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Trans college swimmer Lia Thomas speaks out: ‘I belong on the women’s team’

Transgender college swimmer Lia Thomas has spoken out about the anti-trans hostility she has faced as an athlete.

“I’m not a man. I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets,” the 22-year-old University of Pennsylvania swimmer told Sports Illustrated.

Ms Thomas first garnered the public’s attention last year as the debate raged regarding allowing trans women in women’s sports.

Having already come out to her family and friends, Ms Thomas began hormone replacement therapy in 2019 despite concerns about how it might affect her body and ability to compete.

In compliance with NCAA policies, Ms Thomas was allowed to join the women’s swim team after a year of hormone replacement therapy. But despite following the rules, she gained the attention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, USA Swimming, and right-wing pundits criticising her for being allowed to take part in women’s competitive swimming.

Sports Illustrated reported that between six and eight teammates support Ms Thomas being on the team but that half of the Penn State women’s swimmers are against it. Sixteen members of the team issued an unsigned letter last month asking school officials to step in, requesting that Ms Thomas be barred from the conference championship meet.

The letter argued that if Ms Thomas “were to be eligible to compete she could now break Penn, Ivy and NCAA women’s swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete”.

Some researchers argue that sports are inherently unfair, both when it comes to genetics and athletic skill, but also regarding finances and access to good coaching.

“I’m a woman, just like anybody else on the team,” Ms Thomas said. “I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer. It’s what I’ve done for so long; it’s what I love.”

Since the letter was released, Penn said in a statement that Ms Thomas would remain on the team. Last month, she set an Ivy League record in the 200-yard freestyle.

Her eligibility to compete was reconfirmed in February when the NCAA said it wouldn’t adopt USA Swimming’s new rules for trans swimmers. Ms Thomas will take part in NCAA Championships later this month.

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

“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 added. “I want to swim and compete as who I am.”