Fresh off her final practice of the week, the most controversial athlete in America sat in the corner of a nearly empty Philadelphia coffeehouse with her back to the wall. Lia Thomas had done some of her best work this season while feeling cornered. On this January evening her long torso was wrapped in a University of Pennsylvania swim and dive jacket, her hair still damp from a swim—roughly three miles staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool. She looked exhausted. As college students across the country were digging into their Friday nights, Thomas was thinking about her weekend plans: sleeping, studying and another grueling swim practice.
This had been a season unlike any in her 22 years, and unlike any in the history of her sport. The shy senior economics major from Austin became one of the most dominant college athletes in the country and, as a result, the center of a national debate—a living, breathing, real-time Rorschach test for how society views those who challenge conventions.
“I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone,” she says at the coffeehouse. “They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.”
In her first year swimming for the Penn women’s team after three seasons competing against men, Thomas throttled her competition. She set pool, school and Ivy League records en route to becoming the nation’s most powerful female collegiate swimmer. Photos of Thomas resting at a pool wall and waiting for the rest of the field to finish have become a popular visual shorthand of her dominance.