A Philly swimmer likely inspired the NCAA’s unexpected mid-season policy change on trans athletes

The University of Pennsylvania continues to pledge support for a student caught in the crosshairs.

UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas warms up a swim meet against Dartmouth and Yale at Sheer Pool in Philadelphia on Jan. 8

UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas warms up a swim meet against Dartmouth and Yale at Sheer Pool in Philadelphia on Jan. 8

Kylie Cooper

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A surprising mid-season rule change by the National Collegiate Athletic Association likely happened because of a student competing at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lia Thomas has been unwillingly thrust into the national spotlight for the better part of her senior season. The 22-year-old UPenn swimmer is now famous around the world — and not just because of her record-breaking performance. Her athletic ability has come to represent a larger struggle: the argument over whether trans women should be allowed to play on women’s teams.

She’s been complying with the NCAA’s policy on the inclusion of trans athletes, which has existed for 12 years. Last week, the collegiate athletic association suddenly changed it.

Effective immediately, the decision on how to include trans athletes is now up to the individual governing body of each sport. In this case, that’s USA Swimming.

“I didn’t see this coming in the middle of a season,” Joanna Harper, who researches transgender athletic performance at Loughborough University in England, told Billy Penn. “I certainly have a great deal of empathy for Lia, and it’s unfortunate that she is under this incredible microscope.”

Among the groups lambasting Thomas have been some of her fellow teammates and their families, protesters, and national media outlets. Many of them say because Thomas was assigned male at birth — and competed on UPenn’s men’s team for two years — that she has an unfair advantage in women’s sports.

Trans athletes like CeCé Telfer, June Eastwood and Schuyler Bailar have all played at the NCAA level. But anti-trans sentiment has been taking root across the country. Recent legislation has banned trans youth from accessing affirming healthcare in Arkansas and attempted to keep trans girls out of Pennsylvania sports.

Thomas waiting to compete. The team hung signs on the wall for each of the seniors to celebrate their final home meet.

Thomas waiting to compete. The team hung signs on the wall for each of the seniors to celebrate their final home meet.

Kylie Cooper

Bailar, now a 25-year-old author and educator, was the first trans man to compete on a D1 men’s team when he swam for Harvard — and 60 Minutes covered his first season.

He’s known Thomas since before she came out, he said, and because of transmisogyny, he expected she would have it worse than he did.

“Lia has worked her whole life to be where she is,” said Bailar, who graduated in 2019. “I think we forget that she is a whole human with all of her own life experiences and trials and tribulations, and she should be allowed to play just like anybody else.”

As she competes, Thomas has mostly steered clear of the media — except one interview on the SwimSwam podcast. Through a Penn Athletics spokesperson, she declined to comment for this story until the end of her current season.

The university has committed to supporting her through the rule change.

“Penn Athletics is aware of the NCAA’s new transgender participation policy,” said Steve Cunha, UPenn’s associate director of athletic communications, in a statement. “In support of our student-athlete, Lia Thomas, we will work with the NCAA regarding her participation under the newly adopted standards for the 2022 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship.”

The NCAA’s previous policy lasted over a decade, and Thomas was in full compliance

The NCAA’s former policy on the inclusion of trans athletes was established in 2010. Under those rules, a trans woman could compete on any women’s college team so long as she had been taking hormone-blocking drugs and estrogen for at least a year.

Thomas has reportedly been doing that for two and a half years now. That’s more than enough time to bring her testosterone level down to that of a typical cis woman, said Harper, the resarcher.

“Those two drugs in combination have this effect,” said Harper, who’s also a trans woman. “We bring our testosterone levels to the same level as other women.”

Now there’s new a policy that lets each sport make its own rules

Last week, on Jan. 19, the NCAA announced a brand new policy on including trans athletes — one that’s very similar to the policy used by the International Olympic Committee.

The NCAA has dropped its specific requirement that trans athletes complete hormone replacement therapy. Instead, the organization has punted the responsibility to the governing body of each individual sport to make their own decisions. So theoretically, each college sport could have a different rule.

There’s also a new additional regulation: The NCAA will require trans athletes to submit documentation of their testosterone levels at the start of the season, again six months later, and once more four weeks before their sport’s championships. It’s unclear whether this would have to come from their school, their physician, or someone else.

Will Thomas still be able to compete for Penn?

The governing body that will make the call here is USA Swimming. That organization issued a statement last week that it’s working on its new policy in collaboration with FINA — the Switzerland-based international swimming federation. Researcher Harper expects it to come out within a few weeks.

FINA and USA Swimming are likely to follow the example set by World Athletics, the international federation that governs track and field, Harper said. Their rules state trans women can compete with other women if testosterone levels are under 5 nanomoles per liter.

