Penn’s Lia Thomas Opens Up On Journey, Transition To Women’s Swimming

University of Pennsylvania senior Lia Thomas has been making headlines so far in this NCAA season, producing several record-breaking performances in what is her first year competing as a woman.

Thomas, a trans woman, sat down on the SwimSwam Podcast to discuss everything from when she realized she was trans, what the transition period was like, and how she’s been able to adjust to life both in and out of the pool.

The 22-year-old said that she came to the realization that she was trans in the summer of 2018, but it took almost a full year before starting the transition process.

“I first realized I was trans the summer before, in 2018,” Thomas said. “There was a lot of uncertainty, I didn’t know what I would be able to do, if I would be able to keep swimming. And so, I decided to swim out the 2018-2019 year as a man, without coming out, and that caused a lot of distress to me.

“I was struggling, my mental health was not very good. It was a lot of unease, basically just feeling trapped in my body. It didn’t align.

“I decided it was time to come out and start my transition.”

Thomas then started to transition in May of 2019, beginning hormone replacement therapy, and came out to the Penn swimmers in the fall of 2019.

She describes the 2019-20 season, her junior campaign, as an incredibly uncomfortable phase, as she still competing on the men’s team despite being in the process of becoming a woman.

After a standout sophomore year that include runner-up finishes in the 500 free, 1000 free and 1650 free at the 2019 Ivy League Championships, Thomas said she struggled the following year during the transition, continuing to train but only competing as much as she felt comfortable.

“Being in the early stages of transition, it was a very awkward experience of basically being a woman competing in a men’s meet. It was uncomfortable, so I didn’t compete that much.”

Thomas only raced in a handful of dual meets that season, her times well off where she had been the season prior.

In the summer of 2020, one year after beginning testosterone suppression, she submitted all of her medical work to the NCAA, which was approved, allowing her to begin competing on the women’s swim team at Penn.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in the Ivy League cancelling its entire 2020-21 college swimming season.

Thomas took the year off of school as a result, saying her training was very “on and off” due to pool availability, and then began competing on the women’s team this season.

The NCAA’s transgender policy dictates: “A trans female treated with testosterone suppression medication may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one year of testosterone suppression treatment.”

Thomas, who is now two and a half years into hormone replacement therapy, is, therefore, eligible to compete on the women’s team.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently published guidelines for sports regarding transgender rules in sports in November—it doesn’t have cut and dry measures currently in place like the NCAA. Instead, it calls on each sport to implement its own guidelines on what constitues an unfair advantage.

No athlete should be excluded from competing based on an “unverified, alleged or perceived unfair competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status,” the International Olympic Committee said.

“Athletes should be allowed to compete but unfair advantage needs to be regulated.”

Regarding the IOC guidelines, Thomas said: “I think the guidelines they set forward are very good. They do a very good job of promoting inclusivity while keeping competitional integrity going.”

Another trans woman that has competed in NCAA swimming is Natalie Fahey, who raced on the women’s team at Southern Illinois University after transitioning, while Harvard’s Schuyler Bailar, a trans man, was the first openly trans swimmer at the NCAA DI level.

Thomas mentioned that Bailar, a fellow Ivy Leaguer, was someone who helped her through the last few years, having shared his experience and giving her advice.

“It’s been a lot of struggles in the 12 months prior to coming out to everybody, to the initial awkwardness, AND the uncertainty to first starting out transitioning,” Thomas said.

“There just seems to be so much to do and things you have to take care of, and it just seems like this mountain. But you get by it day by day, and build confidence each day, and I’m feeling confident and good in my swimming and all my personal relationships.

“And transitioning has allowed me to be more confident in all of those aspects of my life, where I was struggling a lot before I came out.”

Watch Lia’s full conversation with Coleman on the podcast below:

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ACC
1 month ago

I really respect SwimSwam here for amplifying her voice. I haven’t listened to this episode yet but I’m really looking forward to it and I hope others will go into it with an open mind.

ACC
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

And it goes without saying I’m impressed with Lia for putting herself out there like this. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she didn’t want more attention.

