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Trans swimmer Lia Thomas speaks out on scrutiny, controversy

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Thomas opened up about coming out, her Olympic ambitions and the controversy surrounding her competition.

Months after being catapulted into the center of the international debate over whether transgender girls and women should be allowed to participate on female sports teams, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas is speaking out.

Thomas, 22, became the subject of international intrigue and debate after setting multiple records throughout the 2021-2022 college swim season. Her wins have also subjected her to criticism from other elite swimmers — including Olympic champion Michael Phelps and some of her own teammates — as well as verbal attacks from anti-trans groups and conservative media outlets.

But in an interview with the magazine Sports Illustrated, published Thursday — and after months of relative silence — the college senior opened up about coming out, discussed her Olympic ambitions and pushed back on the unprecedented slew of attacks she's faced for living and competing as a woman.

“The very simple answer is that I’m not a man,” she told the magazine. “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”

Thomas revealed that she began questioning her gender identity near the end of her time in high school, in Austin, Texas.

“I felt off,” she said, and “disconnected with my body.”

While researching her feelings online and consulting her family members — who told the magazine that they would do "everything and anything" to make her feel accepted — Thomas competed on Penn's men's team during her freshman and sophomore years.

Throughout that time, she accomplished more than most college athletes could ever dream of: She earned multiple spots on the All-Ivy team, got closer to her goal of swimming at the NCAA championships and nearly qualified for the 2020 Olympic trials.

Still, she was "very depressed," Thomas told the magazine.

“I got to the point where I couldn’t go to school. I was missing classes," she said. "My sleep schedule was super messed up. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew at that moment I needed to do something to address this.”

During her junior year, Thomas came out to her friends, teammates and coaches. However, in order to comply with previous NCAA policy, which required trans female athletes to undergo hormone replacement therapy for at least one year prior to competing on women's teams, she still had to compete on Penn's men's team.

By late 2021, after taking a gap year in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Thomas was finally able to join her school's women’s team. But not without internal backlash.

Two of her teammates, speaking anonymously, reportedly told the sports website OutKick that they disagreed with her participation, viewing it as unfair. And last month, 16 members of Penn’s women’s swimming and diving team sent a letter to the university and the Ivy League, arguing against Thomas’ participation in the Ivy League championships.

Thomas' place on the women's team has also sparked outrage from some Penn parents. One Penn parent told the magazine that while they identify as progressive, they oppose Thomas competing on the women's team.

“Lia is a human being who deserves to be treated with respect and dignity," the parent, whom the magazine did not identify, said. "But it’s not transphobic to say I disagree with where she’s swimming.”

Overall, Thomas estimates that half of the team's members are against her taking part in women’s competitions, compared with six to eight who are in favor, she told the magazine.

Regardless, she remains undeterred.

“I don’t look into the negativity and the hate,” Thomas said. “I am here to swim.”

During a streak of accomplishments at the Ivy League championships last month, 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 the athletic association announced that it will not adopt USA Swimming’s stricter new policy for transgender athletes ahead of this year’s championship selections. The 22-year-old also told the magazine that she has aspirations to compete beyond college, possibly at the 2024 Paris Games.

“I don’t know exactly what the future of my swimming will look like after this year, but I would love to continue doing it,” Thomas said. “I want to swim and compete as who I am.”

Thomas also said she hopes that by competing, she is creating visibility and opportunities for other trans athletes, as state lawmakers across the country aim to restrict their participation from sports.

Over 92 anti-trans bills have been proposed by state lawmakers this year, according to Freedom for All Americans, a nonprofit group that advocates for LGBTQ protections nationwide. Many of the bills aim to bar trans athletes from competing on girls' and women's sports teams.

Ten states enacted such measures into law — all since 2020 —according to the advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. At least two states, Indiana and Iowa, have bills on their governors' desks that would limit trans students participation in sports.

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

Prior to her interview with Sports Illustrated, Thomas had given only one recent interview, with the podcast SwimSwam, and declined multiple interviews with NBC News.

On Thursday, after months of reading stories that some advocates called a "nationwide hate campaign," the trans community reveled to hear from Thomas directly.

"The coverage of Lia Thomas has been one sided and so dehumanizing. It’s so amazing to finally hear her in her own words that shows her struggles through all of this," trans advocate Alejandra Caraballo wrote on Twitter. "It’s a wonderful story of how Lia became her true self and compete in the sport she loves."

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