What I’ve Learned from Lia Thomas
by Judy Bokao
Lia Thomas doesn’t just swim- she also clears a lane for all the trans athletes who will follow her. Despite facing frustrating and invasive attacks, she inspires us all with her resilience.
After competing in high school, Thomas started swimming on the men’s team at the University of Pennsylvania during her freshman year, where she broke several personal records. In her first Ivy League championships, in February 2018, she had top-eight finishes in the 500-yard freestyle, the 1,000-yard freestyle, and the 1,650-yard freestyle. These were some of the University’s best swim times.
As much as she was accomplishing in her swimming career, she was also privately struggling with her identity. Ever since she was in high school, she kept thinking something was off and that there was a disconnect to her body. Those feelings intensified in college, and she began to worry about how she viewed herself. She started researching what her feelings meant and later, was paired with a trans mentor through a group on Penn’s campus.
It was during this time that she found clarity and made sense of who she was and wanted to be. Unfortunately, her relief was short-lived as she thought about how she would break the news to her family, friends, coach, and teammates. She first opened up to her supportive brother, who encouraged her to talk to their parents. They were immediately supportive and assured her that they loved and supported her.
The following swim season was one of her strongest and she was close to achieving her dream of swimming at the NCAA championships and perhaps qualifying for the 2020 Olympic trials. From an outsider’s perspective, Lia was winning it in life but in reality, she was depressed, and her feelings of dysphoria heightened that second year in school, particularly after the swim season. It got so bad that Lia says she felt disengaged from her life and had no energy to even get out of bed. She was also stressed because she had yet to come out to her team and she was scared of their reaction to her news. She ended up having a panic attack at practice and she still couldn’t open up to her coach as to why she was not acting like herself.
Lia knew she had to do something. For a long time she had been putting off hormone replacement therapy because she was scared that it could end her swimming career. In May 2019, she took a courageous step and started hormone replacement therapy knowing that it would change her. “I did HRT knowing and accepting I might not swim again,” she says. “I was just trying to live my life.” It was the right decision to make. “I felt, mentally, a lot better and healthier pretty quickly. The relief it gave me was quite substantial,” she said.
Soon after, she came out to her coaches who rallied behind her, and Coach Schnur helped her come out to the men’s and women’s teams. All that was left was for her to get back to competitive swimming. NCAA rules allow athletes to change gender categories, but Thomas needed a year of HRT before she’d be eligible to compete against other women in championship events. At practice, she felt physically different, but she chose not to obsess over such changes. She still went on to break records and set new Penn records in the 2021 meets. Her victories started rubbing some people the wrong way and soon, some Penn swim parents sent a letter to the NCAA asking that Thomas be ruled ineligible for women’s competitions. The NCAA didn’t respond but Penn athletic director Alanna Shanahan sent an email to the team, stating their support for every swimmer.
The drama continued to unfold and soon it was being covered in national news as the country became divided on where they stood. However, for Lia, this is not what she had hoped for. “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.” By January 2022, there was a virtual meeting attended by former Olympic swim champions, current and former collegiate swimmers and coaches, Penn parents, and several current members of the USA Swimming board of directors. The main agenda of the meeting was to discuss legislative remedies that would prevent trans women from participating in women’s collegiate sports.
The NCAA decided to push eligibility guidelines to each party’s national governing body. This meant that USA Swimming would decide on Thomas’s fate to swim in the NCAA championships. In February, USA Swimming issued new guidelines including establishing a three-person medical panel to determine whether transgender women have “a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors. They also set a ceiling testosterone level of five nanomoles per liter and required transgender athletes to register, continuously, for 36 months before applying to swim as a woman. Lia had only been on HRT for 34 months and was therefore not eligible.
The NCAA, however, disagreed with the new guidelines citing “unfair and potentially detrimental impacts” of such a late-term rule change. This cleared Lia to participate in the NCAA championships, where she didn’t break any records, but she did win one event.
I am in awe at how gracefully she handled the transphobic attacks thrown at her and her spirit to still show up and do her best. I admire her courage and I can’t help but be inspired by the woman that she is. I hope she continues to pursue her passion and achieve her dream to live authentically as a competitive swimmer. She sends a strong message to us all- just keep swimming.
About the Author:
Judy Bokao is 20 years old and was born in Ethiopia but relocated to Nairobi two years ago. She is passionate about everyone having equal rights and is also big on conservation and speaking up for our planet. Judy loves reading and photography and is just a free-spirited young lady trying to grow into a woman her mom can be proud of.