Lia Thomas, Transgender Swimmer from Penn, Swims Fastest Times in Nation; Controversy Raging

lia-thomas-penn, transgender

Lia Thomas, Transgender Swimmer from Penn, Swims Fastest Times in Nation; Controversy Brewing

At this weekend’s Zippy Invitational, Penn’s Lia Thomas won three events and swam the fastest time in the country in two of those races, but her swims are causing a stir because of Thomas’ status as a transgender athlete. Thomas competed for three years on the Penn men’s team, but she did not compete in 2020-21 as the Ivy League canceled its athletics for the entire season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Thomas became a member of the women’s team for the first time.

According to the NCAA Policy for Transgender Student-Athlete Participation, Thomas would only be allowed to compete as part of a women’s team “until completing one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment.” Presumably, that occurred during the 2020-21 school year in order for the NCAA to rule her eligible for this season.

While she is swimming slower than her lifetime bests from her time on the men’s swim team, she has already achieved “A” cuts for the NCAA Championships. In fact, Thomas has already swum times in two events faster than the winning times at last year’s NCAAs. In Akron, Thomas swam a times of 4:34.06 in the 500 free (seven tenths ahead of Arizona State’s Emma Nordin as the country’s top swimmer), 1:41.93 in the 200 free (six tenths clear of Stanford’s Torri Huske for the No. 1 spot) and 15:59.71 in the 1650 free (sixth in the country).

Earlier this season, at Penn’s dual meet against Columbia in early November, she won the 200 free by more than five seconds in 1:46.92, and she also won the 100 free in 50.35. Later on, she swam dual meet times of 1:43.47 in the 200 free and 4:35.06 in the 500 free, crushing the school records on both occasions. At the Akron midseason meet, she destroyed her competition in both events and also the Akron pool records in the event. And Thomas is even rising in the all-time rankings: her 200 free performance makes her the 17th-fastest performer in history, and she is less than three seconds off Missy Franklin’s American record. In the 500 free, she ranks 21st all-time.

Unsurprisingly, Thomas’ impressive performances have raised controversy, particularly on social media, from those who believe that Thomas’ sex at birth should disqualify her from competing in female sporting events, despite the NCAA’s rules on athletes who are transitioning. The key question is whether rules designed to allow transgender athletes to participate in college athletics ensure a level playing field and are fair to cisgender female athletes.

In an article published in Penn Today over the summer, Thomas admitted that she was unsure about what her swimming career might look like after coming out as transgender, but she said that she has found relief in the pool.

“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,” she said, according to Penn Today. Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?

Thomas is not the first collegiate swimmer to come out as transgender and make the switch between programs at their respective schools, but she is the first swimmer to approach championship-level swimming after undergoing a gender transition. Previously, Schuyler Bailar competed for the Harvard men’s team after being recruited as a female and later transitioning, and more recently, Southern Illinois’ Natalie Fahey attempted to compete for the women’s team after transitioning.

Rules in various sporting organizations provide trans male athletes an easier opportunity to compete for men’s programs than for trans females attempting to compete on a women’s team. Trans males are not required to undergo hormone therapy before competing for a men’s program since there is a consensus that being born a female leaves athletes with physical disadvantages to cisgender males. There is less of a fairness issue at play here. The main controversy regarding transgender athletes comes with allowing those who have transitioned male-to-female to compete in female events, where many believe that hormone treatments do not neutralize the inherent advantages that come with being born male.

Many sports governing bodies, including USA Swimming, have struggled to determine how best to allow trans males the opportunity to compete. While USA Swimming has made a conscious and much-needed effort to prioritize inclusion in recent years, trans female participation remains a controversial issue with many strong opinions on all sides and little consensus about what is justified.

It’s worth noting that Thomas, from her time on the men’s team, was a six-time finalist at the Ivy League Championships, including three runnerup performances at the 2019 meet. Her times were 4:18.72 in the 500 free, 8:55.75 in the 1000 free and 14:54.76 in the 1650 free. Following hormone therapy, her 2021 times are far slower but still fast enough to be championship quality.


  1. avatar
    Jim backner

    This is completely unfair to the women who came in second worked their whole life to reach that goal

    • avatar

      Totally agree! Born a male gives one more than an unfair advantage swimming against girls/women.

      • avatar
        Noah Hanft

        *against people born as female.

        You can make your point without diminishing trans people.

    • avatar

      This isn’t true. There is widespread support in the medical community for the trans-inclusive policies being adopted by sports organizations—trans women who are far enough along in their transition don’t have an unfair advantage. Thomas won because she’s a fantastic swimmer, just like she was before her transition.
      Women’s bodies are diverse. Just like some women are tall and some are strong, some women are trans. This is no more or less fair than having tall women swim against short women.
      Also, do you think Thomas hasn’t worked her whole life for this? Sometimes people don’t win competitions; that doesn’t make trans people bad.