ACC
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

For anyone talking about the science down below, you should check out this study: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/55/11/577

The conclusion was that after two years of hormone suppression, trans women performed identically to cis women in push-ups and sit-ups performed in one minute (which seems like a good proxy for swimming to me). After one year they still appeared to have an advantage, which suggests one year may not be enough time to be on hormone suppression and compete.

Interestingly, trans men performed significantly better than cis men at sit-ups after two years.

Tiudbsi
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

For the study to be valid for swimming it would have to involve athletes who are currently training to do push ups and sit ups. With regards to the sit up thing its probably because trans men are typically smaller (height and weight) than cis men making it easier to do a sit up. Thats why a little girl has the world record for longest plank.

Swim
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

I looked at the study and it still said there was an advantage to Trans women however that advantage just decreases overtime but still remains which makes sense. Look at it from a biological perspective the body will still produce the normal amount of testosterone as if it would for a male however the medication just reduces the production rate of testosterone but no where near enough to keep it fair which is why everyone considers this to be unfair.

And there’s potential that it could effect male competition as well but I don’t think that chance is as big as effecting female competition. Trans males are taking medication to help them perform at an equal level which is… Read more »

ACC
Reply to  Swim
1 month ago

The advantage only remained in the 1.5 mile run, which also had error bars consistent with HRT helping trans women run faster (which seems dubious).

The study doesn’t say “trans women have no advantage” but neither does it show, as people seem to think, that they unequivocally have an advantage.

The science on this is very limited, so everything is fuzzy.

Mikayla
Reply to  Swim
1 month ago

Im currently on HRT. My current testosterone level 17 ng/dl, which is on the low end of normal for a female which range from 15 ng/dl-70 ng/dl. That being said, a conservative approach to HRT can lower test levels to those of cis females.

As far as the physiological adaptations. There needs to be more research done to determine how much care over there truly is. Further, this may only affect those trans women who went through puberty. This may not be an issue if the individual starts their transition before puberty takes place.

I love sports and participated lacrosse at the collegiate level. I know the benefits sports has on kids and would hate to see anyone… Read more »

YallAreIdiots
Reply to  Swim
1 month ago

A trans woman’s body after being on HRT for so long, and I’m not sure of the exact time, will cease to produce the same amount of testosterone it once did. Its a scientific fact. Anyone who says different is wrong.

Sammy
Reply to  Swim
2 days ago

This actually is completely false the goal range for trans women during hrt is cis female hormone levels (estrogen and testosterone) and many opt into bilateral orchiectomies which reduces testosterone in most cases lower than cis women.

If else
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

Height is a huge advantage in swimming and many other sports, and trans women retain their heights even after HRT. The average man is about 5 inches taller than the average woman. I would expect the same height difference between trans women and cis women.

JVW
Reply to  If else
1 month ago

Not just height, but also hand and foot size, arm length, and some other factors which benefit swimmers in the pool.

YallAreIdiots
Reply to  If else
1 month ago

So in your world, if a WNBA player wanted to become a swimmer they can’t because they’d have an advantage? Your argument is misogynist because its based on the premise that women are short and men are tall. You’re basically saying that only short women count.

Swimfan
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

Study would only be valid on elite level athletes if it studied elite level athletes. What was vo2 max before and after? Percentage of decline? Muscle fiber type and distribution. Push-ups and sit ups on the general population isn’t even close to being a valid measuring stick.

Troyy
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

Why didn’t you mention the running speed advantage? Here it is:

After 2 years of taking feminising hormones, the push-up and sit-up differences disappeared but transwomen were still 12% faster. 

Biological males don’t only have larger more powerful muscles but also larger heart and lungs so it’s a mistake to ignore this part.

Bill D
Reply to  Troyy
1 month ago

It wasn’t a mistake to ignore that part. It was completely intentional. The only mistake was to provide the citation so we could read the study ourselves.