Most trans women who are taking testosterone blockers and estrogen fall into that range. A 2019 study conducted in Amsterdam found 94% of trans women have testosterone levels under 2 nanomoles per liter.

If FINA adopts this policy, it would likely bode well for Thomas.

“Although I haven’t seen testosterone levels from Lia, I would strongly suspect that she too would be under two nanomoles per liter,” Harper said. “And if FINA sets their limit at five, then it’s not really an issue for Lia.”

UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas in the women’s 100-yard freestyle during a meet against Dartmouth and Yale at Sheer Pool in Philadelphia on Jan. 8

UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas in the women’s 100-yard freestyle during a meet against Dartmouth and Yale at Sheer Pool in Philadelphia on Jan. 8

Kylie Cooper

Is the new policy fair?

It really depends on what the governing body of each sport decides.

Harper said she supports the NCAA’s plan to regularly screen testosterone levels for trans athletes. Research shows most trans women will meet the same testosterone levels as cis women anyway — and it seems fair to check.

“You do that for doping, right?” Harper said. “You don’t assume that everyone’s doping, but you check.”

What effect does testosterone have on athletic performance, anyway?

The hormone testosterone exists naturally in everyone — but cis men produce it at much higher levels than cis women. During puberty, testosterone is associated with more height and strength, plus higher bone density and hemoglobin levels. All those qualities are assets in athletics.

For trans women who went through testosterone-driven puberty, studies have shown that blocking testosterone and taking estrogen for an extended period of time help level those athletic advantages.

Thomas has performed about 5% slower this season than she did before starting hormone replacement therapy. The shift happens because falling testosterone levels also bring down things like strength and hemoglobin in the blood, which helps oxygen flow to muscles during exercise.

Harper has experienced this firsthand. The Loughborough University visiting fellow is a distance runner, and when she first transitioned in 2004, she noticed she got slower — so she started keeping track.

“As a scientist, I was intrigued,” Harper said. “In August of that year, I started taking hormone therapy. Within nine months, I was running 12% slower.”

There are still some advantages

That’s not to say trans women don’t have any athletic advantage. Some of those advantages last even through hormone replacement therapy, according to the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

“Height is important for swimming. The longer arms, the longer legs help propel you through the water quicker,” Harper said. “It’s certainly true that Lia maintains some physical advantages over the women she competes with.”

But there are also disadvantages

Trans women aren’t universally better suited for sports just because they went through testosterone-driven puberty.

There are disadvantages associated with transitioning. After starting hormone replacement therapy, larger physical frames end up being powered by reduced muscle mass and reduced aerobic capacity.

“That can lead to disadvantages in things like quickness, recovery, and endurance, which may be less obvious when you’re just looking at a big body,” Harper said. “It’s unclear at this point exactly how all these advantages and disadvantages work out, and it’ll be decades before we have definitive data.”

Biological differences in sports are normal — some are even celebrated

There are countless biological differences among athletes that have nothing to do with gender identity.

Left-handed pitchers are thought to be a huge asset in baseball. Some conditions like PCOS cause elevated levels of testosterone in women. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has been said to have two times the average person’s lung capacity. These things don’t lead people to be prohibited from competing on sports teams.

“If Lia or any other trans athlete has an advantage from testosterone during puberty that has lingered on, who’s to say that’s any different from any other athlete who has some sort of biological difference due to their genetics?” Bailar said. “Bioversity is the actual basis of elite level sports. If all bodies were exactly the same, what kind of competitions would we have?”

What matters is ‘meaningful competition’

Harper agrees that there’s a line to be drawn here: “We don’t allow overwhelming advantages. We don’t let heavyweight boxers get in the ring with lightweight boxers, because the big boxer wins all the time.”

The relevant question, scientific researchers say, is whether there can be “meaningful competition.” It’s a point Harper has made when speaking with reporters. When cis and trans women compete, do the latter always win, or does everyone have a shot?

Harper used last weekend’s tri-meet between UPenn, Dartmouth and Yale as an example. Thomas finished fifth in the 100-yard freestyle, behind three cis women and a trans man, who purposely hasn’t started hormone replacement therapy yet so he can continue to compete on the women’s team.

Trans women aren’t taking over women’s sports

All the transphobic buzz that surrounds Thomas usually makes the same point: If we allow her to compete with women, then suddenly trans women will take over sports and make it impossible for cis women to compete.

By now the NCAA has allowed trans athletes for more than 10 years. In that time, very few have made it to the college level. Fewer still have had as promising a season as Thomas.

That’s evidence that trans women aren’t performing some mass takeover of women’s sports, per Bailar.

“For a decade, trans women have been allowed to compete in women’s sports, and how many trans women have we seen in NCAA conferences?” Bailar said. “Even if Lia wins, she is one trans woman who has won in one sport.”

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