      • avatar
        Jeffrey Lopez

        Thomas is not a she, he’s a HE! Swim with boys or can’t he win against boys? WTF is wrong with you morons!

      • avatar

        Thats hilarious. You honestly have convinced yourself that its a coincidence this transgendered woman just happens to be that dominant, and it has NOTHING to do with the fact that she’s biologically male. When is the last time you had a rational thought? If fairness was achieved, a transgendered woman would be placing exactly where she was before she transitioned. NOT smashing records, and all of a sudden at the top of the leaderboards. Use your brain, its unfair, full stop.

      • avatar
        Jay Scovill

        Scientific evidence to the contrary. Men are built with more upper body strength. Lots of data on this. Totally unfair and foolish to, once again, allow men to dominate women.

      • avatar

        How long would be the ban that a biologically female swimmer received for having taken testorone supplements every day for 10+ years?

      • avatar
        Christine Beck

        I haven’t seen that anyone here is saying that trans people are “bad”, so why are you saying that? What people object to is people born male and who go through puberty as males have an indisputable unfair advantage over people born female, regardless of hormone treatment. Hormone treatment does not stop the male heart from being larger, lungs having more capacity, oxygen getting to the active muscles more efficiently and other advantages. The proof is in the fact that Thomas finished 38 seconds ahead of the woman who came second.

      • avatar

        No one is saying he is bad. That has nothing to do with the real issue and is a weak attempt to avoid what is. The issue is “inclusiveness” and it is also bogus. He is not excluded from competing among those who are his same biological sex. He should be competing in the Men’s competitions. Allowing bio males to compete against bio females is destroying the true concept of fair competition and is penalizing bio females.

      • avatar
        Hayley Martin

        Thomas is a fantastic swimmer who’s skills benefited from growing up with male hormones. Her muscle development benefitted from male hormones. It doesn’t matter how much hormone therapy she goes through she will always have an unfair advantage. There should be an open division in all sports and the Olympics that allows anyone of any gender to compete.

      • avatar
        Sam's Hot Car Lot

        “trans women who are far enough along in their transition don’t have an unfair advantage. ”

        This is wishful thinking that is not based on science. The science shows that going through male puberty provides an irreversible testosterone advantage.

        People who enjoy watching women’s sports want to see non-transgender women compete. Allowing transgender women to compete and dominate will kill women’s sport.

      • avatar

        Widespread support may be technically true in the sense that you can find doctors around the world that claim this but the reality is that the overwhelming number of medical professionals say otherwise. Beyond that, real life experience says it all. My daughter played soccer since she was 3yo and we scrimmaged boy teams every year. The top girls team NEVER beat the top boys teams in same club – why you think? Maybe boys and girls are built differently? My support for trans community lessens daily with these outrageous expectations. I wish all cis-female athletes would pull themselves out of programs that allow this.

      • avatar

        Some women are trans does bot equate to some women are tall. Even if they are tall they are born women. Complete sex change does not negate the fact you were born male. Being tall is a characteristic, changing your sex is a lifestyle- they are not the same.

  2. avatar

    Any trans m to f willing to comment on your thoughts if this is fair?

  3. avatar
    David brown

    born male = male born female = female

  4. avatar

    One year of hormone suppression therapy does not override 22 years of being born biologically male

  5. avatar


  6. avatar

    So He/she still have the muscles of a Man and a Penis. ? Why dont’ we ever hear of a trans Women competing against men?

    • avatar

      Read the article again… Bailar’s case is linked. Just one example…

      • avatar

        wasn’t able to find it, was Bailar allowed to take testosterone?

  7. avatar
    Ed Brennan

    Having coached college men and women for over 40 years I find this situation outrageous ! How did we, as a society, ever get to this point ? I have no problem with anyone being who they want to be and couldn’t care less what bathroom they chose but a women’s national championship should be just that .

    • avatar
      Chris Breedy

      Absolutely! I was at the Zippy and it’s an outrage. AND no offense to trans people! Science obviously cannot account for 18 years of biology in m-f cases!

    • avatar

      I’m certainly not anti-trans, but do these people think it’s just a coincidence that they’re winning by such big margins in whatever sport they’re in?

      Show me a single case of a woman transitioning to a man & winning in mens’s sports and I’ll shut up.

  8. avatar

    this is not fair or just at all. i fully support people choosing how they identify, but a year of transitioning does not undo everything you incur as a male. absolutely unfair.

