Lia Thomas and Transgender in Sports


Saylor Macke, Writer

As the announcer prepares to start the meet, each swimmer is lined up on their own block. The speaker beeps and each person take off.  Record breaker Lia Catherine Thomas is a college swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania. Thomas is a transgender swimmer that competes in the female category. The talk of Lia Thomas competing is disputed among her peers, coaches, and other people worldwide.

Lia Thomas competed on Penn State’s men team for two years prior to her transition to female in 2018. On the men’s team, Thomas was ranked overwhelmingly lower than on the women’s team.  Before the transition, Thomas said in an interview with Sports Illustrated (SI), “‘I tried my best to inch closer to coming out to close friends, a couple of coaches,’ she says. ‘But in that depressive, very struggling state of mind, it’s hard to make progress when so much of my energy was trying to get through each day.’” She began researching other trans women’s stories and remembered thinking, “Wow, this is such a close mirror of what I’m feeling.” Eventually, Thomas came out to her family members, who were immediately accepting of her and supportive. She finished off her last season competing against men in 2018-2019.

According to the Sports Illustrated, Lia began taking Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) in May of 2019. While taking the suppressants, she finished off her last season competing against men. As swimmers and parents of students began to speak out about her transition, the NCAA approved her medical evidence that she was eligible to compete. The NCAA required one year of HRT for eligibility. With Covid sealing off what originally would’ve been Thomas’s senior year, she took off that season and competed the next year as a senior. This would mark almost two years of Lia taking HRT.

The story of Lia Thomas is widely debated throughout the country today. The opinions vary as some believe she should be ineligible to compete, while others think it’s fair. USA today said that more than a dozen of her teammates think she shouldn’t be able to compete against women. One teammate of Thomas said, “Lia was not even close to being competitive as a man in the 50 and the 100 (freestyle events). But just because Lia is biologically a man, (Lia) is just naturally better than many females in the 50 and the 100 or anything that (Lia) wasn’t at as a man.” While many of Thomas’s teammates were unsupportive of her going against other women, she kept competing. In one meet in November, 2021, Lia swam against participants from the schools, Princeton, and Cornell. Thomas won three races and set records for Penn State in the categories 200-yard freestyle and 500-yard freestyle. In the 500-yard freestyle race her closest competitor was almost 13 seconds behind her.

Thomas went through male puberty and for almost 20 years gained advantages from the testosterone produced by her body. According to the NCAA, she was eligible to compete against women because of her times decreasing by roughly two to three percent. Studies from various sources show that men’s records are nearly 12% faster than women. As reported by Swimming World Magazine, “Thomas’ best time in the 200-freestyle ended up being her 1:41.93 mark from the Zippy Invitational in December. That effort ultimately ended up 3.76% slower than her best time before her transition. Again, that time was between 7% and 8% faster than the typical separation between men and women.” The transition from male to female before puberty lowers advantages gained by starting treatment when the body is developed. This can delay growth spurts, and limit hormones that would typically be produced as a male.

In early December, parents of Penn State’s swimmers submitted requests of Thomas being kicked off the team. A parent of a teammate said, “What we can’t do is stand by while she rewrites records and eliminates biological women from this sport. If we don’t speak up here, it’s going to happen in college after college. And then women’s sports, as we know it, will no longer exist in this country.” According to Daily Mail, a teammate of Thomas admitted that they would lose their place on the team if they were caught speaking out. Several leaks from parents and teammates confirmed that the whole environment became toxic, and no one could trust one another. Thomas said, “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.” Many disagree with the fact that she should be able to compete. Dave Salo, former USC coach, who was interviewed by Sports Illustrated and said, “I’m sure Lia is a great woman, and I’m sure she’s genuine with the reasons why she wants to swim. But we have to be honest about the physical advantages she has, and it has to be O.K. to say that.” Lia believes with the argument that one can either fully back her as a female that should be eligible or don’t.

Lia Thomas is unsure of what the future holds for her swimming career, yet is hopeful it can continue. Thomas plans to go to law school and study civil rights law. While attending law school, she plans to train and work hard. She hopes to be able to compete at the 2024 Olympic games if she meets the right criteria. USA swimming officials told SI that they see no issue with Thomas representing the U.S. in Paris. It is unsure if Lia will be able to officially compete at the games, but with the right requirements, it’s a likely possibility.

The hot topic of the transgender swimmer caused much debate at school. In a poll with over 100 surveyed students, 54% of people think that Lia should not be able to compete. Within the poll students were asked the questions, “Should a man that transitioned to a female be able to compete in female sports?” As well as to explain why they picked the answer they chose. Julianne Stojkovic, eighth grader, said, “It is completely unfair, and men are structured to be stronger. It is a big disadvantage for the girls. They have worked so hard for something that should be not allowed.” Several students thought it was a disrespectful question to ask because since Lia identifies as a female, she should be able to compete. This caused debates between students and ultimately ended in the poll being taken down. Mya Lipniskis, sixth grader, responded to the question and said, “This is a dumb question. It’s obviously, “yes.” It is extremely disrespectful to address her wrong. This shouldn’t even be a debate. It is common, human decency to respect how people want to be addressed.” While several students and parents got involved with the poll, the choices were most split half and half.

The extremely controversial topic of Lia Thomas will always be around to discuss. The transition of Lia Thomas from her birth sex, male, to now, female, was tremendously criticized. Many saw it as an act of disrespect to the other female athletes. There’s no telling where Lia’s future will head, but it is important to keep swimming.