Lane Lerner
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

I am a former college swimmer and now in my 4th year of medical school. This is absurd. Push-ups and sit-ups for one minute? Swim races are a test of all out intensity over an extended period of time, especially in the distance events, which she competes in. Not to mention, 1st year physiology will teach you about the banking of myonuclei that she did as a male for years coupled with the increased organ size (namely lungs and heart), and the increased height all of which are biological benefits we as males experience by going through puberty. One to two years of hormone blockers does nothing to change any of that. Don’t you think gaining more oxygen than your… Read more »

Inge
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

for anyone talking about science, this recent report by the MacDonaldLaurier institute is excellent, taking into account many issues it concludes a female-only and an open category in sports

https://macdonaldlaurier.ca/files/pdf/Dec2021_Fair_game_Pike_Hilton_Howe_PAPER_FWeb.pdf

Glen Moore
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

One study?

Jennifer Markoe
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

Actually push up and sit up is not the same as swimming where difference in body fat, bone structure, proportions of arm and legs give men a advantage. There is a lot more between men and women and physiology of sports then determining push-ups and sit up. I use to do a lot more sit up and equal the number of push-ups with male soldiers when I was in the Army but that did not mean they could compete equally in most sports.

cynthia curran
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

Ok, well I could understand that she will not comfortable with being a man, but its pretty complex since males do have an advantage over females even if they are getting hormone treatments. One reason why some want to ban them competing against women.

ESM MD
Reply to  cynthia curran
1 month ago

Another physician and athlete who has managed several trans gender male to female: there are focal testosterone blockers & then there are global tester one blocker. Age in onset of use and type of testosterone blocker matter. This needs to be addressed.

Kathleen Richardson
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

Why doesn’t she swim on the relay team?

Hswimmer
1 month ago

Not fair to other women.

Swimfan
Reply to  Hswimmer
1 month ago

Hope the woman who gets left out of ncaas sues and puts a stop to this. It’s not right.

pumpmefullofestrogen
Reply to  Hswimmer
1 month ago

It is truly a disgrace not only for swimming but all sports!

jdsmitty1
1 month ago

Trans rights!!! So proud of you Lia for sharing your journey with us!

Entgegen
Reply to  jdsmitty1
1 month ago

Tran’s rights but taking away from women’s rights and equality

IU Swammer
Reply to  Entgegen
1 month ago

How so? Do you really think trans women are just infiltrating womanhood to bring feminism down from the inside?

Yeah Right
Reply to  IU Swammer
1 month ago

No, you probably wouldn’t. If you did, you would be run off campus by angry activists. How many college-aged kids want to deal with a mob of activists picketing outside their dorm and practices?

Swimmer
Reply to  IU Swammer
1 month ago

I think a nicer way of putting it is that no matter what, because she transitioned so late, she will have a competitive advantage. To some, sports means nothing, but to those competing it means everything. So many people are able to go to college only because of sports scholarships. Lia herself is not an issue, I think female swimmers are more concerned about what this could mean in the future. It is an awful thing to say but there are people out there who will take advantage of this, especially with the success Lia is having. Personally, I think that in order to be able to compete trans swimmers need to have a testosterone level that is equal to… Read more »

Swimfan
Reply to  Swimmer
1 month ago

Even that wouldn’t undo the biomechanical advantages that come with growing up male.

G smith
Reply to  IU Swammer
30 days ago

Yes

Test
1 month ago

“No athlete should be excluded from competing based on an “unverified, alleged or perceived unfair competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status,” the International Olympic Committee said.”
There is verifiable proof that males and females develop differently. Logically speaking you are competing with an unfair advantage of 22 years of male biological development.
Top 8 Females don’t make A final anymore its 7 + Lia Thomas. the 8th and 16 females get screwed out of second swims in finals. This is unacceptable that to please one person, multiple other people are collateral damage.

IU Swammer
Reply to  Test
1 month ago

Ok. Post this “verifiable proof” that the IOC and the NCAA couldn’t find.

Hannah
Reply to  IU Swammer
1 month ago

Verifiable proof: the men’s ncaa record in the 500 free is 4:06. The women’s ncaa record is 4:24.