  9. avatar

    Totally unfair IMHO . Girls gave a totally different make up than boys .. in a nutshell boys/men are far stronger.. he/she should quit swimming if they don’t want to compete in a man body with men seeing as he /she has a man’s body regardless of gender trans. Or , another thought, he /she could of refused the medal (winning status) and just swam to beat her /his own PB (which technically he /she did not ).. just saying

    • avatar

      Thank you for your points, but you need to get your perspective on why they transitioned correct. She/they transitioned because they did not identify with the gender they were born as; not because she/they did not want to compete against men. Do not diminish her/their journey to just to have a athletic advantage. Unless you have spoken to her/them about this, don’t make their transition to their true selves invalid.

      Also, When referring to Thomas/any trans individual, please use their preferred pronouns. There is no need for he/she. Even throwing “he” into the mix again invalidates everything they have gone through to get to this point. Thomas is a woman, so it is she/her, or if you want to play it safe they/them.

      • avatar

        She is a woman….who just happened to live and train her entire life as a man. Her journey should not diminish the dreams of the women who have lived and trained their entire lives as women. . . only to have someone, who not long ago, was consider to be, and competed as , a man.. take the spot on the podium, that they worked their whole lives for. She wasn’t “smashing records” when she was being called he. But he is now she and she is breaking records all over the place.
        I don’t think it’s unreasonable that people are upset, not at all.

        Was that respectful enough?

  10. avatar
    W Broad

    Womans sports, men’s sports & Trans sports. Then it’s all fair.

    • avatar
      Noah Hanft

      Really seems like the obvious solution.

      Could also see something like a cutoff age for hormone treatments.

      No way to make it completely level… but a level playing field goes against the idea of sports in my opinion. Did Phelps cheat by being born with the perfect biology to swim?

  11. avatar

    If we are “all the same” as we’ve been told for years, why aren’t female to male transgenders beating men in male sports?

  12. avatar
    John Lohn - Editor-in-Chief

    Good Morning. A handful of comments have been removed this morning for two reasons. No. 1, if you are going to take part in a conversation about this topic, there will be no name-calling. Readers can have civil discourse with one another without citing others as “fill in the blank.” Second, citing someone with a mental illness is inappropriate, whether that is your belief or not, and will not be tolerated. Arguing against Lia Thomas’ involvement can be done with stating such.

    Thank you for keeping the debate civil.

    • avatar

      Thank you for this. Maybe you could also delete comment(s) about what body parts she may or may not have. Completely inappropriate, invasive, and not productive to the conversation.

    • avatar
      Noah Hanft

      Can you also remove the transphobic comments of people intentionally misgendering her and referring to her as a man.

      Obviously there can be a reasonable discussion about the science and biology about it all. Other people are just using it as an excuse to say trans people aren’t real.

    • avatar
      Noah Hanft

      historically slavery has been an accepted practice

  13. avatar

    This is absurd. Completely unfair to the true female swimmers. She should swim against other transgenders if she wants to swim…not females…I will be ignoring her times and immediately looking to number 2 as the winner

  14. avatar
    Anne Marie

    Also of note is that she is dominant in both long distance and sprinting events. It would analagous to Usain Bolt and Eliud Kipchoge medalling in both the 100 meters and the Marathon.

  15. avatar
    Terry Watts

    The NCAA’s mission is inclusive, ie they want ever person to participate. They aren’t going to exclude trans persons bc they don’t fit in the traditional mold that others feel they should use. As such, the NCAA is going to seek the fairest and most equitable result for all persons, and as such they have rules regarding situations like this. Don’t like it??? Join the NCAA rules committee and vote to change the rules.

    • avatar

      So you’re saying the NCAA already had rules in place for this situation? They most likely didn’t and just punted. And “fairest and most equitable result for all persons”? I guess they don’t include actual biological females in their “all persons” fairness.

      • avatar

        No, NCAA has rules in place, and if Lia swims faster than Katie Ledecky did, he will hold the women’s NCAA record.

  16. avatar

    It’s so obviously unfair that it’s hard to believe anyone defends it. So worried about transgender rights that they completely dismiss women’s rights.

    • avatar
      Noah Hanft

      she is a women.

      trans women rights are women rights.

      There can absolutely be a discussion about competition, but saying shes not a women is just inserting your own transphobia into some place its not needed.

  17. avatar
    Bob Bitchin

    If there is no advantage to being born biologically male, then it would follow that there is no disadvantage to being born biologically female. Therefore, why aren’t we seeing F to M trans athletes performing on par, or outperforming, biological male athletes in men’s sports? Where are the trans men in pro sports? Any starters in the NBA? NFL? Any men’s swimming records being broken by trans men? Track and Field?

  18. avatar

    The ONLY fair situation would be 3 separate groups: born male, born female, and transgender. Anything else completely disregards biological science. I have coached this sport for 20 years and I just can’t believe this… those women who trained and competed as women their whole lives are being completely disregarded.

  19. avatar

    This can be easily solved recognizing transgender as a category in all sports. Male transgenders can compete against Male transgenders and Female transgenders compete against Female transgenders. That gives every category a level playing field.