A trans woman competing as a swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania is facing intense scrutiny and criticism from anti-trans advocates, conservative media and right-wing influencers, despite the fact she has followed NCAA guidelines for trans athletes and successfully qualified for the NCAA’s Division I championships this spring.
Lia Thomas, a senior at UPenn, set Ivy League conference records in the 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle women’s competitions last week with winning times (minutes:seconds) of 1:41.93 and 4:34.06, respectively, making her the top-seeded competitor. Thomas also qualified for the championships for the the 1650-yard free competition as the fifth-seeded swimmer in the country, with a time of 15:59.71.
Thomas had played two seasons on the men’s swimming squads for UPenn, and began transitioning before the Ivy League largely cancelled the 2020-2021 season due to the pandemic, her scheduled senior year. As the NCAA has required of trans athletes since 2010, she has undergone therapy to suppress her testosterone levels for at least a year before compete as a woman.
The Austin, Texas native is only the second out trans woman to compete in NCAA women’s swimming, according to Outsports. Natalie Fahey became the first when she competed in swimming for Southern Illinois University after coming out in 2019. Schuyler Bailar, now a well-known, award-nominated advocate, was the first out trans swimmer in NCAA Division I sports history while attending Harvard University in 2015.
Before transitioning, Thomas was already a well-accomplished swimmer. She was a runner-up in the 500, 1000, and 1650 free events at the Ivy League Championships in 2019. That year, her times in the 200, 500, and 1650 free events were just seconds from what they were this year: 1:39.31, 4:18.72, and 14:54.76 respectively.
“I first realized I was trans the summer before, in 2018,” Thomas said in a recent interview with SwimSwam. “There was a lot of uncertainty, I didn’t know what I would be able to do, if I would be able to keep swimming. And so, I decided to swim out the 2018-2019 year as a man, without coming out, and that caused a lot of distress to me.”
After that, Thomas said she “was struggling, [and] my mental health was not very good. It was a lot of unease, basically just feeling trapped in my body. It didn’t align.”
So, she “decided it was time to come out and start my transition.”
She began transitioning in 2019, while still competing on the men’s swimming team. “Being in the early stages of transition, it was a very awkward experience of basically being a woman competing in a men’s meet. It was uncomfortable, so I didn’t compete that much,” she recalled.
After two years of testosterone suppression treatment, and meeting the other qualifications set by the NCAA, Thomas began participating in swimming as a woman this year. She expected there would be issues with her inclusion — but not as much as she has received.
“We expected there would be some measure of pushback by people. [Not] quite the extent it’s blown up, we weren’t fully expecting — but we were expecting that,” she said to SwimSwam.
She also said “We expected … my speed and strength and endurance would drop significantly and would have adjusted for that.”
After her week of exceptional performances, the right-wing sports website OutKick published an article claiming to be an interview with an anonymous teammate of Thomas’s at UPenn. Thomas is deadnamed throughout the article and alluded to as a man on a women’s team.
“Pretty much everyone individually has spoken to our coaches about not liking this. Our coach [Mike Schnur] just really likes winning. He’s like most coaches. I think secretly everyone just knows it’s the wrong thing to do,” the alleged swimmer claimed.
She said, “When the whole team is together, we have to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, go Lia, that’s great, you’re amazing.’ It’s very fake.”
She also claimed that because swimming is an “individual sport,” she believes that “If we protest it, we’re only hurting ourselves because we’re going to miss out on all that we’ve been working for.”
The alleged swimmer goes on to say she doesn’t even want daughters anymore because of Thomas and trans women athletes, because “If I have any girls that want to play sports in college, good luck. [Their opponents] are all going to be biological men saying that they’re women.”
OutKick is also claiming a second teammate of Thomas’s has spoken to them, claiming she is prone to bragging, and her inclusion has made others “feel so discouraged.”
The right-wing backlash only grew from there, with the New York Post, Newsmax, Daily Mail, the Washington Examiner, Washington Times, and even local news broadcasters attacking the inclusion of a trans woman in sports. San Diego local channel KUSI-TV claimed it is “unfair” for Thomas to participate, while Fox News syndicated OutKick‘s article and had OutKick founder Clay Travis on the show during Fox & Friends to share his argument against her inclusion.
Even sports media, such as Swimming World Magazine and the Sports Examiner, amplified and supported calls for her exclusion. LGBTQ media is also being criticized for the lack of coverage regarding Thomas, although the backlash against her has subsequently received coverage in the Washington Blade and PinkNews.
Anti-LGBTQ activists and influencers such as Piers Morgan, Jesse Kelly, and Megyn Kelly have called attention to her participation in sports as a woman. Many have accused Thomas of transitioning so she can dominate in women’s sports.
Karleigh Chardonnay Webb wrote for Outsports, “As I said earlier this year: Nobody transitions to win in sports. PERIOD. Quite a few of us lose a lot just to affirm who we are.”
Webb also reminded listeners on the most recent episode of the Trans Sporter Room, a podcast she hosts for Outsports, “This is pointing to one of the new, unwritten rules in sports, and this era of inclusion: ‘We can accept trans women in sports, as long as she always loses.'”
“I just don’t engage with it,” she said to SwimSwam regarding the backlash to her inclusion. “It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t, and that’s all I’ll say on that.”
Despite the attempts to tear her down, Thomas is proud of what she’s accomplished.
“I’m very proud of my times and my ability to keep swimming and continue competing and they’re suited up times and I’m happy with them and my coaches are happy with them,” she said, “and that’s what matters to me.”