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Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania at the women’s 500-yard freestyle during a swim meet against Dartmouth and Yale at Sheerr Pool on Jan. 8, 2022. 

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Penn senior and women's swimmer Lia Thomas has made local and national headlines for her recent record-breaking performance on the team.

Thomas competed on the men’s team for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons and began hormone replacement therapy in May of 2019. Thomas broke meet, program, and pool records at the 2021 Zippy Invitational — which has since sparked a national conversation about transgender athletes in sports and current NCAA guidelines.

“The process of coming out as being trans and continuing to swim was a lot of uncertainty and unknown around an area that’s usually really solid. Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?” Thomas told Penn Today in June 2021.

Thomas competed on the men’s team for her first three years at Penn. As a long-distance swimmer, she placed 2nd in the 500-, 1000-, and 1650-yard freestyle events at the 2019 Ivy League Championships. 

“It just was not working out and I wasn’t able to focus on swimming or school or friendships as much as I wanted to. And so I decided it was time to come out and begin my transition and start everything,” Thomas told SwimSwam in a recent interview.

After beginning hormone replacement therapy in 2019, Thomas appeared at only a few meets in the 2019-2020 season: her last season on the men’s team. She took a gap year in 2020, which preserved a year of athletic eligibility when the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 winter season.

Thomas returned to the pool in 2021 after two years of hormone replacement therapy, participating on the women’s team. She achieved success at her early meets but began to draw national attention at the Zippy Invitational, held at the University of Akron in December.

After her record-breaking performance at the Zippy Invitational, Thomas' participation began to draw criticism from right-wing media outlets such as Fox News, which has aired numerous segments — several of which have also deadnamed and misgendered her. Similarly, right-wing print outlets such as the New York Post have published articles criticizing her participation in the women's team.

Transgender athletes such as Thomas still face other obstacles beyond anti-trans rhetoric — nine states ban trans youth from either competing outside their assigned sex at birth, or at all. Twenty-two bills ban solely trans women from competing in female sports, making no mention of transgender men. 

Following Thomas’s record-breaking performance in Akron, many outlets voiced their support of Thomas.

Anne Lieberman — the Director of Policy and Programs of Athlete Ally, an organization that aims to support LGBTQIA athletes — told NBC OUT that Thomas should be able to compete, and said that the conversation surrounding Thomas' performance is tied to the "political fire" attacking trans rights. 

Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports — a sports news website concerned with LGBTQ issues — also voiced his support for Thomas in an article.

“She is not in any way cheating by competing in the women’s category,” Zeigler wrote.

Schuyler Bailar — a former Harvard swimmer and the first openly transgender man to compete in NCAA Division I swimming — voiced his support of Thomas through a set of Instagram posts saying that “Lia and other trans athletes deserve [respect as great athletes].” United States Olympian Jacob Pebley and Australian Olympic medalist Madeline Groves also posted statements on their Instagram pages.

“Lia isn’t breaking any rules so please treat her and the entire trans community with more respect next time you want to be public about your opinion because it has much greater consequences than points on a scoreboard,” Pebley wrote.

Earlier this month, Penn and the Ivy League both released separate statements in support of Thomas. Penn Athletics stated that Thomas “has met or exceeded” the NCAA guidelines required of her to compete on the women’s team. The Ivy League has publicly issued a statement reaffirming their "commitment to providing an inclusive environment."

“I’m feeling confident and good in my swimming and in all my personal relationships, and transitioning has allowed me to be more confident in all those aspects of my life where I was struggling a lot,” Thomas told SwimSwam last December.

Moving forward, the NCAA recently voted on new guidelines for transgender athletes, calling on the national governing body of each sport to determine policies appropriately for their respective sport. Penn Athletics said in a statement to ESPN that it is aware of the new policy and would support Thomas with her eligibility in upcoming NCAA swimming competitions.