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4 Mar, 2022 11:48

Record-breaking trans swimmer opens up on controversy

The swimming star has been a focus for fierce debate in the US
Record-breaking trans swimmer opens up on controversy

Record-breaking University of Pennsylvania swimming star Lia Thomas says she felt "reinvigorated" after becoming a woman and insisted she avoids "negativity and hate" from critics.

National competitor Thomas has been at the center of outrage from some after coming close to collegiate records in the pool, regularly scoring emphatic victories over her nearest rivals in results that have led to suggestions that her participation against athletes born as women is unfair.

That has partly reignited the row around hormone levels in transgender athletes and seen pressure on the National Collegiate Athletic Association to revisit its rules.

Governing body USA Swimming has expressed its support for equality and inclusion while introducing a new policy in which a panel three independent medical experts assess “prior physical development" of transgender athletes who have become women to ensure that it does not give them a "competitive advantage".

While numerous bills have been put forward – passing in some cases – across the US aimed at banning athletes in Thomas's situation from competing in female sports, the 23-year-old says she shuts out the controversy.

“I’m a woman, just like anybody else on the team,” Thomas told Sports Illustrated, appearing as a cover star for the outlet in a move that drew a familiar mix of misgivings and applause from the contrasting sides of the debate.

“I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer. It’s what I’ve done for so long; it’s what I love. I get into the water every day and do my best."

Thomas was called Will and achieved unremarkable results in men's swimming before transitioning.

"I’ve been reinvigorated," she said of her gender chance and coming out to her peers.

"I’ve been swimming for 17 years but for [only] a short part of that time have I felt fully engaged.

“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."

Thomas described using her new name from the start of 2020 as an important milestone.

“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," she said.

“I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone. They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.”

Thomas reportedly feared hormone replacement therapy could end her swimming career but said she was "surprised" by the difference she noticed after starting treatment in May 2019. 

“I felt, mentally, a lot better and healthier pretty quickly," she explained. "The relief it gave me was quite substantial.”

There have also been reports of athletes and parents complaining about Thomas while retaining their anonymity for fear of repercussions including being branded transphobic.

The report said that sources believe six-to-eight of the 37 swimmers on Thomas's roster are 'adamant supporters' of her, with half opposing her participation against women and the remainder avoiding the argument.

Coaches have spoken in support of Thomas's inclusion, and members of the university team have issued a statement backing their teammate.

The change in policy could also limit Thomas's ability to take part in future 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," she said.

“I want to swim and compete as who I am. I don’t look into the negativity and the hate. I am here to swim.”