Fresh off her final practice of the week, the most controversial athlete in America sat in the corner of a nearly empty Philadelphia coffeehouse with her back to the wall. Lia Thomas had done some of her best work this season while feeling cornered. On this January evening her long torso was wrapped in a University of Pennsylvania swim and dive jacket, her hair still damp from a swim—roughly three miles staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool. She looked exhausted. As college students across the country were digging into their Friday nights, Thomas was thinking about her weekend plans: sleeping, studying and another grueling swim practice.
This had been a season unlike any in her 22 years, and unlike any in the history of her sport. The shy senior economics major from Austin became one of the most dominant college athletes in the country and, as a result, the center of a national debate—a living, breathing, real-time Rorschach test for how society views those who challenge conventions.
“I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone,” she says at the coffeehouse. “They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.”
In her first year swimming for the Penn women’s team after three seasons competing against men, Thomas throttled her competition. She set pool, school and Ivy League records en route to becoming the nation’s most powerful female collegiate swimmer. Photos of Thomas resting at a pool wall and waiting for the rest of the field to finish have become a popular visual shorthand of her dominance.
When she swims at the NCAA Women’s Division I Swimming and Diving Championships, which begin March 16 in Atlanta, Thomas is a favorite to win individual titles in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle events, and also has a shot in the 100-yard freestyle. She has an outside chance to break longstanding collegiate records held by Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin, two of the most beloved American Olympians of this century. Thomas says she has ambitions to compete beyond college, which could set her on a course to be Ledecky’s teammate at the 2024 Games in Paris—and perhaps challenge Ledecky’s Olympic records.
“I don’t know exactly what the future of my swimming will look like after this year, but I would love to continue doing it,” Thomas says. “I want to swim and compete as who I am.”
A vocal faction wonders, though, whether her participation in women’s swimming is fair. In January, Michael Phelps said there needs to be an “even playing field” within the sport. The editor of Swimming World likened Thomas to “the doping-fueled athletes of East Germany and China” from past Olympic Games. Thomas’s story has also become a right-wing obsession, a regular topic of discussion on Fox News. Conservative opinion sites have called her a man and deadnamed her, purposely using the name she went by before transitioning. Her moves have been minutely tracked by the U.K.’s Daily Mail, including once with cruel detail about her habits in the women’s locker room provided by an anonymous teammate. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have also written about her.
The attention directed at Thomas has widened to the rest of her team, which has become bitterly divided. Mike Schnur, Penn’s men’s and women’s coach, has received a litany of hateful emails. During a training trip early this year in Florida, the school’s swimmers were asked by coaches not to wear their school gear lest they make themselves targets. The university’s social media handlers have turned off comments on some posts that mention their star. Even USA Swimming has fielded calls from parents of youth swimmers, worried the next Lia Thomas might take over their pool.
“I’m a woman, just like anybody else on the team,” Thomas says. “I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer. It’s what I’ve done for so long; it’s what I love.” She’s not thinking about wins or records, she insists. “I get into the water every day and do my best.”
This season left Thomas feeling both liberated and besieged. While she hopes her presence on the starting block helps other young trans athletes realize their possibilities, Thomas has walled herself off. Her only public comments this season have been on video with the swimming-news website SwimSwam and in extensive January sit-downs with Sports Illustrated. (During her two meetings with SI, Thomas brought Schuyler Bailar—a former Harvard swimmer and the first-known openly transgender D-I athlete—and asked that they be allowed to simultaneously record the conversations.) Her words are clipped, her pauses a calculation of potential reactions her comments might elicit.
Thomas has been threatened and called so many names online that she turned off some direct messaging on her Instagram. She avoids mentions of her name online, especially comment sections. She told her parents not to engage in the fight. She asked her friends to stand down. She won’t criticize teammates she knows are rooting against her. “I don’t look into the negativity and the hate,” she says. “I am here to swim.”
Every day this season felt like a challenge to her humanity. Part of her wanted people to know her journey to this moment, to know what it felt like to be in a body but not be of that body. She wanted people to know what it was like to finally live an authentic life and what it meant for her to finish a race, to look up at a timing board and see the name lia thomas next to the names of other women. What it meant to her to stand on a podium with other women and be counted as an equal.
She wondered whether anyone would hear her words. Even if they did, would they listen?
