Lia Thomas is the first trans student-athlete to win the Division I National Champion and All-American titles in any sport. After her win, Thomas was required to talk to the media but only spoke to ESPN and opted out of the mandatory news conference.
One can understand why Lia refused to face the media, given the intense debate over her participation in a female sport. Thomas, a transgender woman, is allowed by NCAA rules to compete against women. However, many claim that Lia has an unfair advantage over women, having undergone male puberty.
“I try to ignore it [the spotlight] as much as I can,” Lia told ESPN. “I try to focus on my swimming.”
Lia has undergone hormone replacement therapy but hasn’t undergone surgery
Lia told Sports Illustrated that she put off hormone replacement therapy (HRT) because she thought it would end her swimming career: it would weaken her and increase her recovery time after workouts. However, Lia needed to start therapy to escape her pit of despair.
“I did HRT knowing and accepting I might not swim again,” Lia told Sports Illustrated. “I was just trying to live my life.” HRT improved Lia’s mental health almost immediately. “I felt, mentally, a lot better and healthier pretty quickly,” she said. “The relief it gave me was quite substantial.”
Thomas wanted to compete against women, but she needed a year of HRT before gaining eligibility. She craved competition, however, and chose to compete against men.
The effects of HRT on her body showed as she could no longer keep up with men athletes. Thomas was an elite distance swimmer in high school and continued performing at a high level at U. Penn. In the 2018-19 season, she earned second place in three Ivy championship races and got close to swimming at the NCAA championships.
However, HRT limited her physical prowess. Two years after starting HRT, she joined the women’s team. She told Sports Illustrated that she’d shrunk about an inch and noticed fat redistribution around her body. Lia blitzed the competition, drawing murmurs of discontent from some quarters.
A report by The Daily Mail claimed that some of Lia’s teammates felt uncomfortable around Lia in the locker room due to her male genitalia. Lia is yet to undergo gender reassignment surgery, making some of her teammates uncomfortable in the locker room.
“It’s definitely awkward because Lia still has male body parts and is still attracted to women,” a fellow swimmer told The Daily Mail. “It’s really upsetting because Lia doesn’t seem to care how it makes anyone else feel.”
The swimmer said that the school’s hierarchy had declined to remove Lia from the women’s locker room. “We were basically told that we could not ostracize Lia by not having her in the locker room and that there’s nothing we can do about it,” the anonymous swimmer said.
Thomas started feeling different in high school and came out as trans at U. Penn
Lia told Sports Illustrated that she started feeling off near the end of her time at Austin Westlake High School. Lia felt ‘disconnected’ from her body.
After joining U. Penn, Lia researched the experiences of trans women and got paired with a trans mentor who helped her comprehend her emotions. “It started to make more sense,” she said.
However, uncertainty swiftly enveloped the clarity and relief she’d started feeling: Lia wondered how her family, friends, and coaches would react to the news.
In the summer between freshman and sophomore, Lia came out to her brother, who expressed support – and so did her parents. Lia’s parents, Bob and Carrie Thomas, knew something was bothering their daughter and were overjoyed when Lia opened up.
“We will do everything and anything we need to do to have Lia be part of this family,” Bob said. “We were not going to lose her.”
Coming out to her coaches and friends proved harder than coming out to her family. She explained:
“I was very depressed. I got to the point where I couldn’t go to school. I was missing classes. 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.”
The people around her noticed she was struggling but couldn’t figure out why. Andie Myers, Lia’s close friend, told Sports Illustrated that Lia looked like she wanted to say something but couldn’t gather the courage to do it.
Starting HRT in May 2019 improved Lia’s mental health to the point where she felt comfortable opening up to coaches and friends. The coaching staff immediately supported her, and so did most of her friends.
Thomas’s mom helped her pick the name Lia. She then chose her mother’s birth name, Catherine’ as a middle name. Thomas began using Lia Catherine Thomas in 2020. She told Sports Illustrated:
“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. 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.”