Lia Thomas controversy surrounds NCAA swimming championships, incites national debate

The NCAA, who handles swimming championships for the United States, is faced with a controversy surrounding its decision to ban Lia Thomas from competing in the meet. The move comes amid national debate on racial diversity within sports and how much control colleges should have over individual athletes.

The “lia thomas swimmer” is a controversy that has been surrounding the NCAA swimming championships. The issue has incited national debate, and many people are calling for her to be banned from the sport.

Nobody in the 500-yard freestyle, or any other event at the NCAA women’s swimming and diving championships, will have handled choppier conditions than Lia Thomas when her fingers breach the surface of the water on Thursday at the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta.

With her season-long domination, Thomas, a transgender swimmer at Penn, has provoked scorching criticism. She’ll have three opportunities in the next four days to become the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national title.

Despite following every NCAA eligibility regulation and guideline, Thomas has found herself at the heart of a national discussion about fairness and inclusivity, and whether those principles are mutually incompatible — in the pool, in the media, and in statehouses around the country.

Thomas is not the first nor the most successful transgender athlete to participate in college athletics. No one, though, has sparked a deeper schism.

She may win, she could place third, or she could place last. However, Thomas’ involvement will be a win for some and a loss for others, regardless of the result. Some may regard it as a step forward, while others will see it as a step back. Some will applaud, while others will disagree. Everyone seemed to have chosen a side.

Lia Thomas will participate in three events at the NCAA championships this week: the 100-, 200-, and 500-meter freestyle. In the 200 and 500 meters, she has set the fastest times of the season. Icon Sportswire/Erica Denhoff

During the 200-yard freestyle at Ocasek Natatorium in Akron, Ohio, THOMAS’ LONG ARMS cut through the water, pushing her 6-foot-2 frame ahead. Her feet popped off the wall at each turn, resuming her trek in the other direction. This was the penultimate stop before exams and winter break, and the second day of a three-day competition.

She had previously won the 500 freestyle the day before in style, setting the fastest time in the nation this season. Her timing of 4 minutes 34.06 seconds was 10 seconds slower than Katie Ledecky’s record. Close enough to make you raise your brows. To begin the season, Thomas was unbeaten in her individual competitions. It was evident when she surged away from the pack in the 200 that this race would be similar to the last.

Her time showed on the screen when she touched the wall: 1:41.93. It wasn’t just quick; it was breathtaking. She was now the fastest woman in the country in two events and was just two seconds off Missy Franklin’s NCAA record. It was merely December 4, 2021. It had been more than three months since the national championships. Who knew how swiftly she’d progressed at that point?

As word of Thomas’ times spread around Akron, it became evident that her life was about to change, and the NCAA swimming season was about to be turned upside down.

Some Penn swimmers showed support, while others objected anonymously to the media, causing a schism among her own squad. Thomas’ name was in the headlines almost every day. Thomas was brought up as a reason why such regulations were required when states like Indiana and Arizona discussed legislation that would restrict transgender females’ ability to participate in girls’ sports at the young level.

The specter of Lia Thomas the swimmer sparked the debate, but nothing was known about Lia Thomas the person.

Lia Thomas last played for the men’s team in the 2019-20 season. “Being a woman participating in a men’s competition was an odd experience,” Thomas adds. Getty Images/Hunter Martin

THOMAS, THE YOUNGEST OF THREE CHILDREN, GREW UP IN AUSTIN, TEXAS, AND DECLINED MANY INTERVIEW OFFERS FROM ESPN. She’s been swimming since she was a kid, following in her older brother’s footsteps. Both swam for the Lost Creek Aquatics club and still retain several club records. In the 100-yard backstroke, Lia has the longest-standing record in the 6-and-under classification.

Wes went at Penn and swam for the men’s team, and Lia opted to do the same, despite the fact that they never met in school. Lia swam for the Quakers men’s team for three seasons. She specialized in long-distance communication. According to a Sports Illustrated piece, she grappled with her identity when she started college after graduating from Westlake High School. Following her freshman season in 2017-18, she realized she was transgender and told her family. Thomas finished second in the Ivy League finals in the 500, 1,000, and 1,650 freestyle events during her sophomore season. Thomas was suffering despite his athletic accomplishments.

