Lia Thomas, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, became the first transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming championship on March 17. On day two of the competition, Thomas secured her win in the 500-yard freestyle with a time of 4:33.24. This was a transformational year for Thomas, who not only reached the fastest women’s times for the 200 and 500-yard freestyle events for the 2021-22 season, but competed on the women’s team for the first time in her five years at the school.
Prior to this season, Thomas was a part of the men’s team for her first three years at Penn. After coming out, she had to take the 2020-21 season off to meet eligibility requirements for the women’s team. It was during this year off that she began hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to suppress testosterone levels, waiting one calendar year until she would be able to compete again on par with NCAA rules.
“I did HRT knowing and accepting I might not swim again,” Thomas said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “I was just trying to live my life.”
Thomas excelled in her first year on the men’s team, receiving three top eight finishes at the Ivy League Championships. The following year she continued to flourish, beating her personal bests and receiving second place finishes as well as a place on the All-Ivy team. She knew her transition would impact her performance, and her times became slower because of the physical changes caused by her changing hormone levels. Her trials as an athlete would only be half of the struggle, which she realized when dealing with the public eye.
In December 2021, parents of the swimmers on the women’s team sent a letter to the NCAA arguing against Thomas’ participation on the women’s team. The following February, 16 of her teammates would send an additional letter asking if Thomas could be held out of the championships.
The backlash from within her circle would only extend outward once she reached the Division l Swimming and Diving Championships at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Protestors stood outside the venue with signs sporting phrases such as, “Save Women’s Sports,” and “Penn Cheats.”
Following her historical win, she became a popular topic of discussion for right-wing news outlets for weeks. She received retaliation from public names such as Caitlyn Jenner and Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, and was addressed in a series of publications by her birth name and male pronouns.
This isn’t about saving women’s sports or prioritizing fairness. This is a story about trans-visibility. Thomas withstood piles of hatred for her identity that other trans athletes will, too, have to witness. Her resilience is inspiring, but should not be necessary. Trans women deserve a chance to compete in the sports they love, not based on their performance, but as the gender they identify with. This is a message that should transcend sports and politics, but unfortunately, society still wants to police what they view as acceptable among trans identities.
Policing of women’s sports has extended to legislation, with Utah becoming the 12th state to ban transgender sports participation in K-12 schools, effective July 1. More recently, governors in states such as in Kentucky have vetoed the transgender sports ban, causing widespread debate between political parties.
As Olympic swimmer Erica Sullivan addressed in her opinion article to Newsweek, “Many of those who oppose transgender athletes like Lia being able to participate in sports claim to be ‘protecting women’s sports.’ As a woman in sports, I can tell you that I know what the real threats to women’s sports are: sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay and resources, and a lack of women in leadership.”
Despite receiving the fallout from participating in her life-long passion whilst maintaining her identity, Thomas has received back-up to counteract the negativity she’s experienced. On Feb. 10, more than 300 swimmers signed a letter in support of Thomas competing in the NCAA championships, where she would go on to compete against Stanford University swimmer Brooke Forde, who also publicly agreed that respecting Thomas and her right to compete is more important than the competition itself.
Thomas would contribute to history through this championship win, but more importantly, to the visibility of the small percentage of trans athletes who participate in collegiate sports.