Transgender swimmer Lia Thomas stays the course as NCAA changes eligibility rules

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Shaking her arms in flurries of circular punches in the air in front of her, Penn swimmer Lia Thomas strode to the starting blocks for her second race of the day, the 200-yard freestyle. Saturday at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool was quiet. And not just like before the start of a race.

Everything around Thomas had been so strong in recent weeks – a cacophony of (mostly) criticism that began in December after his record-breaking performance in Akron, Ohio, at the Zippy Invitational. Critics argued that Thomas, a transgender woman, should not be allowed to compete in the women’s category.

Thomas dove into the pool as the local crowd cheered on the Harvard swimmers and waved crimson and white pom poms. There were no boos at the start, finish or any time in between.

When Thomas last swam, in his pool at Penn, two protesters gathered outside with large posters. There were no protesters on Saturday, although there was an increased security presence inside and outside the pool “out of an abundance of caution,” a Harvard spokesperson said. Reporters were not allowed to speak to either team’s swimmers and coaches.

Thomas pushed the wall for his final turn and kicked home. She hit the wall in a time of 1 minute, 47.08 seconds, 1.36 seconds faster than runner-up Felicia Pasadyn of Harvard. Thomas would also finish first in the 100-yard freestyle and she anchored the 200-yard medley team in third place.

Smiling, Thomas’ fist bumped Pasadyn and waved his congratulations to another contestant. 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 the eligibility of transgender athletes. Instead of a uniform policy that applies to 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 starting in 2022-23, at designated points throughout the year. The new policy replaced one adopted by the NCAA in 2010, a document that took years to develop, involved multiple stakeholders and set the standard for transgender inclusion in sports. It has become a model 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 “giving in” to outside pressures for stricter regulation following Thomas’ success. There are also logistical issues, including the need to monitor athletes’ testosterone levels, a process that was not part of previous policy.

“They gave in and panicked in light of public pressure, and now they’ve come up with a policy that I don’t even know how they would enforce,” said LGBTQ inclusion advocate and former coach Pat Griffin. UMass swimming. involved in writing the original NCAA guidelines for transgender participation.

In October 2020, the NCAA appeared to kick-start this process by hosting the Student-Athlete Gender Identity and Involvement Summit. Current and former student-athletes, doctors, consultants and advocates, including IOC medical and scientific director Richard Budgett, were part of the gathering.

“It looked like the NCAA was in a position where it was ready to take another step forward, leading the sports space,” said duathlete and advocate for transgender inclusion Chris Mosier. Mosier was the first openly transgender athlete to serve on a U.S. national team reflecting his gender identity. “All that thought process disappeared when they did this reactionary policy.”

It’s not just 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 show they don’t have an unfair advantage. As a member of the Women’s Sports Policy Task Force, Hogshead-Makar has been a vocal critic of existing policies governing the participation of transgender athletes, from youth sports to college and international competitions.

The NCAA’s new policy does not correct what it considers a fundamental injustice.

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

Thomas’ best time in the 200 free yards this season is 1:41.93, 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 cleared both times, qualifying her for the championships of the NCAA, in Akron at the beginning of December.

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

USA Swimming, which became the NCAA’s transgender swimmer decision maker on Wednesday, has a policy for transgender athletes that was adopted in 2018. The policy implements a process by which transgender athletes submit documents, including an application official change of name or gender category. as well as medical information – to a review board. 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 published an inclusion framework but postponed the development of specific rules regarding the participation of transgender athletes in international federations (in the case of swimming, FINA).

“We have been working proactively 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, in accordance with new NCAA regulations, the “previously established IOC policy will be used.” The previous IOC standard required a transgender woman to have been on hormone therapy for at least 12 months and maintain testosterone levels below 10 nmol/L. Thomas said she started hormone therapy in May 2019. Since previous NCAA policy did not require monitoring of specific testosterone levels, it’s unclear if Thomas meets that standard.

The subject of transgender athletes is not something the NCAA alone has tackled in recent years, or even days. The NCAA policy changes came within a week when three states – South Dakota, Arizona and Indiana – began passing legislation that would restrict access to school sports for children. transgender youth, especially transgender women and girls. As of 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 Pennsylvania (home of Penn) and Georgia (host of the NCAA swimming championships).

Because the NCAA is moving away from its regulatory role, some supporters of the bills say passing laws restricting transgender athletes is more urgent than ever.

“Rather than regulating it, [the NCAA] sends the ball to other national associations and organizations that govern various sports,” Alliance Defending Freedom General Counsel Matt Sharp said Thursday during testimony in support of Arizona’s SB 1165. “It shows why bills like SB 1165 are needed more than ever to make sure there is a clear and consistent rule for female athletes in Arizona.

At Blodgett Pool, Thomas finished first in both of his individual events. But she didn’t set any records in the 100 or 200 freestyle. She clapped her teammates and laughed with them between races. Despite the controversy that continues to swirl around her, Thomas delivered what is becoming a typical performance. But as she continues to pursue success in the pool, it remains to be seen if her career time is about to run out.

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