Former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas broke her silence in an exclusive interview with ABC News and ESPN, rejecting criticism she received after becoming the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in March.
Thomas, who declined all interview requests during the championship, said that "the biggest misconception, I think, is the reason I transitioned. 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 swam for the men's team for three years in NCAA Division I competition before joining the women’s team.
Her success drew criticism from some teammates, competitors, and other members of the swimming community, with former Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines saying that "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?"
In statehouses nationwide, legislators introduced bills to restrict the ability of transgender athletes to compete in sports, saying the steps were needed to protect the sanctity of women's sports.
But Thomas said in the interview that "trans women competing in women's sports does not threaten women's sports as a whole," insisting that "trans women are a very small minority of all athletes."
She pointed out that "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."
However, critics have argued that her participation takes opportunities away from cisgender women, with Nancy Hogshead-Makar, three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist and founder of Champion Women, saying that when it comes to transgender women's inclusion into the female category, we need to prioritize fairness for biological women in sport.
Hogshead-Makar insisted that "a category that is for half the world's population is worth defending. Only then can we talk about ways to include transgender men and women, ways that respect everyone with all their differences and that don't harm biological women."
But Thomas rejected this, stating that "if you say, You can compete, but you can't score, or You're in an extra lane nine, that's very 'othering' towards trans people. And it is not offering them the same level of respect and opportunity to play and to compete," adding that it's imperative to remember that transgender women are women.
When asked whether she would do it all over again, even after all the criticism she has received, Thomas said she would, because "I've been able to do the sport that I love as my authentic self."
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