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Senior Lia Thomas competes in the women's 500-yard freestyle during a swim meet against Dartmouth and Yale at Sheerr Pool on Jan. 8. Credit: Kylie Cooper

After remaining personally absent from public media since an interview with SwimSwam in December, Penn women’s swimmer Lia Thomas spoke with Sports Illustrated in an exclusive cover story about her experience as a transgender athlete competing in Division I swimming.

The story — titled "‘I Am Lia’: The Trans Swimmer Dividing America Tells Her Story" — details Thomas' historic season, her experiences transitioning, and her goals after she graduates from Penn this spring. The cover story comes after Thomas broke program, meet, and pool records in several freestyle events in December 2021, which secured her a spot in the upcoming NCAA national women's swimming and diving championships, and also thrust her into the national spotlight.

While Thomas had already qualified for the NCAA championships, her historic season was far from over. The standout senior led Penn to a historic finish in the Ivy League Championships, winning three individual events and setting two Ivy League records in the process.

In the interview with Sports Illustrated, Thomas described the difficulties transitioning as a Division I college athlete, but explained what made the challenges worth it.

“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.”

She shared her experience of handling feelings of dysphoria despite her successful 2018-19 season with Penn, before her transition.

“I tried my best to inch closer to coming out to close friends, a couple of coaches,” Thomas told Sports Illustrated. “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.”

Thomas about addressed critics head on in the interview, addressing those who say she should not be swimming on the women's team. Those critics include 16 members of Penn swimming who wrote in an anonymous letter that Thomas shouldn't be allowed to compete for the women's team.

“The very simple answer is that I’m not a man,” Thomas told Sports Illustrated. “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”

Thomas' close friends and fellow Penn teammates, senior Andie Myers and sophomore Hadley DeBruyn, were quoted in the exclusive as well. The Penn swimmers' names appeared earlier this season in the signed letter in support of Thomas published by Athlete Ally.

When asked what her plans are upon graduation this spring, Thomas said she has applied to law school, but hopes that her time in the pool is not over yet.

According to USA Swimming, if Thomas meets the threshold for competing at the upcoming 2024 Olympics in Paris, the organization will fully support Thomas as a representative for the United States.

While her goals of competing for the red, white and blue are quickly approaching, Thomas still has some time left competing for the Red and Blue, as she’ll be one of three Quakers swimming at the upcoming NCAA Championships in Atlanta which are set to begin on March 16.

Thomas will be going with juniors Catherine Buroker and Anna Kalandadze to the meet and will swim the 100-freestyle, the 200-freestyle, and the 500-freestyle events.

"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.”