Though Thomas had been an elite distance swimmer throughout high school and could have joined much more prominent swim programs, Penn was the only place she wanted to go. Her brother Wes swam for the Quakers for four years; as a teenager Thomas often traveled to Philadelphia to watch him. She liked Schnur, Penn’s longtime coach, and the two quickly developed a bond after Thomas arrived on campus late in the summer of 2017.
Thomas became quick friends with many of her new teammates, connecting over a mutual love of niche anime and video games and through the closeness that can be achieved only through taxing swim practices. The hours back and forth in the pool created a kinship, and the work paid off. During her freshman year on the men’s team Thomas established 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.
Thomas says she began questioning her identity near the end of her time at Austin’s Westlake High School. “I felt off,” she remembers, “disconnected with my body.” She finds it hard to explain the feelings creeping into her mind at that time, only that she began to have concerns about how she viewed herself—feelings that would emerge more and more often as she competed in her first college season.
She Googled those feelings and read the personal stories of trans women. She was paired with a trans mentor through a group on Penn’s campus. That was the first time Thomas talked to someone who’d experienced what she was feeling. Those were light-bulb moments. “Like, Wow, this is such a close mirror of what I’m feeling,” she remembers. “It started to make more sense.” Though she’d found slivers of clarity, the joy of discovery began to feel like a psychological yoke to Thomas. How would her parents and friends feel about this? What would her coaches say?
She told her brother the summer between her freshman and sophomore years, and he was immediately accepting. She called her parents. Bob and Carrie Thomas could feel that something was off that first year of college, that their child was hurting. Bob says what was discussed on that call is personal, but that he and Carrie told their daughter they loved and supported her. “We will do everything and anything we need to do to have Lia be part of this family,” Bob says. “We were not going to lose her.”
The 2018–19 season proved to be Thomas’s best yet. She earned second-place finishes in the same trio of Ivy championship races in which she’d excelled the previous year, earning her multiple spots on the All-Ivy team. Thomas got closer to her goal of swimming at the NCAA championships and perhaps qualifying for the ’20 Olympic trials. In just two years she’d proved to be a quiet leader—a no-complaints workhorse who kept a steady pace in practice and flipped the switch in competition.
She had never felt more miserable.
Though she’d come out to herself and to her family, her feelings of dysphoria heightened that second year in school, particularly after the swim season. With fewer demands on her time, she sank into her thoughts. “I was very depressed,” Thomas says. She trained less often and felt disengaged from her life. “I got to the point where I couldn’t go to school. I was missing classes,” she says. “My sleep schedule was super messed up. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew at that moment I needed to do something to address this.”
Her friends in the program could see her struggling, but they didn’t know why. Thomas was still months from coming out to her team and coaches. She’d do her best to smile and make it seem like life was O.K. The others noticed. “It’s scary seeing someone you love hurting and not being able to help,” says Andie Myers, who joined the program at the same time as Thomas and is one of her closest friends. “She wasn’t talking about what was going on in her life, but it seemed like she wanted to say something. It was a completely helpless feeling.”
Thomas would wake up and think about the people who might reject her. At the pool, she’d stare at the black line and absorb herself in self-doubt. “I tried my best to inch closer to coming out to close friends, a couple of coaches,” she says. “But in that depressive, very struggling state of mind, it’s hard to make progress when so much of my energy was trying to get through each day.” At one practice, Thomas had a panic attack in the pool and bolted. “I was too scared to tell Mike why,” she says of her coach.
Thomas initially put off hormone replacement therapy because she worried that it could end her swimming career. But she began HRT in May 2019. She knew how the regimen would affect her body—that she wouldn’t be as strong, that it would take more time to recover after workouts, that it would change her in other ways. But she also knew that it might ease what she was feeling. “I did HRT knowing and accepting I might not swim again,” she says. “I was just trying to live my life.”
Almost immediately, her negative feelings began to subside. “It surprised me,” she says. “I felt, mentally, a lot better and healthier pretty quickly. The relief it gave me was quite substantial.”
She worked out in the pool between her sophomore and junior years and found that her mind was clearer than it had been in months. She realized she desperately needed competitive swimming—and that she wanted to do it as her authentic self. As a member of the women’s team.