Ledecky will go 3:55 in Paris
Reply to  Hannah
1 month ago

And that’s just a ledecky insane 4:24, most top tier female swimmers are going 4:30s

Curious
Reply to  IU Swammer
1 month ago

How many records are trans men breaking?

LKeho
Reply to  IU Swammer
1 month ago

Thomas is winning races by 30+ seconds. That clearly shows an unfair advantage.

swampcreature
Reply to  LKeho
1 month ago

Katie Ledecky wins races by more than 30 seconds all the time.
The UConn women’s basketball team beat Quinnipaiac by 97 points.
Memphis beat the Thunder by 73 points just last week.

Doesn’t mean it’s fair, but some of y’all are really not good at making your points.

Entgegen
Reply to  swampcreature
1 month ago

But each one of your examples have an even playing field.

A male against a female is not an even playing field.

Swimfan
Reply to  swampcreature
1 month ago

Let’s look at it this way… if a swimmer is not breaking school records as a male but then IS suddenly on a different level than ever before after transitioning…how else do you explain that? I am 100% for Lia becoming a woman to the furthest extent she can. I also think it’s just awesome that she’s doing better in her social and mental and emotional aspects of herself now that she is able to live life in a way that feels more natural to her. I also think it’s fantastic that she continues to swim. Even continue to be part of the team. But I think it’s gets really complicated during NCAA competition and perhaps a solution would be… Read more »

Braden Keith(@braden)
Admin
Reply to  Swimfan
1 month ago

This is not a perfect comparison. The school records Lia would have had to break as a member of the men’s team belong to an NCAA Champion; the school records on the women’s team were never as good as the men’s team. Also, Lia was only a sophomore when she swam her last season prior to beginning HRT. Swimfan – I think you can attest that swimmers on men’s teams often improve from their sophomore season to what would be their super-senior season, yes?

I’m not ignoring that Lia is having more success on the women’s team than the men’s team. But this “Lia was not that good when she was on the men’s team” narrative is false and an… Read more »

lol
Reply to  Braden Keith
1 month ago

There is no question that a 1:39 200 freestyle on the men’s team is not remotely as good as a 1:41 on the women’s team. An NCAA single event qualifier and runner up at Ivy’s is not on par with swimming the fastest times in the country.

It is fact that – Lia is a better swimmer against females by an enormous margin in comparison to her performance as a male.

Last edited 1 month ago by lol
lol
Reply to  IU Swammer
1 month ago

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/FGHNeGNWYAYRjG6?format=jpg&name=900×900

This image should be enough. These are cis men and cis women at the elite level of swimming. They are not the same; they should not be measured against one another. It does not matter if their gender identity doesn’t match; their bodies are completely different and no amount of hormone therapy is going to change that or make it fair to pit them against one another.

karl
1 month ago

she should be able to compete. the records shouldn’t count.

Cynic
Reply to  karl
1 month ago

Nether should the points.

karl
Reply to  Cynic
1 month ago

honestly, change men’s teams to be considered open. all genders are allowed to compete (with supplement rules obviously). but female teams (biologically) stay female only teams. as a male i don’t have a problem competing against a female, transgender male or female

Last edited 1 month ago by karl
Coach
Reply to  karl
1 month ago

Scientifically reasonable, logical solution.

So people will hate it.

Ferb
Reply to  karl
1 month ago

That’s what I’ve been saying all along. Women could even choose to compete in the open division if they want tougher competition, as happens occasionally in chess.

Swim
Reply to  karl
1 month ago

Good solution I agree I don’t have a problem facing females either and if somethings not done soon there will be a decline in fairness for women’s sport

Swammer
Reply to  Swim
1 month ago

Not gonna lie, I am quite terrified to swim against Katie Ledecky (cis male trials qualifier here)

Swimfan
Reply to  karl
1 month ago

This is what professional golf does. Women can qualify for us open but men can’t qualify for women’s us open.

