Feb 10, 2022 - Sports

NCAA clears way for trans swimmer Lia Thomas to compete at nationals

Photo of Lia Thomas in a swimming pool lane with competitors in the lanes next to her
Trans swimmer Lia Thomas, who competes for the Pennsylvania Quakers, after finishing a freestyle event during a tri-meet at Sheerr Pool at the University of Pennsylvania on Jan. 8 in Philadelphia. Photo: Hunter Martin via Getty Images

The NCAA said Thursday that it will not change its policy on eligibility requirements for transgender swimmers ahead of this year's championships, clearing the way for the University of Pennsylvania's Lia Thomas to compete at nationals.

Why it matters: The move comes amid renewed controversy over transgender participation in elite sports, spurred by the success of Thomas, a 22-year-old transgender woman who has broken several records in the pool this season.

Catch up quick: The NCAA updated its policy in January to allow each sport's national governing body to decide eligibility requirements for trans athletes' participation. It was made to align with new guidance from the International Olympic Committee.

  • In early February, USA Swimming announced new rules for trans women competing in "approved elite events."
  • They would have to maintain a testosterone level below 5 nanomoles per liter for at least 36 months — a significant change from the previous policy, which required a testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least a year.
  • USA Swimming would also require evidence showing that the athletes don't bear a competitive advantage from being assigned male at birth.

The latest: Members of the swimming community quickly rallied to support Thomas and other trans and nonbinary athletes. Over 300 swimmers and divers, including NCAA and Team USA athletes, signed an open letter Thursday in support of Thomas.

  • "We urge you to not allow political pressure to compromise the safety and wellbeing of college athletes everywhere," states the letter, which was organized by LGBTQ advocacy group Athlete Ally and Schuyler Bailar, the NCAA's first openly trans Division I swimmer.
  • The letter asked the NCAA to not adopt USA Swimming's current rule and instead ensure trans and nonbinary athletes are involved in establishing new eligibility policies.
  • "No one should be denied the opportunity to have their life changed through swimming simply because of who they are."

Yes, but: Thomas has faced criticism from competitors and teammates as well as some retired athletes who are part of a broader effort to restrict trans women's participation in women's sports.

  • Sixteen of her teammates sent an anonymous letter asking their school and Ivy League officials to refrain from pursuing legal action against the NCAA over the January policy change, the Washington Post reported last week.
  • "Lia has every right to live her life authentically. However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity," read the letter, which pointed to Thomas' No. 462 ranking in men's swimming versus her No. 1 ranking in women's.

What they're saying: The NCAA said it would retain its previously approved testosterone threshold for trans women based on recommendations from the Administrative Subcommittee of the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports.

  • "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 NCAA said in a release. 
  • It did add that USA Swimming's new policy "will be part of the subcommittee's future analysis when recommending additional updates to eligibility requirements."

Between the lines, via Axios' Ina Fried: Thomas' success has turned up the heat on the long-simmering debate over how to handle transgender women in elite sports.

  • The debate over transgender participation in elite sports comes as a number of states have passed laws limiting the ability of trans athletes to participate in youth sports. However, even some of those calling for stricter guidelines on participation at the elite level have cautioned that bans on youth are unwarranted.

Worth noting, via Axios' Jeff Tracy: There’s very little evidence to suggest that trans women hold a competitive advantage over their cisgender counterparts.

Go deeper: Elite trans athletes decry youth sports bans

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