She came out to her coaches during her junior year. Like her parents before, the Penn coaching staff was immediately supportive. Thomas began coming out to more friends. Hey, guys, she’d say. I’m trans.
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. During two meetings, with Schnur at her side, she came out to the men’s team and then the women’s team. Schnur told the women Thomas would eventually join them. You couldn’t hope for a better teammate, he told them.
For her junior year, though, she’d compete with men—but it would be on her terms. At the team’s first Ivy League meet, on Nov. 9, 2019, Thomas put on a women’s suit and swam the 1,000-yard freestyle against the Columbia men. She swam sporadically at meets after that, pulling back as she got used to her body and the slower times she produced.
During conversations with her parents, Thomas rolled through a list of potential names. None seemed to capture her spirit. Carrie came up with “Lia,” and Thomas immediately liked it. She chose “Catherine” as a middle name—her mother’s birth name. “That meant so much to me,” Carrie says.
Lia Catherine Thomas began to use her name on New Year’s 2020. “It’s a milestone in a very long process of transitioning where you feel like this is who I am, and I’m going to live this,” she says. “In a way, it was sort of a rebirth, for the first time in my life, feeling fully connected to my name and who I am and living who I am.
“I am Lia.”
Thomas desperately wanted to swim with the women’s team. With COVID-19 threatening to interrupt the 2020–21 college season, Thomas took what would have been her senior season off as a hedge to keep her final year of eligibility.
When she started practicing with Penn again in the late summer of 2021, she felt physically different from the person who’d come close to hitting NCAA championship–qualifying times in men’s distance races. She’d been on HRT a little more than two years by then. Thomas says she shrunk about an inch. She noticed her strength wasn’t the same; fat had also had been redistributed within her body. Holding her old practice paces was an impossibility. She realized she couldn’t obsess over what she could no longer do. “I feel disconnected from them,” she says of her old race times. “It was a different moment in my life.”
Against other women, though, she was still extremely fast in the water. At a November 2021 meet against Princeton and Cornell, Thomas posted the NCAA season-best times in the 200-yard freestyle and the 500-yard freestyle, set Penn records in those events and won three individual races. In the blowout 500 free, she beat the second-place finisher by nearly 13 seconds.
Those triumphs garnered little attention outside the insulated swimming world. Two weeks later, at the Zippy Invitational in Akron, Ohio, Thomas dropped another second from her NCAA-leading time in the 500 freestyle. She knocked off nearly another second and a half on her 200 freestyle. Her 1,650 freestyle (66 laps) pushed her up to sixth among college swimmers to that point in the season. With her 200 and 500, Thomas was within reach of collegiate records set by Ledecky and Franklin.
On Dec. 5, two days after the Ohio meet, some Penn swim parents sent a letter to the NCAA asking that Thomas be ruled ineligible for women’s competitions. The arguments would soon become familiar to Thomas. Her puberty gave her an advantage over other female competitors. Science allegedly showed trans women had larger hands and feet, bigger hearts and greater bone density and lung capacity. “At stake here is the integrity of women’s sports,” read the parents’ letter, which was sent to Penn and the Ivy League and later made public. “The precedent being set—one in which women do not have a protected and equitable space to compete—is a direct threat to female athletes in every sport. What are the boundaries? How is this in line with the NCAA’s commitment to providing a fair environment for student-athletes?”
The NCAA didn’t respond, but Penn athletic director Alanna Shanahan sent an email to the team, obtained by SI, saying that the school “fully support[s] all our swimming student-athletes and want[s] to help our community navigate Lia’s success in the pool this winter. Penn [a]thletics is committed to being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all student-athletes, coaches and staff, and we hold true to the commitment today and in the future.” If swimmers were upset about Thomas, Shanahan added, the athletes could “utilize robust resources available to them,” including the university’s department of Counseling and Psychological Services.
It’s telling that the parents issued the letter anonymously. More than a half dozen people affiliated with the Penn program spoke to SI under the condition that their names not be used in this story. “I’m not about to be labeled as transphobic,” says one swimmer on the team.
“We support Lia as a trans woman and hope she leads a happy and productive life, because that’s what she deserves,” one parent of a Penn swimmer says. “What we can’t do is stand by while she rewrites records and eliminates biological women from this sport. If we don’t speak up here, it’s going to happen in college after college. And then women’s sports, as we know it, will no longer exist in this country.”