Inge
Reply to  karl
1 month ago
quakerboats
Reply to  Inge
1 month ago

Just in case anyone sees “Institute” and doesn’t bother to research the original source:

“The social democratic Broadbent Institute referred to the MacDonald-Laurier Institute as a “right-wing charity” in a 2018 article[13] and MLI was described as similarly minded to the Fraser Institute in a 2012 article by the right-leaning National Post.[14]

I think this context always matters when presenting “indisputable” results. If a dozen other think tanks or academic institutions from across the spectrum support it, then great. They’ve participated in good science.

But, it’s not a final answer until others have supported their findings.

oldswimguy
Reply to  quakerboats
1 month ago

The paper isn’t a research paper, but a position paper which summarizes the current research on the matter and comes to a conclusion. The actual research stands alone outside of the politics and can be accessed using the footnotes. If you think they misrepresented the actual research it is easy to compare. If you don’t like the conclusions, then you can reinterpret the data and publish another competing position paper. Personally, this position paper doesn’t give me the details to come to a conclusion, but I did go to the original research which did convince me of their position. From the current state of research in no way does someone who takes 12 months of testosterone reducing medication overcome male… Read more »

quakerboats
Reply to  oldswimguy
1 month ago

Isn’t that self-selective though? It’s even easier to fudge the sourcing on a position paper than it is to fudge the sourcing on a research paper.

I mean, if all of your research was the links provided by a right-wing research group…wouldn’t it serve that all of those links would prove what they wanted it to prove?

Dac
Reply to  karl
1 month ago

If HS girls are permitted to compete against/with boys even in wrestling why not have trans competing against men?

simpyvonsimp
Reply to  karl
1 month ago

how about she turn pro now.

Aman
1 month ago

Congrats to her! Just from a science perspective (first time viewing the suppression rules) I am a little shocked the criteria is that low. Even though she won’t have Test in her body now, the most effects Test have is building a strong male structural body is throughout your childhood. Even if you suppress Test, it still doesn’t account for the advantages of the male bone structure and body frame. I believe everyone truly deserves an opportunity to compete in what they love. Just want to make sure the girls are getting fair chances.

Dudeman
Reply to  Aman
1 month ago

Trans athletes still have testosterone in their body, it just has to be suppressed below a certain threshold (something like 120 nanograms per deciliter or something like that, please correct me if I’m wrong). Which is a strange threshold because the average woman will have anywhere from 15-70 ng/dl. The average male has around 600ng/dl (which is kinda low for a teenage/early 20’s biological male). So experiencing male puberty at even 15 years old (which is a little on the late side) would still give you years of training with 10x the amount of testosterone compared to biological female competitors, that is a massive advantage that no amount of suppression will ever fully erase, much less only one year of… Read more »

Amara
Reply to  Dudeman
20 days ago

You are correct, it’ll never be fair for biological females. But that’s how you get better, you can’t just throw your arms up and hate on someone who is doing what they love in the way they love it. I’m a diver and compete against biological males all the time. It’s not fair for some of us but you just have to push forward and get better. I’ve been a diver all my life and have went and competed with some of the best divers in the country and their boys. But you can still beat them, I just wish people would let lia do what she loves and be excited for her achievements, not because she’s trans and beating… Read more »

SMO
1 month ago

Thanks Swim Swam for publishing this article. I imagine there are a number of Trans swimmers – and athletes – who will take strength from it. Her journey cannot have been easy.

Big Mac #1
Reply to  SMO
1 month ago

How are people downvoting this?

ACC
Reply to  Big Mac #1
1 month ago

People are just downvoting anything that isn’t explicitly critical. I posted a scientific study and it’s being downvoted.

Big Kicker
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

Your scientific study was extremely limited in scope and applicability. Hand picking evidence for your claim is not research

ACC
Reply to  Big Kicker
1 month ago

Find a study that says something different then. Rejecting evidence because it doesn’t back you up is also not research.

Last edited 1 month ago by ACC
Carlc
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

your study says that trans women are still faster in running after two years but you ignored that.

