Penn swimmer Lia Thomas swims on amid controversy
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Lia Thomas has racked up win after win in the pool all season for the University of Pennsylvania, rushing toward the NCAA championships next month with a record-setting season that has only inflamed a debate surrounding her gender.
The former male swimmer for the Quakers has followed NCAA and Ivy League rules since she started her transition in May 2019 with hormone replacement therapy. Her triumphs have been overshadowed by criticism that it’s not fair for a swimmer who competed as a man three years ago to now line up against women.
Except for one podcast interview, the 22-year-old Thomas has not spoken publicly this season. Her notoriety growing with each record set, Thomas insisted she will swim and live her life on her terms.
Thomas became a cause celebre in short order this season as she dominated with impressive results, including the best time in the NCAA this season in the 200-meter freestyle. In one race, she finished nearly 40 seconds ahead of her closest competitor — just another eye-opening result that has brought an onslaught of attention and controversy even as a handful of states scramble to set limits on competition for transgender athletes.
Penn cleared a space at her final home meet for credentialed media that ranged from Fox News and The Daily Mail to ESPN and Newsweek. Outside Penn’s Sheer Pool, protesters howled into megaphones (“Stand up for women! Even when they’re swimming! Men cannot be women!”).
Thomas noted in the podcast interview that her team and coach Mike Schnur have “been unbelievably supportive since the beginning.”
At times, though, Penn has appeared to be a team fractured. Members of the swimming and diving team released a statement of support in Thomas but two days later, a letter purportedly signed by 16 anonymous Penn athletes was sent to the NCAA saying Thomas should not be allowed to participate in the national championships.
The Ivy League and Penn both issued statements this season in support of Thomas and reaffirmed commitments of inclusiveness for all transgender athletes.
Schuyler Bailar swam against Thomas when he competed for Harvard as one of the first openly transgender swimmers in the NCAA. He has since become her friend.
“Lia is competing fairly, she has followed all the rules and she is a fantastic athlete,” he said. “That’s why she’s doing great.”
The rules, though, seem in flux by the day. The NCAA recently said it would defer to the rules of each governing body when it comes to transgender athletes. Less than two weeks ago, USA Swimming released an updated policy requiring transgender women competing at elite levels to have minute levels of testosterone for 36 months before they are allowed to compete.
It’s still yet to determined how that might affect Thomas’ eligibility for the NCAA meet.
“She’s followed all the rules that she’s supposed to follow,” said Sue Feldman, whose son competes on the Penn men’s team. “It’s hard when you have to play against somebody who is much better. But she’s great in some things and in other events she’s not so great. If you’re playing sports, you have to expect that some people are going to be better than you.”
Thomas is one of the few transgender athletes competing in Division I; one of them, Yale swimmer Iszac Henig, beat Thomas for first place in the 100 freestyle this season at Penn and they will face each other again in the Ivy championships next week. Henig is a transgender male who has put off hormone therapy and has continued to swim on the women’s team.
“She’s an incredible athlete, I have a ton of respect for her, I think we’re lucky to have her in the league,” Henig said.
Outside the program, Thomas has suffered barbs from athletes, politicians and celebrities, prominent voices questioning the perceived fairness of allowing a swimmer born a man to go splash-for-splash with women.
“She’s asking for the scrutiny,” said Jami Taylor, a trans woman and professor of political science at Toledo who co-authored the book “The Remarkable Rise of Transgender Rights.” “You’re a student at an Ivy League school, you should be smart enough to see that when you do that in the current climate of America, that this would blow up. Is some of it unfair? Absolutely. But you kind of asked for it. You’re asking for scrutiny by being public.”
Thomas got it, in spades.
Tennis great Martina Navratilova tweeted, “It is not fair for women to race against transgender Lia Thomas.” Caitlyn Jenner, a 1976 decathlon Olympic gold medalist who came out as a transgender woman in 2015, denounced Thomas’ participation, saying “we need to protect women’s sports.” Michael Phelps, the 23-time Olympic gold medal swimmer, even caught blowback after saying “I think sports should be played on an even playing field.”
Bailar said most of the condemnation is not a comprehensive reflection of the encouragement Thomas has actually received. Bailar said he’s inundated with messages people want passed along to Thomas and that she has a strong, sympathetic inner circle.
“The narrative is that this is awful. The story is that trans women are going to destroy women’s sports, and that’s also just false,” Bailar said. “People want to police the women’s category. People care a lot about what they think constitutes womanhood, and a lot of people want to police exactly what womanhood looks like, and end up policing trans women as a result.”
Fallon Fox, a retired mixed martial arts fighter who came out as a transgender woman in 2013, has offered advice and support in conversations with Thomas.
“No other transgender person has done as well as she has, so far,” Fox said. “We finally have someone who’s really good.”
Thomas’s journey from a Westlake High School swimmer in Austin, Texas, to where she is today really took root in 2018. Thomas said she first realized that summer she was trans and anxiety hit that she would have to end her swimming career. Thomas competed one more grueling season on the men’s team and noted “that caused a lot of distress to me.”
She struggled with mental health issues; she felt “trapped” as a woman in a man’s body.
“Like it didn’t align,” she said on the podcast.
But in the fall of 2019 she came out to the men’s team, and spent her junior year swimming as a man transitioning. The Ivy League canceled sports last season because of the pandemic, and Thomas took the year off from school.
After 2½ years of hormone replacement therapy, and experiencing “a lot of muscle loss and strength loss,” she went back to school, back to swimming, shook off rustiness in her technique -- and got back to winning races. She sent Penn records this season in the 200 meters, 500, 1,000 and 1,650.
“I’m feeling confident and good in my swimming and all my personal relationships,” she said, “and transitioning has allowed me to be more confident in all of those aspects of my where I was struggling a lot before I came out.”
Thomas has just weeks left to rewrite the record books amid questions about what rules will apply to her. For now, she swims on.
“Every time I talk to her these days, her hair is wet,” Bailar said. “When I talk to her, I ask her, how’s practice? She’s smart, she works really hard, I think she’s an incredible human who is doing her absolute best just to play her sport. And I wish the world would let her do that.”