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  • Writer's pictureSydney Baxter

NCAA and USA Swimming Respond to Lia Thomas’ Success with Impactful Policy Changes

Updated: Jan 28

Lia Thomas walked away from the Ivy League Women’s Swimming Championship with three individual event wins after a record-setting season marked by controversy and policy change. [2]

Thomas is a transgender swimmer who previously competed on the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s swim team for three seasons before transitioning in late spring of 2019. Thomas burst onto the scene for the 2022 season as a member of the women’s team where her record-breaking swims raised questions regarding the fairness and inclusion of transgender athletes.[3]

Thomas disclosed on the SwimSwam Podcast that she realized she was transgender in the summer of 2018, but her concern over her potential to continue competing led her to swim as a male for the 2018-2019 season. During this time, Thomas struggled with gender dysphoria and despite experiencing extreme success in the water, battled depression that hindered her day-to-day life as a student-athlete.[4] Ultimately, in May of 2019, Thomas began hormone replacement treatment (HRT) and came out to her teammates.[5] She swam the 2019-2020 season on the men’s team while undergoing HRT which greatly improved Thomas’ mental health but slowed down her times.[6]

A year into treatment, Thomas submitted all the necessary medical work to the NCAA and was approved to compete on Penn’s women’s team in 2020. However, the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic forced Thomas to take the 2020-2021 season off.[7] At the start of the 2022 season, and having completed one year of HRT, Thomas definitively complied with NCAA’s previous transgender athlete competition policy.[8]

The NCAA crafted its former policy in 2011 intending to “ensure transgender student-athletes fair, respectful, and legal access to collegiate sports teams based on current medical and legal knowledge.”[9] The policy further provided:

“A trans female (MTF) student-athlete being treated with testosterone

suppression medication… for the purposes of NCAA competition may

continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s

team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one

calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment.”[10]

On January 19th, the NCAA altered this longstanding transgender athlete policy during a time of heightened publicity and scrutiny surrounding Thomas’ success.[11] Phase One of the new policy is effective immediately and takes a “sport-by sport” approach to transgender participation in athletics.[12] College sports will now align its transgender-athlete policies with those from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and International Olympic Committee. Therefore, transgender participation for each sport is “to be determined by the policy for the national governing body of that sport, subject to ongoing review and recommendation by the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medial Aspects of Sports to the Board of Governors.”[13] The NCAA rationalizes that this policy will generate greater alignment and consistency between college sports and the U.S. Olympics, and will “bring the organization [NCAA] in line with the approach taken by the International Olympic Committee.”[14] For collegiate swimming, the NCAA’s new policy indicates it will now defer to FINA and USA Swimming’s guidelines in determining transgender eligibility.[15]

Subsequently, on February 1st, USA Swimming promptly announced its own policy changes based on “statistical data comparing male and female cisgender athletes, who identify with their sex assigned at birth,” that showed a top-ranked female swimmer in 2021 would, on average, rank lower in male events of short and long-distance swimming.[16] The policy lays out two requirements:

“[1] The concentration of testosterone in their blood must be less than 5 nano

moles per liter [nmol/L] continuously for at least 36 months before they apply to compete, and [2] they must provide evidence that going through puberty as their sex assigned at birth ‘does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s

cisgender female competitors.’ A panel of three independent medical experts

will be charged with reviewing applicants and implementing the policy.”[17]

After USA Swimming released this policy change, questions about Thomas’ eligibility began to arise as well as skepticism over the policy itself. Currently, there is no other national or international sport governing body that requires more than 24 months of hormone therapy for transgender female athletes, and most policies require only 12 months of low testosterone levels. [18] Additionally, by the NCAA championship in March, Thomas will have completed 34 months of HRT, making her ineligible to compete under the new guidelines.

Ultimately, Thomas will be able to compete because the NCAA opted not to adopt this policy for the 2022 championships.[19] The NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) reviewed the new testosterone threshold, and determined “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 championship.”[20] Moving forward, the NCAA will continue to consider the USA Swimming policy for eligibility requirements in the 2022-2023 academic year, but for now the previously approved 10 nmol/L testosterone threshold will determine eligibility.[21]

Despite its intentions to foster inclusion for transgender athletes, the NCAA’s new policy defers to other organizations to set the rules for transgender athletes and leaves no assurance of stability. The NCAA is failing “to take the lead in this important discussion,” that strikes at the heart of fairness and inclusivity in athletics.[22] The new policy lacks any clarity as to what regulations will be followed moving forward given that “many NGB’s [National Governing Bodies] have not created policies for transgender athletes and policies vary from sport NGB to NGB.” [23] Lia Thomas wants to continue to swim and compete as a transgender female, but the NCAA’s policy has provided her with minimal guidance as to what her future or the future of other transgender athletes will look like.

[2] Katie Barnes, Penn Swimmer Lia Thomas Leaves Ivy League Meet a Four-Time Champion, but Questions Remain. ESPN (20 Feb. 2022) [3] Id. [4]Robert Sanchez, ‘I Am Lia’: The Trans Swimmer Dividing America Tells Her Story, Sports Illustrated (3 Mar. 2022). [5] Sutherland, supra. [6] Sanchez, supra. [7] Id. [8] Dan D’Addona, Lia Thomas to Sports Illustrated: ‘I Want to Swim and Compete as Who I Am’, Swimming World (3 Mar. 2022). [9] NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes, (Aug 2011). [10] Id [11] Dawn Ennis, Goodbye, Lia Thomas? New NCAA Trans Student-Athlete Policy is ‘Effective Immediately’, Forbes (2 Jan. 2022). [12] Media Center, Board of Governors Updates Transgender Participation Policy, (19 Jan. 2022). [13] Id. [14] Barnes, supra. [15] D’Addona, supra. [16] Id. [17] Id. [18] Id. [19] James Sutherland, NCAA Won’t Adopt USA Swimming Transgender Policy for 2022 Championships, SwimSwam (10 Feb. 2022). [20] Id. [21] Id. [22] Liz Clark and Rick Maese, NCAA Changes Policy for Transgender Athletes; Members Approve New Constitution, Washington Post (20 Jan. 2022). [23]Ennis, supra.

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