Respect Diversity + Inclusion

Sixteen Penn swimmers say transgender athlete Lia Thomas holds ‘unfair advantage’

(Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

Story at a glance

  • More than a dozen teammates of Lia Thomas, a swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who is transgender, said in a letter to officials that the NCAA’s new policy on trans athletes should not be challenged.
  • The swimmers argued that Thomas holds an unfair advantage over her cisgender competitors because she went through male puberty.
  • The letter was sent by former Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar on behalf of the Penn swimmers, who had been told they “would be removed from the team” or “never get a job offer” if they spoke out against Thomas’ inclusion in women’s competition, according to the Washington Post.

Sixteen members of the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s swimming and diving team said the NCAA’s recent update to its policy for transgender athletes, which may bar trans swimmer Lia Thomas from competing in the athletic association’s championships in March, should be upheld.

“We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her life authentically,” the athletes wrote in a letter Thursday to school and Ivy League officials obtained by the Washington Post. “However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity. Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category, as evidenced by her rankings that have bounced from #462 as a male to #1 as a female.”

“If she were to be eligible to compete against us, she could now break Penn, Ivy, and NCAA Women’s Swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete,” the athletes wrote.

The letter was unsigned and was sent by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a 1984 Olympic swimming gold medalist and chief executive of Champion Women, a women’s sports advocacy group. She sent the letter on the swimmer’s behalf because they had been told they “would be removed from the team” or “never get a job offer” if they spoke out against Thomas’ inclusion in women’s competition, according to the Washington Post.


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Earlier this week, other teammates of Thomas in a statement said the swimmer had their “full support” after another team member, speaking anonymously to Fox News, said the university had put cisgender female swimmers at a disadvantage by allowing Thomas to compete because Thomas, assigned male at birth, had gone through male puberty.

“The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values, and opinions of the entire Penn team, composed of 39 women with diverse backgrounds,” the athletes wrote this week. “We recognize this is a matter of great controversy and are doing our best to navigate it while still focusing on doing our best in the pool and classroom.”

That letter was also unsigned, but a Penn spokesperson said it was written by “several” members of the team.

The NCAA last month updated its eligibility criteria for transgender athletes, which the athletic association said will now be determined by the national governing body of each sport. Under its previous framework, first introduced in 2010, female athletes could compete for a collegiate women’s sports team after completing a full year of testosterone suppression treatment

The national governing body for competitive swimming in the U.S., USA Swimming, on Tuesday issued a new policy for transgender athletes in elite competition, which “acknowledges a competitive difference in the male and female categories and the disadvantages this presents in elite head-to-head competition.”

Under the updated policy, which will be implemented by a panel of three medical experts, elite transgender female swimmers will be required to provide “evidence” that a competitive advantage over cisgender athletes does not exist because of their prior physical development “as a male.”

Trans female athletes are also required to keep testosterone levels below 5 nanomoles per liter of blood continuously for at least 36 months – the longest of any sports body.


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