Transgender swimmer Lia Thomas stays the course

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Shaking out her arms in bursts of circular punches into the air in front of her, Penn swimmer Lia Thomas stepped up to the starting blocks for her second race of the day, the 200-yard freestyle. On Saturday at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool, it was quiet. And not just in the way it is before the start of a race.

Everything around Thomas had been so loud in recent weeks — a cacophony of (mostly) criticism that began in December after her record-setting performance in Akron, Ohio, at the Zippy Invitational. Critics have argued that Thomas, a transgender woman, shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the women’s category.

Thomas plunged into the pool as the home crowd cheered on the Harvard swimmers and waved crimson and white pom-poms. There were no boos at the start, finish or anytime in between.

At the last meet Thomas swam, at her home pool at Penn, two protesters gathered outside with large posters. There were no protesters Saturday, though there was an increased security presence inside and outside the pool deck “out of an abundance of caution,” a Harvard spokesperson said. Reporters were barred from speaking to swimmers and coaches from either team.

Thomas pushed off the wall for her final turn, and kicked toward home. She touched the wall for a time of 1 minute, 47.08 seconds, 1.36 seconds faster than second-place finisher Felicia Pasadyn of Harvard. Thomas would also finish first in the 100-yard free, and she anchored the third-place 200-yard medley team.

Smiling, Thomas fist bumped Pasadyn and waved her congratulations to another competitor. It was a typical moment of sportsmanship between competitors outside of the chaotic week that threatened to upend Thomas’ season.

On Wednesday, the NCAA released a revision to its policy governing eligibility for transgender athletes. Instead of a uniform policy that applied across all sports, the NCAA will use the policies of each national governing body, which means requirements will vary by sport. Additionally, the organization will require testosterone testing in championship windows, and beginning in 2022-23, at designated points throughout the year. The new policy replaced one the NCAA adopted in 2010, a document that took years to develop, involved multiple stakeholders and set the standard for transgender inclusion in sports. It became a blueprint for state high school associations and some national governing bodies.

Critics of the new policy point to what they identify as a rushed process that amounted to “caving” to external pressures wanting stricter regulations following Thomas’ success. There are also logistical concerns, including the need to monitor athletes’ testosterone levels, a process that wasn’t part of the previous policy.

“They caved and panicked in the light of the public pressure, and they’ve come up now with a policy that I’m not even sure how they would enforce,” said LGBTQ inclusion advocate and former UMass swim coach Pat Griffin, who was involved in drafting the original NCAA guidelines for transgender participation.

In October 2020, the NCAA seemed to be restarting that process, hosting the Gender Identity and Student-Athlete Participation Summit. Current and former student-athletes, doctors, consultants and advocates, including the IOC’s medical and scientific director, Richard Budgett, were part of the gathering.

“It seemed as though the NCAA was at a position where they were ready to take another step forward, leading the sports space,” duathlete and transgender inclusion advocate Chris Mosier said. Mosier was the first openly transgender athlete to make a U.S. national team that reflected his gender identity. “All of that thought process disappeared when they made this reactionary policy.”

It’s not only inclusion advocates who have criticized the NCAA’s new policy. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar has argued that the NCAA should ban transgender women from competing in the women’s category unless they can demonstrate that they don’t have an unfair advantage. As a member of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, Hogshead-Makar has been an outspoken critic of existing policies governing transgender athlete participation from youth sports to collegiate to international competition.

The new NCAA policy does not rectify what she sees as fundamental unfairness.

“It remains unclear if the NCAA women swimmers will have to compete in an unfair playing field or if current women’s records held by Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky are at risk,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Justice delayed is justice denied, and that will certainly be true for these women.”

Thomas’ top time in the 200-yard freestyle this season is 1:41.93, which is 2.83 seconds off Franklin’s 2015 record of 1:39.10. Thomas’ best mark in the 500-yard freestyle is 4:34.06, exactly 10 seconds behind Ledecky’s record, which was set in 2017. Thomas posted both times, which qualified her for the NCAA championships, in Akron in early December.

What all of this means for Thomas and her ability to compete for a national championship in Atlanta in March is unclear. In a statement on Thursday, Penn said it would work with the NCAA “in support” of Thomas.

USA Swimming, which became the policymaker for NCAA transgender swimmers as of Wednesday, has a policy for transgender athletes that was adopted in 2018. That policy implements a process by which transgender athletes submit documentation — including a formal request for a name or gender category change as well as medical information — to a review panel. USA Swimming, which oversees athletes from youth to Olympians, subjects its elite athletes to additional regulations from the International Olympic Committee and FINA, swimming’s international governing body.

In November, the IOC issued a framework of inclusion but deferred the specific rulemaking around transgender athlete participation to international federations (in swimming’s case, FINA).

“We have been proactively working with FINA for several months to help shape and support their policy-development efforts,” USA Swimming said in a statement Thursday. “We believe they will release a new policy shortly, which we will adopt for elite level competitions.”

It is unclear whether NCAA swimming would be considered “elite-level” competition.

If USA Swimming and FINA do not release updated policies prior to the NCAA swimming championships in March, according to the new NCAA regulations, the “previously established IOC policy will be used.” The previous IOC standard required a transgender woman to have undergone hormone therapy for at least 12 months and maintain a testosterone level below 10 nmol/L. Thomas has said that she began hormone therapy in May 2019. Because the previous NCAA policy did not require the monitoring of specific testosterone levels, it is unknown whether Thomas meets this standard.

The topic of transgender athletes is not something that only the NCAA has been grappling with in recent years, or even days. The changes to the NCAA policy came during a week when three states — South Dakota, Arizona and Indiana — began to move on legislation that would restrict access to school sports for transgender youth, particularly transgender women and girls. Since 2020, 10 states have enacted similar laws. According to the ACLU’s legislation tracker, 23 states are currently considering legislation affecting transgender youth in sports, including both Pennsylvania (home of Penn) and Georgia (host of the NCAA swimming championships).

Because the NCAA is backing away from its regulatory role, some proponents of the bills say passing laws that restrict transgender athletes is more urgent than ever.

“Rather than regulating it, [the NCAA] is punting the ball to other national associations and organizations that govern various sports,” Alliance Defending Freedom general counsel Matt Sharp said on Thursday while testifying in favor of Arizona’s SB 1165. “This demonstrates why bills like SB 1165 are more necessary than ever to make sure there is a clear, consistent rule for female athletes in Arizona.”

At Blodgett Pool, Thomas finished first in both of her individual events. But she didn’t set any records in either the 100 or 200 freestyle. She high-fived teammates and laughed with them between races. Despite the controversy continuing to swirl around her, Thomas turned in what is becoming a typical performance. But as she continues to pursue success in the pool, it remains to be seen whether the clock on her career is about to run out.

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