January 29, 2023

Lia Thomas is a Texas-born, openly transgender swimmer who swam as part of the University of Pennsylvania swim team. She was on the university swim team from 2017 to 2022, with her NCAA eligibility expiring earlier this year.

Thomas’ participation as part of the University of Pennsylvania women’s team from 2021-2022 was behind swimming for the university’s men’s team for three years.

She was at the center of the debate about “trans women in sport”.

Thomas swims during the 400 yard freestyle relay at the 2022 Ivy League Women's Swimming and Diving Championships (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
Thomas swims during the 400 yard freestyle relay at the Ivy League Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, 2022 (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

Thomas’ NCAA career

Thomas’ collegiate career began when she joined the University of Pennsylvania men’s swim team in 2017. As a student athlete on the men’s team, her accomplishments include the sixth fastest national time in the men’s 1000 yard freestyle and finishing second in three events at the sophomore Ivy League Championships.

The American swimmer began transitioning to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in 2019 but was forced to swim on the men’s team for the 2019-20 season.

Thomas at the Ivy League Women's Swimming and Diving Championships, 2022 (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
Thomas at the Ivy League Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, 2022 (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

At the beginning of the 2020/21 academic year, she was allowed to swim in the university women’s team. During her time with the women’s team, she was consistently competitive, often finishing in the top 10 in races. Their rankings in the 2021-22 season were as follows:

  • 5th – 200 Freestyle
  • 1st – 500 Freestyle
  • 8th – 1650 Freestyle

In March 2022, Thomas wrote her name in American history by winning the 500-yard freestyle and becoming the NCAA Division-I national champion. In doing so, she became the first openly transgender athlete to win gold at the NCAA D-1.

Thomas stopped the clock at 4:33.24 and finished 1.75 seconds ahead of Olympic silver medalist Emma Weyant. She also competed in the 200 Freestyle and 100 Freestyle finals, finishing fifth and last, respectively.

The uproar even led to people showing up outside of NCAA events to protest their attendance. Thomas addressed this in her interview with ABC News’ Juju Chang:

“I knew that if I competed as a woman, I would be checked. I was prepared, but I don’t need anyone’s permission to be myself and do the sport I love.”

Thomas’ future in swimming

Speaking to the Good Morning America host in May, who was questioning her future in esports, she said:

“I intend to keep swimming. It has been a goal of mine for a long time to swim at the Olympics and I would love to do it.”

Thomas at the 2022 Ivy League Women's Swimming and Diving Championships (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
Thomas at the 2022 Ivy League Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

Unfortunately for Thomas, the very next month FINA, the authority for various international competitions, voted against transgender athletes who experienced male puberty above Tanner Stage 2 (12/13 years old) and banned them from professional women’s competitions to participate.

This meant that as she was only turning 20, Thomas would not be able to compete in or qualify for the 2024 Olympic Trials.

The very next month, in July, Lia Thomas was nominated along with 566 other athletes for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award.

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