Collegiate swimmer Lia Thomas has avoided commenting on the debate regarding her competing as a transgender athlete in women’s sports. In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, she illustrates how still waters run deep.
Since 2021, the 22-year-old University of Pennsylvania student has been subject to the public spotlight as her story sits at the intersection between identity, inclusion and fairness in sports.
In 2019, Thomas, who by then had already come out to her friends and family, had decided to begin hormone replacement therapy despite her fears that doing so would impact her body and possibly her athletic abilities. Following NCAA policies, she underwent a year of HRT to become eligible to change gender categories and compete in women’s championship events. Yet, according to Sports Illustrated, her eligibility to take part in the field of competitive sports as a trans athlete has gained the scrutiny of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, USA Swimming, right-wing obsessives and even her teammates.
Now, in Sports Illustrated’s latest issue, Thomas gives insight into what it’s like to be a young athlete unfettered by her decision to accept her gender identity and, at the same time, weighed down by the noise around her.
“I’m not a man. I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets,” Thomas told the magazine, which detailed how trust amongst the team’s 37 swimmers has unraveled in the wake of infighting about her being on the women’s squad.
According to Sports Illustrated, six to eight teammates at Penn have backed Thomas and her position on the team, while half of its members are against her taking part in women's competitions.
“I’m not a man. I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”
In early February, the question of whether the team would at least be able to manage a united front went out the window. At the time, 16 of Thomas’ teammates issued an unsigned letter to Ivy League officials asking that they intervene on their behalf — they wanted Thomas out of the conference championship meet. According to Sports Illustrated, Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the founder and CEO of Champion Women, led the effort behind the letter which argued that if Thomas “were to be eligible to compete she could now break Penn, Ivy and NCAA women’s swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete.” The implication was that Thomas and transgender women and girls like her would disrupt the playing field for cisgender women in sports.
In tandem with this conversation is the one playing out among researchers who ask where the line should be drawn. They argue that the world of sports is inherently unfair. More than favoring those genetically prone to being athletically skilled, there are also economic factors to consider. For instance, elite colleges will always have access to superior coaches and facilities due to their budgets and income.
Speaking to Sports Illustrated, Thomas said that her gender identity makes for fair sport.
“I’m a woman, just like anybody else on the team,” Thomas explained. “I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer. It’s what I’ve done for so long; it’s what I love.”
Since that widely publicized letter written by unidentified team members, Penn has responded with its own statement underlining that Thomas would continue to swim on their women’s team. While her presence remains contentious for some, Thomas continues to excel in the water. During a streak of accomplishments at the Ivy League championships this past February, Thomas and her relay team placed third in an 800-yard freestyle relay. She also set an Ivy League record in the 200-yard freestyle during the tournament.
Thomas will compete in the NCAA Championships this month after NCAA solidified her eligibility in February when it said it would not adopt USA Swimming's new rules for trans athletes.
For Thomas, who told Sports Illustrated of her desire to be a positive symbol for younger trans athletes, achievements like these have victories that transcend the timing board.
“I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone,” she explained. “They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.”
The April issue of Sports Illustrated hits newsstands March 24 and is available for order online at SI.com.