Jan 12, 2022 - Sports

The story of trans Penn swimmer Lia Thomas

Picture of Lia Thomas wearing a one-piece swimsuit with a cap and holding a towel
Penn's Lia Thomas during a meet with Yale and Dartmouth on Saturday. Photo: Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Lia Thomas, a 22-year-old transgender woman who swims for the University of Pennsylvania, is dominating in the pool this season.

Why it matters: Thomas' record-breaking campaign comes amid a debate over transgender inclusion in sport — one that has become increasingly politicized as anti-trans legislation sweeps across the U.S.

Catch up quick: Thomas, assigned male at birth, competed on the men's team at Penn from 2017-20, though in 2018 she realized that she identified as a woman.

  • In May 2019, she began testosterone suppression therapy, and after the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 season, she joined the women's team last fall as a fifth-year senior.
  • NCAA rules state that a trans woman can compete against women as long as she's undergone one year of testosterone suppression.

By the numbers: At one meet in early December, Thomas won the 200-yard free by seven seconds, the 500 free by 14 seconds and the 1,650 free by 38 seconds, setting two Ivy League records and posting the fastest time of the year among college women in the 200 and 500.

  • Of note: While Thomas' broken records have made news, her times relative to the women's field are generally comparable to what her times relative to the men's field had been.
  • Her best time in the 500 pre-transition (4:18.72) was 12 seconds off the men's record (4:06.32); now, her best time (4:34.06) is 10 seconds off the women's record (4:24.06), having lost 16 seconds post-transition.

Driving the news: Thomas won two races at her final home meet on Saturday. She also lost two to Yale's Iszac Henig, a transgender man who can compete against women because he hasn't begun hormone therapy.

Picture of Lia Thomas shaking hands with another swimmer in a pool
Thomas is congratulated after winning the 200-yard freestyle event. Photo: Hunter Martin/Getty Images

What they're saying: Thomas just wants to "continue to do the sport I love as my authentic self," she told SwimSwam last month.

  • "My mental health was not very good," she said of the 2018-19 season. "It was a lot of unease, basically just feeling trapped in my body."
  • Since transitioning, that's improved: "Being in a swimsuit 20 hours a week has helped me accept my body as it is [and] be comfortable in who I am."

The other side: Some believe Thomas holds an unfair advantage even after two-plus years of testosterone suppression.

  • "At stake here is the integrity of women's sports," a group of Penn swim parents wrote after that December meet. "The precedent being set ... is a direct threat to female athletes."
  • "I think the NCAA policy issued in 2011 was not really based much on scientific knowledge," one parent told WashPost. "So this is all about the rules. It's not really about Lia. She followed the rules."

What's next: Thomas, an Austin native, will be a favorite at next month's Ivy League championships, and she's already qualified for the NCAA championships in March.

Go deeper