Transgender swimmer Lia Thomas defended her decision to compete in collegiate athletics, arguing that transgender people do not transition simply to gain a competitive advantage in sports, as proponents of bans on transgender athletes have claimed.
Thomas, who made headlines after she began competing as a woman during the 2021-2022 season — setting new Ivy League records along the way — addressed allegations, made by anti-transgender critics, that she only transitioned after not enjoying success while competing on the University of Pennsylvania men’s swimming team for three years.
“The biggest misconception, I think, is the reason I transitioned,” Thomas told ABC News and ESPN in an interview that aired on Good Morning America. “People will say, ‘Oh, she just transitioned so she would have an advantage, so she could win.’ I transitioned to be happy, to be true to myself.”
Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving Championships in March, just a month after 16 of her teammates wrote a letter to the school and the Ivy League saying that Thomas should not be competing against women. She also placed fifth in the 200-yard freestyle and eight in the 100-yard freestyle at the championships.
Thomas said she fell in love with swimming at age 4, but began experiencing feelings of gender dysphoria as she grew up, saying she didn’t feel like a boy. She continued to compete in swimming, ultimately earning a spot on the men’s swimming team at the University of Pennsylvania. But by her sophomore year, her gender dysphoria led her to become depressed and struggle with suicidal thoughts.
“I was barely going to classes. I could really barely get out of bed,” she said. “I said, ‘I can’t live like this anymore. I want to live again. I want to be able to do things I enjoy.'”
Initially, fear of not being able to compete in swimming kept her from transitioning. But she ultimately forged forward with hormone therapy at the end of her sophomore year. She lost muscle mass and became weaker and slower, but the hormones made her feel more in tune with her body and less depressed.
“Trans people don’t transition for athletics,” she said. “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.”
While critics of transgender participation argue that transgender athletes possess physical attributes that give them an unfair advantage over cisgender women, Thomas rejects the idea that allowing trans female athletes to compete based on their gender identity signals the end of women’s sports, as many have predicted.
“Trans women competing in women’s sports does not threaten women’s sports as a whole,” she said. “Trans women are a very small minority of all athletes. The [old] NCAA rules regarding trans women competing in women’s sports have been around for 10-plus years. And we haven’t seen any massive wave of trans women dominating.”
Yet even the NCAA has since changed its policies regarding transgender participation. While the NCAA used to allow any athlete to compete after undergoing a year of hormone therapy and socially transitioning, in January, it updated its policy to allow the governing body of each individual sport to set its own eligibility guidelines for competitors.
USA Swimming, the governing body for aquatic sports, subsequently set its own guidelines, which will require transgender female athletes to go before a three-person panel of independent medical experts, who will determine whether the athlete’s individual physical development gives them a competitive advantage over cisgender females. The swimmer must also provide bloodwork showing that the concentration of testosterone in her blood has been less than 5 nanomoles per liter continuously for a period of at least 36 months.
However, the NCAA announced that it would wait until next season to enforce the new guidelines, allowing Thomas to compete in the championships as a woman without having to go before the medical review panel.
Nearly 20 states have passed laws prohibiting transgender students from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity in the past two years. Those bills have passed largely on party-line votes in Republican-led legislatures, with many GOP lawmakers citing Thomas’ success in the pool as evidence of the unfair advantage trans athletes enjoy.
Yet despite the backlash and hostility directed towards her, Thomas says she wouldn’t do anything differently.
“I’ve been able to do the sport that I love as my authentic self,” she said.
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