In a Daily Mail report that made its way through conservative media, one swimmer said the team members had been told not to speak out or they might lose their place on the team. Several parents of swimmers and some swimmers themselves disputed that claim when questioned about it by SI. Shanahan and Schnur, through a university spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Even as Thomas did her best to downplay the drama unfolding on her team, it was impossible to ignore the coolness that pervaded the Penn pool deck. “You’re always looking over your shoulder,” says Hadley DeBruyn, a Penn sophomore swimmer and Thomas’s friend. Several anonymously sourced reports surfaced in the new year about Thomas’s attitude. Among the accusations: She joked about the ease with which she won races; she purposely swam slowly at a January meet against Iszac Henig, a trans man who swims on Yale’s women’s team; she referred to herself as the “Jackie Robinson of trans sports.” Thomas denies those claims. “It’s disgusting and it’s cruel what’s being done to Lia,” DeBruyn says. “Sometimes, this doesn’t even feel like a team.”
The Quakers’ women’s roster has 37 swimmers. Those close to the team estimate that Thomas has six to eight adamant supporters, maybe half the team opposes her competing against other women and the rest have steered clear of the debate. An unsigned letter, which the university said represented “several” Penn swimmers and was released through the school in early February, said Thomas was “value[d] as a person, teammate and friend” and took aim at the stories circulating about her. “The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values and opinions of the entire Penn team.”
Two days later, 16 Penn teammates sent an unsigned letter to Ivy League officials, requesting that Thomas be held out of the conference championship meet. The letter was organized by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist who heads Champion Women, a women’s sports advocacy group that focuses on Title IX issues. “If [Thomas] were to be eligible to compete,” the letter read, “she could now break Penn, Ivy and NCAA women’s swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete.” The Ivy League later issued an unequivocal statement that Thomas would be allowed to swim.
At least two Penn swimmers who support Thomas confronted a teammate at practice, accusing the woman of spreading rumors. The woman, a Penn parent told SI, denied she was the leak. “These women no longer trust one another,” one parent says. “Everything has fallen apart.”
“It’s mean,” one Penn parent who identifies as a progressive but opposes Thomas’s eligibility says of the online and media bigotry directed at her. “Lia is a human being who deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. But it’s not transphobic to say I disagree with where she’s swimming.”
That argument is disingenuous to Thomas. There is no such thing as half-support: Either you back her fully as a woman or you don’t. “The very simple answer is that I’m not a man,” she says. “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”
On Jan. 24, Hogshead-Makar organized a 90-minute virtual meeting to discuss legislative remedies that would prevent trans women from participating in women’s collegiate sports. More than 250 people attended the session, which Hogshead-Makar allowed SI to join on the condition that guests weren’t identified and that quotes were not attributed to anyone. These were heavy hitters within the sport: former Olympic swim champions, current and former collegiate swimmers and coaches, Penn parents, and several current members of the USA Swimming board of directors.
They discussed possible federal legislation on the issue of trans athletes and eligibility. Some wondered whether Georgia—the site of the championships—could pass a law in time that would ban athletes such as Thomas from competing against other women. (Similar legislation has been passed in at least 10 states.) The idea of a swimmer boycott of championships was discussed. The idea got little traction. “We need to be able to talk about these issues in a way where people don’t think they’re going to get torn to pieces, personally or professionally, over this,” says Dave Salo, a former USC coach who attended the meeting and later talked to SI. “I’m sure Lia is a great woman, and I’m sure she’s genuine with the reasons why she wants to swim. But we have to be honest about the physical advantages she has, and it has to be O.K. to say that.”
Four days before the video call, the NCAA essentially punted on the issue of transgender athlete eligibility. Previously, the organization had a uniform access policy based on a minimum one-year hormone therapy requirement. But in January the NCAA pushed eligibility guidelines to each sport’s national governing body. That meant USA Swimming would decide on Thomas’s ability to swim in the NCAA championships.
USA Swimming released new guidelines Feb. 1, laying out a series of requirements and establishing a three-person medical panel to determine whether transgender women have “a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.” The new guidelines set a ceiling testosterone level of five nanomoles per liter—half the threshold used by previous Olympic rules—that transgender athletes would need to register, continuously, for 36 months before applying to swim as a woman.