Mar Vickers
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

Wiik 2019, Karolinska Institute : 35% strength advantage only reduced by 5% by 12 months T suppression
Hilton-Lundberg, 2020 – little further reduction in strength and speed after 24 mths suppression.
Harper 2021 – strength reduction plateau with no further discernible reduction after three years T suppression

  • particularly interesting as it was Joanna Harper’s survey of eight (sic) running friends that was used to justify the 2015 IOC changes. Harper now concedes that survey did not hold up, but argues for ‘inclusion’ in spite of acknowledged retained advantage.

This aligns with the small number of known transwomen collegiate and high school athletes in the US – eg Cece Telfer, Andreya Yearwood etc who have gone, like… Read more »

Ivy Swim Dad
Reply to  ACC
1 month ago

You really cannot argue with 20+ years of XY development versus XX development. One year of hormonal therapy that still puts one above the ‘normal’ XX testosterone is just absurdly non-competitive. Only in the Ivy League could this kind of garbage take place. What happened to Title IX protections?

Rory
Reply to  Big Mac #1
1 month ago

Because transphobia

aposticon
Reply to  Rory
27 days ago

This absurdity creates “transphobia” for a good reason. Glad it’s becoming visible to more people.

n/a
Reply to  Big Mac #1
1 month ago

Because you cannot possibly argue that this is fair. You just can’t. Give me on good reason as to why this isn’t completely bogus and taking away from the non-trans women? How can you say this is even remotely fair?

Rory
Reply to  n/a
1 month ago

This is the comment the poster asked about being downvoted: “Thanks Swim Swam for publishing this article. I imagine there are a number of Trans swimmers – and athletes – who will take strength from it. Her journey cannot have been easy.”

Downvoting that, yeah, is transphobic.

There are great thoughts about the fairness of this and the actual regulations that should be used. But to imply that these articles shouldn’t be published just encourages erasure and trans invisibility. There are definitely obstacles in competition and ways that the community needs to earnestly consider. The points against competition are valid. But to think that discussing this is “downvote” or that trans athletes shouldn’t “take strength” or that Lia’s journey has… Read more »

Jimmbob
Reply to  Rory
1 month ago

“There are a number of trans swimmers – and athletes – that will take strength from it”

That is the problem statement. People aren’t being transphobic, they’re worried about what this means for future athletics because there will always be people who take advantage of this new system once they see the success that Lia is seeing.

Brian Procopio
Reply to  Jimmbob
1 month ago

As someone who has had close friends transition… This whole notion that swarms of people will be rushing to “cheat” the system and compete as transgender athletes is completely asinine. Might there be one or two who do? Sure. But the medical/social/psychological hurdles to jump through to change one’s body from their assigned gender at birth are huge and not something someone just decides on a whim to do. It’s not something you can just “do” for a couple of years and easily “switch back” when no longer participating in athletics. And for what? The multi-million dollar contracts they will earn as professional swimmers? That’s not a thing.

Rory
Reply to  Jimmbob
1 month ago

Sorry. But the idea that trans swimmers need to remain weak and unseen, closeted and unsafe, and most importantly, utterly alone, is, again, transphobic.

I don’t know that anyone doubts the reality that this is tough waters to navigate and that there certainly needs to be more study. Not many doubt that this case study will impact things in a profound way and that maybe that there have been mistakes made.

But, closeted trans individuals should feel strength to be who they are. And yes, they deserve to feel strength knowing that they are not a lone. It takes an incredible amount of guts and strength to be among the first (knowing that there are plenty more who’ve gone before).

Love Swim
Reply to  n/a
30 days ago

Letters, calls and share what is happening. We desperately need loud voices to protects women’s sports. Please please start disrupting with your voices. Fair competition for women does not include the introduction of transgender athletes. The biology is not equal.

Anonymous
1 month ago

I hope at minimum a single person is not permitted more than the total number of eligible years. I don’t think there should be up to 4 eligible years as one gender and another 4 years as another gender. I’m sure this is not the case, but who knows? We are in new territory and it must start with step 1 and then proceed.

Braden Keith(@braden)
Admin
Reply to  Anonymous
1 month ago

This is not the case. This will be Lia’s only year of eligibility with the women’s team.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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