US swimmer Lia Thomas became the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division 1 national championship in any sport in March 2022. She won the women's 500-yard freestyle event. She has been at the forefront of the public debate about transgender women in sports in the US.
Lia Thomas grew up in Austin, Texas, and in 2017 began attending the University of Pennsylvania as an economics major. She has now graduated from the Ivy League School and plans to enroll in a law school to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney. Of course, she has her eyes set on the 2024 Paris Olympics.
She talked to ABC about her Olympic dream.
"I intend to keep swimming. It’s been a goal of mine to swim at Olympic trials for a very long time, and I would love to see that through."
"I was barely going to classes. I could really barely get out of bed" - Lia Thomas on her journey
Lia Thomas fell in love with swimming at the age of four and competed for Westlake High School. She even earned a spot for herself in the men's swimming team at the University of Pennsylvania. However, she never truly connected with her body as she grew older and did not "feel" like she was a boy.
In sophomore year of college, she struggled with deep depression and suicidal thoughts. She spoke about her transitioning journey on ABC's 'Good Morning America' show in May this year.
"I was barely going to classes. I could really barely get out of bed. I can’t live like this anymore. I want to live again. I want to be able to do things I enjoy."
The fear of not being able to compete in swimming made her reluctant about transitioning at first. However, she started hormone replacement therapy at the end of sophomore year.
"I did HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) knowing and accepting I might not swim again. I was just trying to live my life."
She came out as a trans woman to her coaches, friends, and the men's and women's teams at the University of Pennsylvania.
She told ESPN in an interview about that moment.
"One of the toughest moments was when I first came out to coaches and my team. I had no idea how they would react, whether they would accept me or not. I didn’t know what the final outcome would be. It was a leap of faith I had to take to continue swimming."
Despite her fears, her coaches and teammates were supportive towards her.
"I am very lucky to have supportive coaches and teammates. I went into my swimming career after that, not knowing what would happen. I didn’t know how fast I would be."
While her mental state improved a lot after starting hormone replacement therapy, her performance in the pool, however, became weaker.
"The mental and emotional changes actually happened very quickly. I was feeling a lot better mentally. I was less depressed. And I lost muscle mass and I became a lot weaker and a lot, a lot slower in the water."
After following the NCAA guidelines in place at the time, that required athletes to complete one year of hormone therapy to change gender categories, Thomas began swimming in the women's team in senior year of college.
Lia Thomas drew a lot of criticism, some of it even based on a claim that she transitioned to have better success as a swimmer. She pushed back at those comments, saying that the choice to transition is made to be happy and authentic, and the idea of an advantage doesn't ever factor in.
"We transition to be happy and authentic and our true selves. Transitioning to get an advantage is not something that ever factors into our decisions."
She also added that it is unfair to prevent trans people from competing in sports or limiting them to just competing with each other.
"In addition to not allowing the full athletic experience, that’s incredibly othering to trans people who already face immense discrimination in other parts of our lives."
In an interview with Sports Illustrated in March this year, Lia Thomas added that she wanted to be an inspiration for young trans kids.
"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."
Lia Thomas also said that the highlight of her college graduation was hearing her name being called 'Lia Thomas'.
"When I actually got to walk across the stage and hear them say my name. It was very cool."
Thomas also addressed the criticism that she has an unfair advantage that ruins the integrity of women's sports.
"Trans women are not a threat to women’s sports."
The debate over trans-women in sports will continue though. There are strong opinions and arguments from both sides. It's an issue that needs to be addressed by the higher authorities.