University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer Lia Thomas talks backlash and future plans for competitions

PHILADELPHIA — Lia Thomas, a transgender woman who sparked controversy when she competed on the University of Pennsylvania women’s swim team, said she plans to continue swimming with the Olympics in mind.

“I plan to keep swimming,” Thomas told ABC News’ Juju Chang in an interview that aired Tuesday on Good Morning America. “It’s been a goal of mine for a long time to swim at the Olympics and I’d love to do it.”

Thomas, from Austin, Texas, won gold in the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA championships in March and became the first swimmer in Penn’s history to win a national singles title, according to the university.

After competing on the Penn men’s swim team for three years, Thomas also made history at the race as the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA divisional title in any sport.

RELATED: Penn Quakers’ Lia Thomas wins Ivy League swimming championship

“It was a goal of mine to be there at this meeting and do as well as possible,” said Thomas, who has competed in three races at the championships. “Being able to achieve that personal goal and to be at that meeting, as well as the kind of fulfillment of stepping in as my authentic self, has just been an amazing experience, having these things that I’ve been working toward for so long is coming.” together.”

Male by birth, Thomas said she fell in love with swimming at age 4, but as she got older she felt increasingly disconnected from her body, explaining, “I didn’t feel like a boy.”

“When I was a little kid, my mother always described me as a very happy kid,” Thomas said. “And then sort of in middle and high school, as I was going through puberty, that shifted a little bit, with gender dysphoria because I’m trans, but I didn’t have it, I didn’t know or have language to that yet to describe.”

RELATED: ‘I’m a woman’: Transgender UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas shares her story in Sports Illustrated interview

After high school, Thomas earned a spot on the men’s swim team at Penn, her dream school.

But in her sophomore year, Thomas said her gender dysphoria had plunged her into a deep depression and she struggled with suicidal thoughts.

“I hardly went to class. I really could hardly get out of bed,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t live like this anymore. I want to live again. I want to be able to do things that I enjoy.'”

Thomas said fears of not being able to compete in the sport she loved initially held her back from making the switch.

By 2019, at the end of her sophomore year, Thomas said she had started hormone replacement therapy, which is “gender-affirming treatment.” [that] uses female hormones to create a more feminine appearance,” according to the Cleveland Clinic.

“The mental and emotional changes actually happened very quickly,” Thomas said. “I felt a lot better mentally. I was less depressed.”

She continued, “And I lost muscle mass and I got a lot weaker and a lot, much slower in the water.”

Thomas began swimming on Penn’s women’s swim team early in her senior year, following NCAA guidelines that athletes must complete a year of hormone replacement therapy to change gender categories.

Thomas’ control grew as she found success in the pool.

In response to critics who say Thomas switched to win more swimming medals, she reiterated that was not the case.

“Trans people don’t go into athletics,” she said. “We transform to be happy and authentic and our true selves. Transitioning to gain an advantage is something that never goes into our decisions.”

RELATED: UPenn swimmer’s record sparks talks about transgender athletes

In January, the NCAA updated its eligibility guidelines for transgender athletes to say that each sport’s national governing body can make its own rules. Previously, the NCAA had a uniform hormone therapy requirement for all sports, according to ESPN. USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, has had a review panel since 2018 to make individual decisions on a case-by-case basis.

The NCAA then announced it would wait until next season to enforce the new policies that paved the way for Thomas to compete as a woman at the 2022 NCAA championships.

In February, just a month after the NCAA’s announcement, 16 of her Penn teammates and some of her parents signed an anonymous letter arguing that she posed a threat to women’s sports. The letter said that while the signers supported Thomas’s right to transition, they felt it was unfair for her to compete against cisgender women.

“You can’t go halfway and say, ‘I support trans women and trans people, but only up to a point,'” Thomas said in response to letters from her teammates. “If you’re supporting trans women as women who have met all NCAA requirements, then I don’t know if you can really say such a thing.”

She continued, “Trans women are not a threat to women’s sports.”

While the science about transgender athletes is new and evolving, some medical experts say the effects of higher testosterone during male puberty may never be fully erased.

dr Mayo Clinic’s Michael Joyner told ABC News that there are physical aspects of men on hormone therapy that can stay with trans women. With a swimmer like Lia Thomas, these physical aspects can be “activated” through sport.

“There’s going to be some loss of skeletal muscle mass, there’s going to be some gain in body fat — those would be the two most obvious things,” Joyner said. “But things like hand size, lung size, foot size — that’s not going to change much. And of course because swimming, as you know, is such an intense sport and people train so hard that they will continue to have a significant exercise stimulus for these skeletal muscles.”

Despite existing evidence of what happens to a trans person’s body after hormone therapy, Thomas said she sees herself in the context of other female athletes, all of whom vary in size, strength and ability.

“I’m not a medical expert, but there are many differences between cis athletes,” she said. “There are cis women who are very tall and very muscular and have more testosterone than other cis women, should that disqualify them too?”

The controversy surrounding Thomas’ collegiate swimming career coincided with more than a dozen states, including Oklahoma, Arizona and Florida, which introduced bans to prevent trans students from competing in sports that conform to their gender identity.

Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that trans youth often report feeling isolated and left out in academic settings. This discrimination puts them at increased risk of poor mental health, suicide, substance abuse, violence and other health risks.

Thomas said she doesn’t see restricting transgender people from playing sports or restricting them to only competing against each other or themselves, such as on a separate swim lane, as an acceptable option.

“In addition to not being able to have the full sporting experience, this is an incredible difference for trans people who already face immense discrimination in other parts of our lives,” she said. “To then have this discrimination in sports again and you’re like, ‘Oh, okay, you can swim, but only over there, like in that lane.’ It’s very different.”

Discussing her own experience of waiting longer to transition because she wanted to compete in swimming, Thomas added, “I don’t think trans people have to make that choice. I don’t want other trans people to make that choice.” have to.”

Thomas graduated from Penn in May and has announced that he will attend law school and continue to compete with hopes of reaching the 2024 US Olympic Team Trials.

According to Thomas, the highlight of her college graduation was hearing her name as Lia Thomas.

“When I actually walked across the stage and heard her say my name and walk over, that was really cool,” she said, describing her emotions at the moment as “pure joy.”

Copyright © 2022 ABC News Internet Ventures. University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer Lia Thomas talks backlash and future plans for competitions

Dais Johnston

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