By the NCAA championships, Thomas would be on her HRT regimen for only 34 months. It was easy for Thomas’s supporters to see USA Swimming’s decision as a direct rebuke intended to keep her from swimming at NCAAs.
USA Swimming officials say Thomas’s eligibility played no role in its decision-making. The organization for months had been working on its transgender policies after the IOC dropped previous guidelines concerning trans women athletes.
Less than two weeks after USA Swimming issued its guidelines, the NCAA seemingly cleared the way for Thomas to swim. Citing “unfair and potentially detrimental impacts” of such a late-term rule change, an NCAA subcommittee recommended delaying a decision on whether to implement USA Swimming’s guidelines.
The announcement was a relief for Thomas, her family and her friends. It also left them even more adamant about blocking out the negativity they knew would grow as the NCAA championships approached. “You can engage in [negativity] and let it dominate your thinking, or you can be a positive force,” Bob Thomas says. “You can’t take on that water, or else you’ll sink.”
Being trans, Thomas says, is “an amazing and beautiful experience. . . . I’ve been reinvigorated. I’ve been swimming for 17 years, but for [only] a short part of that time have I felt fully engaged.” She is forever grateful for the kindness people closest to her showed during such a stressful time. She says she continues to appreciate the support of those people, how that love gives her hope for the life she’ll someday make for herself. “After coming out and being my authentic self, I could really start to see a future,” she says. “Before I came out, I couldn’t visualize a future.”
She’s applied to law school. The past three years made her see all the ways she might help other people, and she’s thinking about civil rights law, where she can advocate for others who are marginalized and need to know they’re not alone.
Thomas wants to continue training through law school. Swimming at the 2024 Olympic trials is still a goal. If she meets the criteria to continue swimming in the women’s category, USA Swimming officials tell SI, they’ll have no issue with Thomas representing the United States in Paris.
On the first evening of the Ivy League championships in February, at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool, Thomas is part of the Penn quartet that places third in the 800-yard freestyle relay. On the second night she takes down Olympian Kate Ziegler’s pool record in the 500-yard freestyle. It’s a good swim—4:37.12, about three seconds off her season best—and among the top times so far among conference championships across the country.
On Day 3, Thomas sets a pool and Ivy League record in the 200-yard freestyle. On the fourth day of the meet, Harvard’s video board flashes Thomas’s new pool records as she qualifies for the final in the 100-yard freestyle.
Later that night, fans clap when Thomas is introduced. Her parents and brother watch from the top row. Bob balances his rear end on the back of his seat. Carrie stands and clasps her hands, as if in prayer.
There’s a beep, and the eight swimmers are off. Less than a minute later, Thomas has another pool and meet record. She raises an index finger skyward.
Later, Bob and Carrie wrap their daughter in hugs inside the lobby of a building next door. They chat for 15 minutes, but Thomas has to go. In 90 minutes she’ll swim the 400-yard freestyle relay—the last event of the championships.
Penn’s coaching staff has put Thomas as the first swimmer in the relay, a break from the usual practice of the team’s fastest swimming anchor. In the sixth lane, Thomas takes off from the block, drives to the first wall and flips, building an immediate quarter-length lead over Yale, two lanes away. The lead holds. After the third pass, a half-body-length lead suddenly expands to a full body. Thomas touches the wall in 48.14, about a half second slower than her 100-yard swim two hours earlier. A teammate dives in overhead. Thomas pulls herself out of the water. Her chest heaves as she gasps for air.
The rest of the Penn team doesn’t disappoint. Thomas’s nearly second-and-a-half lead is maintained in the second leg, then pulls back to a little under a second with the third. The pool vibrates with shrieking parents. Penn’s Camryn Carter increases the lead on the final leg and touches in at 3:17.80. Another pool record.
Penn swimmers lining the pool deck are screaming and jumping and hugging. A few begin to cry. Schnur puts his hands to his face, in disbelief. The Quakers finish the championship in third place for the first time in the 45-year history of the Ivy championships, just two points behind Yale for second. The 400-relay win is the first in team history.
A relay teammate mock-punches Thomas in the arm. Thomas high-fives the other women on her relay. As she stands behind the starting block, she turns toward the rest of her screaming, cheering teammates. Thomas extends her arms into the air. She pumps her fists and laughs.
And for one moment, Lia Thomas’s story is just about swimming.
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