NCAA opens door for trans-identified swimmer Lia Thomas to compete in women's national championships

NCAA Swimming
The field stays close together early in the women’s 800-meter freestyle finals during the Conoco Phillips USA Swimming National Championships at Stanford University’s Avery Aquatic Center on August 6, 2011, in Palo Alto, California. |

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has effectively cleared the way for trans-identified swimmer Lia Thomas to participate in the NCAA’s women’s swimming championships next month.

In an announcement released last week, the NCAA stated that it will not change the standards for trans-identified biological men who want to compete at the 2022 women’s swimming and diving championships.

The college sporting oversight body said that it has no plans to change rules regulating testosterone levels that a trans-identified competitor can have and still be eligible to compete at the women's championships.

The decision was based on the “recommendation of the Administrative Subcommittee of the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports to the NCAA Board of Governors.”

“The subcommittee decided implementing additional changes at this time could have unfair and potentially detrimental impacts on schools and student-athletes intending to compete in 2022 NCAA women’s swimming championships,” the statement reads. 

In January, the NCAA approved new guidelines allowing each sport to decide its policies regarding the participation of trans-identified athletes, echoing recently enacted guidelines by the International Olympic Committee.

USA Swimming, which oversees competitive swimming in the United States, proposed a policy requiring trans-identified swimmers to show testosterone concentration below 5 nanomoles per liter for 36 months before they are eligible to compete in women's competition, according to Swimming World.

Additionally, athletes would have to show “evidence that the prior physical development of the athlete as a male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.” Such a determination would be made by a panel. 

Instead of going with USA Swimming's policy, the NCAA will continue with its previous policy requiring trans-identified athletes to show a threshold of 10 nanomoles per liter. It is unclear if Thomas will be eligible based on that criteria. 

The NCAA policy, set to take effect with the 2022 winter championships, requires trans-identified athletes to “document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections.”

Beginning with the 2022-23 academic year, “transgender student-athletes will need documented levels at the beginning of their season and a second documentation six months after the first.”

“They will also need documented testosterone levels four weeks before championship selections. Full implementation would begin with the 2023-24 academic year,” added the NCAA in a January announcement.   

Thomas, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who had previously competed for years on the men’s swimming team, has garnered national attention for competing on the women’s team this season, setting records in the process.

While Thomas has gained support from LGBT advocacy groups, the athlete’s participation has been criticized by other members of Penn’s women’s swim team and even a USA Swimming official who resigned in protest. 

Earlier this month, retired Olympic swimming Nancy Hagshead-Makar wrote a letter to the University of Pennsylvania and the Ivy League on behalf of 16 members of Penn’s women’s swimming team and their family members voicing concern with policies allowing biological males to compete in women’s competition. They argued that when it comes to sporting competition, “the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.”

“The Penn Women’s Swimming Team has over 40 women, but only 18 of us are chosen to compete in the end-of-year culmination of our work: the Ivy Championships,” the letter reads. “Most important to us is that Lia’s inclusion with unfair biological advantages means that we have lost competitive opportunities. Some of us have lost records.”

The letter came after USA Swimming, which oversees competitive swimming in the U.S., released a policy that aims to ensure that “athletes competing in the Female competition category who have transitioned from a Male biological gender assignment at birth, do not have an unfair advantage over their cisgender Female competitors in Elite Events.”

The swimmers voiced their objection to Thomas’ participation anonymously, claiming they were “told that if we spoke out against [Thomas’] inclusion into women’s competitions, that we would be removed from the team or that we would never get a job offer.”

“When media have tried to reach us, these journalists have been told that the coaches and athletes were prohibited from talking to them,” the letter said. 

Some of Thomas’ teammates have spoken anonymously to the sports website OutKick about their objection to Thomas’ inclusion on the team. 

One teammate claimed that there is a negative climate on the swim team stemming from Thomas’ performance.

“They feel so discouraged because no matter how much work they put into it, they’re going to lose,” she stated. “Usually, they can get behind the blocks and know they out-trained all their competitors, and they’re going to win and give it all they’ve got.”

“Now they’re having to go behind the blocks knowing no matter what, they do not have the chance to win … I think that it’s really getting to everyone,” she added. 

In February, the university released an unsigned statement that it claims represents several team members voicing “full support” support for Thomas, pushing back against comments made by other members of the team critical of Thomas’ participation. 

“The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values and opinions of the entire Penn team, composed of 39 women with diverse backgrounds,” the statement read.

The university also released a statement in January reiterating its support for Thomas, claiming that it wants to create “a welcoming and inclusive environment for all our student-athletes.”

“Thomas has met or exceeded all NCAA protocols over the past two years for a transgender female student-athlete to compete for a women’s team,” stated the university. “She will continue to represent the Penn women’s swimming team in competition this season.”

Swimming World reports that Thomas will be seeded first in three events and seeded second at one event at this week's Ivy League women's swimming and diving championships. Thomas is favored to win the 200 freestyle, 500 freestyle and 1,650 freestyle events. 

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