Lia Thomas, who earlier this year became the first transgender swimmer to win a major US college title, has pushed back against criticism that she had an unfair advantage over her competitors.
Thomas won the NCAA 500m freestyle title in March. USA Swimming’s policy states that trans athletes must undergo three years of hormone replacement therapy before being allowed to compete. Thomas was six months short of that target when she won the title but the NCAA, the governing body of college sports in the US, decided not to adopt USA Swimming’s rules and allowed her to compete.
Thomas stayed largely silent while she was competing but spoke to ESPN in an interview published on Tuesday.“The biggest misconception, I think, is the reason I transitioned,” Thomas said. “People will say, ‘Oh, she just transitioned so she would have an advantage, so she could win.’ I transitioned to be happy, to be true to myself.”
The former University of Pennsylvania athlete received both criticism and support from across the sports world. In March, World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said transgender athletes pose a risk to the integrity of women’s sport.
“Gender cannot trump biology. As a federation president, I do not have that luxury. It is a luxury that other organizations not at the practical end of having to deal with these issues have,” Coe told the Daily Telegraph. “But as far as I am concerned, the scientific evidence, the peer-reviewed work we have done, those regulations are the right approach.”
Republicans across the US have introduced bills to restrict transgender athletes’ participation in sports. They argue that they are protecting fairness in women’s sport. Thomas disagrees.
“Trans women competing in women’s sports does not threaten women’s sports as a whole,” Thomas said. “Trans women are a very small minority of all athletes. The NCAA rules regarding trans women competing in women’s sports have been around for 10-plus years. And we haven’t seen any massive wave of trans women dominating.”
Some have argued that trans athletes should compete in their own category, but Thomas dismissed such ideas in swimming.
“If you say, like, you can compete, but you can’t score or you’re in an extra lane nine, that’s very othering towards trans people,” Thomas said. “And it is not offering them the same level of respect and opportunity to play and to compete.”
Thomas graduated from Penn this month and plans to attend law school. She says her experiences have encouraged to pursue a career in civil rights.
“Having seen such hateful attacks on trans rights through legislation, fighting for trans rights and trans equality is something that I’ve become much more passionate about and want to pursue,” she said.