NCAA Controversy Surrounding Transgender Swimmer Lia Thomas


(Heather Khalfia/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Penn swimmer Lia Thomas competes in a 500 meter race in Philadelphia, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. The NCAA has adopted a sport-by-sport approach for transgender athletes, bringing the organization in line with the U.S. and International Olympic Committees. NCAA rules on transgender athletes returned to the forefront when Penn swimmer Lia Thomas started smashing records this year.

Before Dec. of 2021, the majority of the world had never heard of Lia Thomas, a transgender female collegiate swimmer. However, by the time the Zippy Invitational in Akron, Ohio had ended, that all changed. 

Lia Thomas is a senior swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania. Thomas swam her first two years for the men’s team, qualifying for the 500-yd freestyle, the 1000-yd freestyle and the 1,650-yd freestyle events in the 2018 and 2019 Ivy League Championships. In 2019, she finished second overall in each event. During the 2020 season, Thomas sat out to undergo testosterone suppression treatment. Under NCAA guidelines, she could resume swimming in the 2021 season for the women’s team after a year of treatment. 

When the Zippy Invitational rolled around, Thomas had already been dominating the women’s categories, on course to beat collegiate national records set by the likes of Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin. At the invitational she won the 200-yd freestyle with a time of 1:41.93, setting school, pool and program records. This record also established Thomas as the fastest woman in the nation this season and secured her spot in the NCAA championship in March 2022. 

Her win drew much criticism from the professional swimming world. According to ESPN, some critics feel that the NCAA caved to external pressures to regulate transgender athletes too quickly, and that the policy did not adequately address how to ensure that transgender athletes do not have an unfair advantage. Critics also express logistical concerns with monitoring and enforcing an athlete’s testosterone levels. 

In 2010, the NCAA developed their first policy regarding transgender athletes, stating that a transgender athlete can compete as a woman if they undergo testosterone suppression for a year. Thomas abided by this policy. Critics note that the policy does not mandate the level of testosterone that must be reached, nor does it address the advantages that many feel transgender athletes inherently have regarding strength and speed. 

On Jan. 19, 2022, the NCAA released a revision to its policy. They articulated that rules would vary from sport to sport and that there would be a new testosterone testing requirement prior to championships, in place for the entire 2022-23 season. 

The new policy stated that Thomas would have to comply with USA Swimming’s 2018 policy regarding transgender athletes in order to compete in the national championship. This policy is based on an individual case-by-case basis in which elite athletes have to submit records to a review panel to be approved prior to competition. 

However, it is unclear whether or not college athletes are considered elite athletes, and if they are, college transgender athletes are also subject to International Swimming Federation (FINA) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) regulations which are currently in flux as of Nov. 2021. 

In other words, there are a lot of confusing policies that need to be navigated, but the University of Pennsylvania has vowed to stand in support of Thomas throughout the process of determining whether or not she is eligible to compete in the national championships in March. 

Ultimately, many of the criticisms regarding Thomas’ ability to compete in women’s categories come down to fairness. Many believe Thomas should not be allowed to compete until she can show she does not have an unfair advantage, or until the NCAA creates a policy to level the playing field and can provide more detail on testosterone tracking. 

Thomas’s case leaves many questions unanswered and policies up in the air.

Should transgender women get their own competitions? How can Thomas show that she does not have an unfair advantage? If Thomas does compete in the national championships in March and excels, will her legitimacy still be questioned?