Penn transgender swimmer Lia Thomas says she tunes out the backlash

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A University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer who’s shattering women’s team records since her transition said she has been trying to avoid reading about the pushback surrounding her success.

“I just don’t engage with it,” Lia Thomas said on an episode of the SwimSwam podcast posted Thursday. “It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t, and that’s all I’ll say on that.”

Thomas had been a member of Penn’s men’s swim team for three years before coming out as transgender in 2019, switching to the women’s team this season after ongoing hormone therapy and a year off school in 2020-21 to maintain athletic eligibility.

The swimmer told podcast host Coleman Hodges she is on an ongoing regimen of estrogen and testosterone blockers – the NCAA requires transitioning athletes take testosterone suppressors for a year. Some of the backlash was expected, she said.

“We expected there would be some measure of pushback by people,” she told Hodges in the virtual interview. “Quite the extent it’s blown up, we weren’t fully expecting — but we were expecting that.

Thomas has broken team records since joining the women's swim team.
Thomas has broken team records since joining the women’s swim team.
Penn Athletics

“We expected … my speed and strength and endurance would drop significantly and would have adjusted for that.”

The episode debuted after a teammate anonymously criticized Thomas competing on the women’s team to the website OutKick. The female teammate said other women have sounded off to coach Mike Schnur about Thomas having what they feel is an unfair advantage.

“Pretty much everyone individually has spoken to our coaches about not liking this,” the female swimmer told the site. “Our coach just really likes winning. He’s like most coaches. I think secretely everyone just knows it’s the wrong thing to do.”

In her interview with SwimSwam, Thomas described her feelings of uncertainty after coming out in 2019 and facing uncertainty that she’d be able to continue competitively swimming for the Ivy League school.

“My mental health was not very good,” she said of her junior year in 2019-20. “There was a lot of unease about basically feeling trapped in my body – it didn’t align.

Thomas previously competed for three years on the men's swimming team at the University of Pennsylvania.
Thomas previously competed for three years on the men’s swimming team at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It was a very awkward experience of basically being a woman competing in a men’s meet,” she said. “It was uncomfortable and so I didn’t compete that much.”

Since transitioning, Thomas has set Penn records for the 200-meter freestyle, 500-meter freestyle and 1650-meter freestyle. In her 165-meter freestyle win, she beat second place finisher and teammate Anna Kalandadze by more than 38 seconds.

“I’m very proud of my times and my ability to keep swimming and continue competing and they’re suited up times and I’m happy with them and my coaches are happy with them,” Thomas said in the interview. “And that’s what matters to me.”

Thomas said her teammates and coaches treat her “like any other member of the women’s team” and have been very supportive of her during transition.

“I’m just thrilled to be able to continue to swim and I love to compete,” she said. “And I just love to see how fast I can go and it’s, sort of, an ongoing evolution of what I think I can go based on how my training progresses and evolves.”

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