Despite pushback -- sometimes even from her own teammates at the University of Pennsylvania -- trans swimmer Lia Thomas is resolved to keep swimming for herself and the generation of trans kids and athletes coming up behind her.
In an exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated, Thomas opened up about realizing she was transgender, coming out to friends and family, and how she switched from the men's to the women's swim team -- and became both a record-breaking athlete and a lightning rod for the discussion about trans athletes.
Thomas shared that she began to really struggle with her gender identity during her freshman year at UPenn. "I felt off," she recalled, "disconnected with my body." Despite her team having a really successful season, Thomas's growing gender dysphoria prevented her from enjoying it. "I was very depressed. I got to the point where I couldn't go to school. I was missing classes. My sleep schedule was super messed up. Some days I couldn't get out of bed," she told SI. "I knew at that moment I needed to do something to address this."
She began the slow process of coming out to her friends and family. "I tried my best to inch closer to coming out to close friends, a couple of coaches. But in that depressive, very struggling state of mind, it's hard to make progress when so much of my energy is trying to get through each day," she said.
But her mental health began improving rapidly when she started hormone replacement therapy in May 2019, despite fearing that the physical changes could mark the end of her swimming career. "It surprised me," she recalled. "I felt, mentally, a lot better and healthier pretty quickly. The relief it gave me was quite substantial."
In her junior year, she came out to her coaches, and then took what was supposed to be her senior year off to meet the requirement to have been on HRT for at least a year before she was able to switch teams, per the NCAA rules.
Thomas quickly began breaking records with her new team, and said she felt "reinvigorated." Others, both on and off her team, felt differently. Earlier this month, 16 members of the UPenn women's swimming team wrote an anonymous open letter saying they don't believe Thomas should be able to compete alongside them, and they asked for Ivy League officials to take legal action against the NCAA's transgender policy.
But it's not just her anonymous teammates who are threatening Thomas's future in swimming. Pennsylvania has introduced the Save Women's Sports Act (House Bill 792), which would require students to play on the team consistent with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Thomas previously spoke out against how this would impact trans people emotionally and psychologically. "One of my big concerns for trans people is feeling alone," Thomas told Penn Today. "Even if you don't pay attention to the news... [about] states proposing and passing vicious anti-trans legislation, it can feel very lonely and overwhelming."
Ultimately, Thomas just wants to be recognized as a woman and a swimmer. "I'm a woman, just like anybody else on the team," Thomas said. "I've always viewed myself as just a swimmer. It's what I've done for so long; it's what I love... I get into the water every day and do my best."
Looking to the future, Thomas said she hopes it will include swimming for Team USA at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris as well as continuing to be a trailblazer for future trans athletes.
"I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they're not alone," she said. "They don't have to choose between who they are and the sport they love."