time to think about the people debating her right to compete as a transgender woman, or pressure to be a role model to other trans athletes.
For those few minutes, she’s just a swimmer.
Being a transgender woman is at the core of Thomas’ personal and athletic journey, she has said. It’s the reason people know her name — and why the 22-year-old University of Pennsylvania freestyler is at the center of a culture war on trans athletes’ rights to play sports.
But, ultimately, Thomas is a competitor, motivated by what drives many top athletes: the team camaraderie, jitters, adrenaline, confidence, and of course, the payoff of winning.
“I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer. It’s what I’ve done for so long; it’s what I love,” she told Sports Illustrated, the only media outlet she’s talked to since gaining national attention in December.
And yet because of this sport she loves — and her commitment to competing as her authentic self — she’s endured public vitriol. Some media outlets published lies about her locker room habits. Groups strategized on how politicians could change laws to keep her out of competition. The national governing board for swimming changed its policies in a way some said was directly aimed at limiting her eligibility.
She ignores all of it, she has said. She has to. She declined an interview for this article to continue training.
But the outside noise may become harder to ignore.
This week, Thomas will head to Atlanta to swim in the most important competition of her life — the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving National Championship — in a state whose Senate recently passed a bill that would ban transgender high schoolers from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity.
And so regardless of her desire to be “just a swimmer,” when she steps onto Georgia Tech’s Olympic-size pool deck, she will represent something much larger.
To many in the transgender community, she’s an inspiration, showing “if you are an out trans athlete, people will fight for you,” said Anne Lieberman, director of policy for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group for athletes.
“This is not only about swimming, this is about whether or not trans people, non-binary people deserve to be equal members and participants in society,” Lieberman said.
But to her detractors, Thomas is a cheat, contributing to the end of women’s sports.
“What happens if she breaks a record? Will she just erase women’s history?” said a Penn teammate who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
To Lia Thomas, swimming is living. And yet, she was willing to give it up.
Thomas grew up in Austin, Texas, and swam her first laps at 5. She started swimming year-round, and in high school, her competitive edge and love for racing set in.
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She was recruited by a few college men’s teams, but her sights were set on Penn, where her brother Wes swam, and a program known for successful long-distance and freestyler swimmers.
But during her senior year, she began feeling disconnected from her body. Something was “off,” she told Sports Illustrated. Still, she left for Philadelphia in August 2017.
She performed well her freshman season on the men’s team. Her times showed promise — they were faster than former Penn national champion Chris Swanson’s freshman times — and she placed in the top seven in events at the men’s Ivy League championship.
But her dysphoria intensified, she has said. She started researching what her feelings could mean and was paired with a transgender mentor at Penn and campus LGBTQ+ resources, Sports Illustrated reported. She understood she was a woman.
She called her parents in June 2018 and told them she was trans.
That fall, she returned to the men’s team, not yet ready to come out to her coaches or teammates, and fearful of how this could impact her swimming career. She placed second at the men’s Ivy League championship in two events, and narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAAs.
Outside of the pool, her mental health deteriorated. She was depressed, unable to workout or go to class, she has said. So in May 2019, she started hormone therapy, “knowing and accepting I might not swim again,” she told Sports Illustrated.
“I was just trying to live my life,” she said.
Immediately, she felt a sense of relief, she has said. Her mental health improved, and she wanted to continue swimming — an outlet and respite throughout her life.
She came out to her coaches and teammates at the start of junior year, and they were supportive, she said, with coach Mike Schnur committed to keeping her in the program.
She competed in a few meets with the men’s team that year, adjusting to slower times and a new body that had lost height and shed muscle mass. The following season was canceled by COVID-19, so to preserve her final year of eligibility, she took a gap year.
She returned to Philadelphia in August, a member of the women’s team.
Penn’s men’s and women’s swim teams are tight-knit, sharing coaches, and practicing and traveling together. So before Thomas transitioned, most of the women knew of her. Thomas has said she was welcomed.
The Inquirer contacted more than 10 members of the 40-women team, and only one agreed to speak. Two parents also spoke with The Inquirer under the condition of anonymity because their daughters feared social reprisal. A few of Thomas’ supportive teammates spoke with Sports Illustrated, but declined interviews with The Inquirer.
Interviews with coach Schnur and Penn athletic director Alanna Shanahan were denied.
The swimmer interviewed by The Inquirer described the team culture as intense and competitive. Things can get petty — snitching to coaches about breaking curfew or drinking during “dry” periods. But overall, the competition is healthy and pushes each swimmer to get better, she said.
She said that, initially, Thomas was accepted. Some other women often quietly wondered whether her participation was fair, she said, but there was little tension.
At an invitational meet in Ohio, Thomas posted the fastest times in the nation this year among college women in the 200- and 500-yard freestyles, qualifying her to compete in the NCAA championships. In the 1,650-yard freestyle, she beat the second-place finisher by nearly 38 seconds, and a clip went viral.
