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Amid ongoing debate, Lia Thomas made history for transgender athletes

Thomas’ participation on the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s swim team earned her an NCAA championship and sparked international debate.
NBC News; Getty Images

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Lia Thomas made history this year when she became the first transgender woman to win an NCAA championship.

Thomas, a swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has since revealed that she aspires to compete at the Olympics, also set off a worldwide debate about the participation of transgender women in women’s sports. The debate led to a flurry of swimming policy changes that some said appeared to target Thomas, while others said the policies weren’t strict enough, making Thomas’ historic wins unfair.

As Thomas ignited debate in the sports world, state legislatures also began passing bills to ban transgender athletes from participating on school sports teams that align with their gender identities — with Republican legislators in Pennsylvania mentioning Thomas by name during debate. Such measures have become law in 17 states — the majority in just the last year, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank that tracks the legislation.

In the heated debate, some of which devolved into transphobic attacks, Thomas largely avoided giving interviews. Then, in March, she addressed the criticism and her plans: “I want to swim and compete as who I am,” she told Sports Illustrated in a cover story.

Thomas first drew the world’s attention after a meet in Ohio where she set multiple records. In the following weeks, and as she continued to perform well, a few different viewpoints about her participation emerged: Those on one extreme end, including some conservative media outlets, posted pre-transition photos of Thomas and deadnamed her, meaning they used her pre-transition name, while also referring to her with transphobic language. On another side, LGBTQ advocates praised Thomas’ participation and success as a big step forward for trans rights. 

Then, there were people who took another viewpoint: Trans people should be able to participate in sports, they said, but there should be stricter rules or their wins shouldn’t count. Some people even suggested that trans people compete in their own separate sports categories.

Some people were worried that Thomas would break long-standing records held by Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin.

A few Olympic swimmers spoke out. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, said in an interview with CNN that although he believes everyone should feel comfortable in their skin, “sports should be played on a level playing field.” Olympian Brooke Forde, in a statement read by her father, said she would have “no problem” racing against Thomas at the NCAA championships.

Thomas’ teammates were also split over her inclusion. Some of them released letters that opposed her participation, while others supported her. 

A Penn parent told Sports Illustrated that Thomas should be treated with respect and dignity, “​​but it’s not transphobic to say I disagree with where she’s swimming.”

In response, Thomas told Sports Illustrated that people either support her fully as a woman or they don’t. “The very simple answer is that I’m not a man,” she said. “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”

She told ABC's Good Morning America in an interview published Tuesday that she also doesn't "need anybody's permission to be myself and to do the sport that I love."

When asked what she would say to critics who believe she has an advantage, Thomas said, “Trans people don’t transition for athletics ... We transition to be happy and authentic and our true selves.”

Thomas told Sports Illustrated that she didn’t quite know what her future in swimming would look like but that she would love to continue doing it, potentially even at the 2024 Olympic trials. Officials of USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, which changed its policy midseason in the debate about Thomas, told Sports Illustrated that if she continues to meet the criteria, they will support her participation.

“I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone,” Thomas told the magazine after swim practice one day. “They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.”

While Thomas didn’t break Ledecky’s or Franklin’s records, she did win an NCAA championship in the 500-yard freestyle, clocking a season-best time.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of expectation for this meet,” Thomas said after the win, The Associated Press reported. “I was just happy to be here and race and compete the best I could.”

She told Sports Illustrated that she plans to apply to law school and potentially pursue a career in civil rights law, in part because of her own experiences. 

Overall, she said, being trans is “an amazing and beautiful experience.” 

“After coming out and being my authentic self, I could really start to see a future,” she told the magazine. “Before I came out, I couldn’t visualize a future.”

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