Lia Thomas, Transgender College Swimmer, Spurs Controversy

Zeno Minotti, Sports Editor

Lia Thomas, one of the premier female college swimmers in the nation, will be a favorite in multiple events when the NCAA Championships come around in March; that is, if she gets to race at all.

Thomas is transgender, and just two years ago, she was racing for the University of Pennsylvania men’s team. Since transitioning, she has followed all of the NCAA’s guidelines for transgender athletes. Thomas has been extremely successful since joining the women’s team. At a recent competition, she set a pool, meet, and program record in both the 200 and 1650 freestyle. She also set an Ivy League record in the 500 free.

Thomas—along with UPenn and the NCAA—has faced criticism for her success. Swimming World Magazine Editor-in-Chief John Lohn wrote, “Thomas [has] a clear-cut edge over the biological females against whom she is competing. She is stronger. It is that simple. And this strength is beneficial to her stroke, on turns and to her endurance. Doping has the same effect.”

Thomas [has] a clear-cut edge over the biological females against whom she is competing.

On January 27, the Daily Mail published an article containing an interview from an anonymous teammate of Thomas. That teammate said, “It’s definitely awkward because Lia still has male body parts.” She continued, noting that, “Multiple swimmers have raised [concerns], multiple different times, but we were basically told that we could not ostracize Lia by not having her in the locker room … we basically have to roll over and accept it, or we cannot use our own locker room.” She finished, “It’s really upsetting because Lia doesn’t seem to care how it makes anyone else feel.” On February 4, sixteen of Thomas’ teammates sent a letter to UPenn and Ivy League officials saying Thomas has an unfair advantage.

There has also been widespread support for Thomas. The College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America, the Ivy League, and University of Pennsylvania have all released statements defending Thomas. Further, an unknown group of Thomas’ teammates at UPenn released a statement saying, “We want to express our full support for Lia in her transition … We value her as a person, teammate, and friend. 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.”

Just recently, the NCAA transferred decision making power in regard to transgender athletes eligibility to the individual sports. With USA Swimming in charge of the decision, Thomas’ chances of competing in the NCAA Championships greatly decreased. USA Swimming requires testosterone in serum (a way of testing testosterone circulating in the body) to be less than 5 nmol/L for Lia Thomas, Transgender College Swimmer, Spurs Controversy at least 36 months, which Thomas has not had. Thomas’ only hope to swim in the Championships will be if the USA swimming deems the change of rules too late to exclude athletes or if they determine the Championships are not an “elite” competition and therefore their rule is not applicable.

Whether or not Thomas gets to swim this March will be an impactful decision by USA Swimming, with supporters and critics either way.

This piece also appears in our February 2022 print edition.