Nearly overnight, a spotlight was on the team. National media had never come to their meets, let alone asked for interviews. Now, reporters were cold calling their cell phones. Fox News and the Daily Mail were running stories regularly.
And all they wanted to talk about was Thomas.
Strangers messaged the women on Instagram, telling them to quit the team in protest. When the team traveled to Florida for training camp, it was accompanied by security, and the school asked the swimmers not to wear Penn gear.
At small group meetings, women cried out of stress and confusion, the swimmer said.
About six members of the team unequivocally support Thomas, she said and Sports Illustrated reported, while about 16 don’t think her participation is fair. The rest are somewhere in the middle.
The swimmer said her opposition isn’t rooted in transphobia. She supports Thomas’ identity, she said, but believes that Thomas retains physical advantages from male puberty that hormone therapy can never fully erase — such as height, limb length, larger lung capacity, and strength — and that doesn’t give the other women a fair shot.
“I came here to win,” she said. “This is strictly about competing.”
Penn parents also began to connect in Ohio, forming group texts and email threads to commiserate. Two days after the meet, they sent a letter to the NCAA, Penn, and Ivy League asking Thomas be ruled ineligible.
“What are the boundaries? How is this in line with the NCAA’s commitment to providing a fair environment for student-athletes?” the letter said.
The issue spiraled internally, the swimmer said, with some of the women believed that Penn didn’t care about their feelings. She said that the school never told them they couldn’t talk to the media or speak freely, but warned them that what they said could be misinterpreted and impact their future.
The Penn swimmer told The Inquirer she spoke to a few media outlets anonymously, including mentioning to one that Thomas’ presence in the locker room made her uncomfortable. That comment was manipulated, she said, into an inaccurate rumor that, as the Daily Mail wrote in a headline, Thomas “doesn’t always cover up.” She said that has never happened.
But that story snowballed, and a group of lawyers asked Philadelphia law enforcement to press charges against Thomas for harassment. Nothing came of it.
Other outlets dead-named and misgendered Thomas. A U.S. Senate candidate from Missouri centered her in a transphobic advertisement. Thomas has been threatened, SI reported, and became the poster child for politicians looking to ban trans women from sports.
“People really lose sight of the human cost of what these conversations are like,” said Lieberman of Athlete Ally. “People forget that she is a living, breathing human being at the center of this debate.”
Opposing groups pressed on, though, and members of Penn’s team connected with Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a lawyer and former Olympic swimmer who has been outspoken in her opposition to Thomas competing.
Hogshead-Makar sent a letter on behalf of 16 Penn swimmers and their parents to Penn and the Ivy League, asking that Thomas be barred from competing. That week, Penn released a statement from “several” unidentified members of the team expressing unqualified support.
All these statements have been issued anonymously — women who disagree with Thomas’ participation are afraid of being labeled transphobic, and those who support her could be targeted and harassed online.
In mid-January, the NCAA announced that its transgender athlete policies would defer to the policies of each sport’s national governing body. In February, USA Swimming — the national governing body — released stringent new eligibility criteria that required trans women to undergo 36 months of hormone therapy; maintain testosterone levels below 5 n/mol; and have a three-member panel determine that the athlete does not hold “a competitive advantage.”
That policy would have deemed Thomas ineligible, as she has been on hormone therapy for about 34 months.
More than 300 current and former collegiate swimmers — including five Penn swimmers — sent a signed letter to the NCAA advocating for Thomas’ right to participate.
The NCAA eventually opted not to adopt this policy immediately, clearing the way for Thomas to compete.
At the Ivy League championship, competitors fist bumped and congratulated Thomas, and she was embraced by her team after each win. She left Boston a four-time Ivy League champion, three titles individually and one with a relay team, and clinched three pool and two meet records.
Outwardly, there was no tension, but it was there in other ways — in text exchanges between parents, and inside the suitcase of one Penn mother.
The mother, one of a handful of parents who have organized against Thomas’ participation and asked not to be identified, brought a shirt that said, “NCAA: Give our daughters a fair chance.” Her daughter begged her not to wear it, and she didn’t.
She walked into the steamy Blodgett Pool expecting to feel that Thomas should not be there.
But then she saw Thomas in person for the first time.
“I see Lia’s face, and she is a child,” she said. “I think, if my daughter doesn’t care, why should I?”
But when she saw Thomas win, she said, her anger rushed back. Her daughter could have ranked one place higher.
In Atlanta this week, Thomas will likely face more aggrieved parents, scrutiny, and supporters as she races against the nation’s best swimmers in the 100-, 200-, and 500-yard freestyle.
The world will be watching.
But when the buzzer sounds and she dives into the pool, she will do so as herself — “just a swimmer” — and briefly, the noise again will fade away.