Since University of Pennsylvania senior Lia Thomas crushed her competition at the Zippy Invitational with the nation’s fastest times in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle, she became a cause célèbre in the crosshairs of the NCAA’s latest transgender athletes brouhaha.
Whenever a transgender athlete somewhere in this country achieves a modicum of success in a women’s sport, the scrutiny intensifies, anti-trans groups masquerading as Title IX activists circle like vultures, and sports organizations are pressured to adopt new rules that would limit trans athlete participation.
Thomas has been swimming at Penn since 2017 and began hormone replacement therapy in 2019. In November, she joined the women’s team without making a commotion. It wasn’t until she finished the 500-yard freestyle 40 seconds ahead of her closest competitor that she became a target.
Thomas’ breakthrough captured the attention of groups with an ax to grind against trans athletes, which in turn pressured the NCAA to act. The NCAA relented by scrapping its decade-old trans athlete guidance and punting to each sport’s national or international governing bodies. USA Swimming, the national governing body for swimming, responded by issuing new policies for transgender athletes that the NCAA would follow. This updated policy requires trans women to have low testosterone levels continuously for at least 36 months before being allowed to compete. In March, this policy would have prevented Thomas from competing at the NCAA Championships because she began testosterone suppression therapy in May of 2019, only 32 months ago.
Until last week, the distractions for Thomas were all external white noise. However, the criticism hit closer to home when 16 anonymous teammates on the women’s swimming and diving team signed a letter imploring Penn and the Ivy League to support “biological women,” and not legally challenge the NCAA and USA Swimming’s updated policy. The letter from Thomas’ teammates was sent Thursday by former Olympic swimming champion Nancy Hogshead-Maker, the founder of Champion Women, a nonprofit group offering legal advocacy for women in sports.
The signees argued that Thomas’s competitive advantage of transitioning after puberty had lost them competitive opportunities. What followed was a groundswell of support for Thomas in the form of an open letter signed by 300 student-athletes. Furthermore, in a surprise ruling on Thursday afternoon, the NCAA subcommittee announced that it would not recommend changes to its testosterone thresholds this year.
In a statement, the NCAA effectively contended that drastic changes to the policy at this moment would be unfair to athletes already set to compete in the 2022 NCAA women’s swimming championships. In essence, the NCAA realized that following the lead of USA Swimming at this juncture would appear to be retaliatory against one student-athlete in general. However, the NCAA will undoubtedly feel pressure to revisit this and develop a coherent permanent strategy instead of the haphazard way they handed Lia Thomas’ predicament.
Thomas is still flashpoint in the gender politics surrounding transgender participation in women’s athletics and the furor likely won’t dissipate as the women’s championships approach.
Hopefully, the NCAA’s ruling is the final twist and turn in Thomas’ quest to compete at nationals. Thomas won this round, but it’s only the latest chapter in the transgender debate.