Lia Thomas, the swimmer at the centre of one sport’s biggest transgender storms, has been mounting a secret legal challenge against the ban on her competing in elite women’s races – including at the Olympics.
Telegraph Sport can reveal that Thomas has asked the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland to overturn rules brought in by World Aquatics after the American became the first openly transgender person to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I title.
Thomas’s triumph in the 500-yard freestyle event in Atlanta, Georgia, almost two years ago made global headlines and sparked a major furore in the United States and beyond over her participation in women’s races.
Her landmark victory came less than three years after she began transitioning – she had previously been ranked just 65th over the same distance in the division’s male category – and led to protests from rival swimmers.
The ugly fallout, which continues to this day, has included accusations Thomas had been allowed to use women’s locker rooms during events, thereby exposing other competitors to her “male genitaIHer NCAA win was followed three months later by a rule change introduced by World Aquatics banning those to have gone through male puberty from women’s races under its jurisdiction and introducing a new ‘open’ category for those like Thomas.
A growing number of sports governing bodies have been bringing in similar policies amid mounting pressure from athletes, campaigners and politicians to prioritise fairness and safety over inclusion, which a victory for Thomas would leave open to further legal challenges.
Telegraph Sport can reveal that Thomas has hired top Canadian law firm Tyr, the website of which describes its practitioners as “fearless advocates” who have been involved in “high-stakes and precedent-setting cases”.
Those brought before CAS – even ones with a clear public-interest element – are controversially not publicised and are heard behind closed doors unless the parties involved consent otherwise.
Telegraph Sport has learnt Thomas first went to the court in September, since when World Aquatics has applied to have the case thrown out on the basis she is not currently impacted by its rules because she has not submitted herself to the jurisdiction of USA Swimming, its recognised member association.
A month before Thomas’s NCAA win in March 2022, USA Swimming introduced stricter transgender regulations which controversially stopped short of an outright ban but mandated regular monitoring of such athletes’ testosterone levels.
Less than a month before World Aquatics introduced its own policy in June of that year, Thomas said in an interview with Good Morning America: “It’s been a goal of mine to swim at Olympic trials for a very long time, and I would love to see that through.”
She also told ESPN: “The biggest misconception, I think, is the reason I transitioned. 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.”
Having by then graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas enrolled in law school, at which she planned to focus on civil rights and public interest law.
“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.
She has not competed since her fateful NCAA win and her case is unlikely to be heard in time for her to qualify for this summer’s Olympics in Paris. The 2028 Games are in Los Angeles.
‘A 6ft 4in biological man dropping his pants’
Opposition to her racing in women’s events has been led in the US by rival swimmer Riley Gaines, with whom Thomas tied for fifth place in the 200 yards freestyle in Atlanta.
Gaines claimed last year that she and others had not been “forewarned beforehand that we would be sharing a locker room with Lia” at events.
“We did not give our consent; they did not ask for our consent,” Gaines told Fox News. “In that locker room, we turned around and there’s a 6ft 4in biological man dropping his pants and watching us undress, and we were exposed to male genitalia.
“Not even probably a year, two years ago, this would have been considered some form of sexual assault, voyeurism. But now, not even are they just allowing it to happen, it’s almost as if these large organisations are encouraging it to happen.
“That to me was worse than the competition piece.”
Thomas responded to her detractors in an interview with Schuyler Bailar, the NCAA’s first trans swimmer.
“They’re like, ‘We respect Lia as a woman, as a trans woman, whatever, we respect her identity; we just don’t think it’s fair’,” Thomas said on the ‘Dear Schuyler’ podcast.
“You can’t really have that sort of half support, where you’re like, ‘Oh, I respect her as a woman here, but not here’. They’re using the guise of feminism to sort of push transphobic beliefs.”