Penn swimmer Lia Thomas cleared to compete in NCAA Championships after rule change on trans athletes

“It’s unfortunate that she is under this incredible microscope,” said a researcher about the flurry of debate over Thomas’ participation.

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
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas will be allowed to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships, after the NCAA announced it won’t adopt USA Swimming’s new policy on transgender athletes until next season.

Thomas has been unwillingly thrust into the national spotlight for the better part of her senior year. The 22-year-old UPenn swimmer is now famous around the world.

A surprising mid-season rule change — likely inspired by her record-breaking performance — had thrown her status into doubt for the NCAA and Ivy League championships, where she will also be allowed to compete.

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.

All along, Thomas has been complying with the NCAA’s policy on the inclusion of trans athletes, which has existed for 12 years. In January, the collegiate athletic association suddenly amended it, leaving the decision on whether and how to include trans athletes up to the individual governing body of each sport. In this case, that’s USA Swimming — which updated its policy in early February.

“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.”

The NCAA announced on Feb. 10 that it won’t adopt the new policy until the 2023-24 season. That means for the 2022 women’s swimming and diving championships, Thomas is all set.

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.

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 consistently 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 researcher.

“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

In January, 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?

Yes. Since USA Swimming’s new policy won’t affect the upcoming NCAA championships, she should be able to compete.

What about future trans swimmers? Will they be able to compete?

It depends. 

USA Swimming released its updated policy on trans inclusion at the start of February. It requires trans women athletes on the elite level to show their testosterone levels have been under 5 nanomoles per liter for 36 months.

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.

Harper thinks this part of the new policy would bode well for most trans women athletes, like Thomas.

“Although I haven’t seen testosterone levels from Lia, I would strongly suspect that she too would be under 2 nanomoles per liter,” said Harper, the researcher at Loughborough.

USA Swimming’s new policy also mandates that trans athletes submit evidence they don’t have a medical advantage associated with their gender assigned at birth.

The “evidence” — as yet undefined — then gets reviewed by a panel of three independent medical experts. It’s unclear at this point what Thomas will submit or how it will be received.

Is the NCAA’s 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 whether you can still have ‘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 the January 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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