At the NCAA swimming and diving championships in March, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas declined all interview requests despite the swarm of media attention surrounding her becoming the first transgender athlete to win a national title.
Thomas, who swam for Penn men's team for three years before transitioning during a gap year and joining the women's team as a senior, won the women's 500 freestyle and placed fifth and eighth, respectively, in the 200 and 100 freestyle.
Thomas broke her silence on what has become the controversial topic of transgender athletes in an exclusive interview Tuesday with ABC's "Good Morning, America," which was also reported by ESPN.
"The biggest misconception, I think, is the reason I transitioned," Thomas said. "People will say, 'Oh, she just transitioned so she would have an advantage, so she could win.' I transitioned to be happy, to be true to myself."
Thomas first made national headlines after her performance at the Zippy Invitational in Akron, Ohio, in December 2021, when she posted the nation's fastest times in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle, ESPN reported.
Her participation and success drew criticism from some teammates, competitors and other members of the swimming community, including former Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, who tied Thomas for fifth place in the 200 at the NCAA championships.
"What are we trying to protect?" Gaines said in an interview with ABC's "Nightline." "If our priorities are fairness, which it should be in sports, why are we completely neglecting that for one person or a small group of people?"
Thomas' name was invoked in statehouses across the country as legislators introduced bills designed to restrict transgender athletes' ability to compete in sports, sometimes impacting athletes starting in elementary school. The bills, they said, were needed to protect the sanctity of women's sports.
Thomas told ESPN that she doesn't buy it.
"Trans women competing in women's sports does not threaten women's sports as a whole," she said. "Trans women are a very small minority of all athletes. The NCAA rules regarding trans women competing in women's sports have been around for 10-plus years. And we haven't seen any massive wave of trans women dominating."
Thomas said that she began hormone therapy in May 2019, after her sophomore year. Thomas said she had experienced gender dysphoria and stress on her mental health, which led her to medically transition. At the time, she said, she figured her swimming career was over, ESPN reported.
Before Thomas' senior season, the NCAA required transgender women to undergo 12 months of hormone therapy to become eligible for competition in the women's category. When Thomas began her senior season in November 2021, she had undergone 30 months of hormone therapy.
In January, the NCAA announced a change in policy, saying it would rely on the policies of the national governing bodies for each sport to determine eligibility. USA Swimming announced an updated policy on Feb. 1, 2022, that required 36 months of testosterone suppression and evaluation of eligibility for transgender women by a three-person panel. However, the NCAA did not adopt that policy for its 2022 swimming and diving championships. Instead, the NCAA required compliance with the previous policy and a demonstrated testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per liter.
Thomas graduated from Penn in May and will now pursue a law degree focused on civil rights and public interest law, according to ESPN.
"If you say, like, you can compete, but you can't score or you're in an extra lane nine, that's very othering towards trans people," Thomas said. "And it is not offering them the same level of respect and opportunity to play and to compete."
Besides, she said, it's imperative to remember that transgender women are women.
"It's no different than a cis woman taking a spot on a travel team or a scholarship. It's a part of athletics, where people are competing against each other. It's not taking away opportunities from cis women, really. Trans women are women, so it's still a woman who is getting that scholarship or that opportunity."
Still, some of Thomas' critics have argued that her participation takes opportunities away from cisgender women.
Three-time Olympic champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a civil rights attorney who also runs a female advocacy organization called Champion Women, told TMZ's Harvey and Charles that Thomas is just wrong.
"After somebody has been through male puberty, you cannot roll that back. So, it isn't fair," Hogshead Makar said, citing several experts.
"We're hoping that we can get sports governing bodies and legislatures and others to care more about fairness than any other conclusion."
Hogshead-Makar says she is supportive of Thomas — everywhere except the swimming pool.
"I affirm who [Lia] wants to be for all of her life. Whether it's employment, the classroom, or anyplace else. But when it comes to sports, sports is not based on identity. It is based on biology. That is why we have the women's sports category."
"If sport is not based on sex segregation, and if gender identity equals sex discrimination, we might lose the right as woman athletes to be able to have separate sex sports," Hogshead-Makar continued. "I am not going to allow this generation of women to have to be gracious losers to somebody that has a biological advantage that you can't train for, you can't eat better, you can't find better coaching.
"You can't outrun biology."