Thomas told Sports Illustrated, “I was pretty sad.” “I was at a point where I couldn’t attend to school any longer. I had been skipping courses. My sleep routine was completely out of whack. I couldn’t get out of bed on certain days. I realized at that point that I needed to take action.”

Following her second season, Thomas started hormone treatment in May 2019. As a junior, she continued to swim with the men’s squad, but only on a limited basis. In an interview with SwimSwam, Thomas noted, “It was an unpleasant feeling being a woman competing in a men’s competition.” “It was inconvenient. As a result, I didn’t compete too much.”

In the autumn of 2021, Thomas joined the Penn women’s swim team. Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, the Ivy League suspended all sports in 2020-21, therefore this was Thomas’ first chance to swim in the women’s division. The NCAA guideline regarding transgender athletes before the start of the 2021 season stated that transgender women may participate in the women’s division after completing 12 months of testosterone suppression. This guideline, which was implemented in 2011, applied to all NCAA championships, however individual schools and conferences were allowed to create their own eligibility procedures.

The NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships will be held at Georgia Tech from Wednesday through Saturday. ESPN3 will broadcast all sessions (all timings are Eastern):

Relay finals are at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

Thursday Swimming preliminary heats begin at 10 a.m. 12:30 p.m. diving, 1-meter trials 6 p.m.: Swimming finals

Friday Swimming preliminary heats begin at 10 a.m. 3 meter trials begin at 12:30 p.m. in diving. 6 p.m.: Swimming finals

Saturday Swimming preliminary heats begin at 10 a.m. Platform trials, diving, 12:15 p.m. Swimming preliminary heats begin at 3:45 p.m. 6 p.m.: Swimming finals

Lia Thomas will compete in the 500-yard freestyle on Thursday, the 200-yard freestyle on Friday, and the 100-yard freestyle on Saturday.

However, Thomas’ tenure in Akron drew tremendous criticism not just on herself and her teammates, but also on Penn, the Ivy League, and NCAA standards. While Thomas and her colleagues were exercising in Florida after winter break, one media source published tabloid-style images of them.

Penn classmate and fellow senior Andie Myers told ESPN, “It’s been crazy because if I stand next to Lia, my image appears in some news source.” “It’s strange.”

In reports, unnamed colleagues complained about missing out on chances and sharing a locker room with Thomas.

“I knew there would be individuals who didn’t want Lia to swim or didn’t think it was fair,” senior Hadley DeBruyn told ESPN. “But I certainly wasn’t expecting people to speak out like they did.” “I believe that’s what surprised me the most.”

In February, the Penn swimmers’ differing perspectives were officially voiced in dueling letters. Penn sports published an unsigned statement on Feb. 1 on behalf of “many members of the women’s swimming and diving team” who supported Thomas’ inclusion on the squad. On behalf of 16 anonymous Penn swimmers and their families, three-time Olympic gold medalist and Title IX advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar wrote to the Ivy League and its presidents and athletic directors two days later, urging the Ivy League not to take legal action if the NCAA ruled Thomas ineligible for the national championships. On Feb. 10, 310 swimmers, including representatives from each of the Power 5 conferences and five of Thomas’ teammates, signed a letter to the NCAA coordinated by Athlete Ally and Harvard alum and transgender athlete Schuyler Bailar expressing their support for Thomas.

On the record, just a few members of the Penn women’s swimming and diving team have commented. Thomas’ colleagues Myers and DeBruyn signed the letter produced by Bailar and Athlete Ally. Hogshead-Makar did not reveal the identity of the 16 swimmers who were represented in the letter to the Ivy League.

“We hold Lia in high regard as a person. We accept her freedom to live her life as a woman and to do whatever she thinks is best for her “ESPN quoted a Penn parent who endorsed the Hogshead-Makar letter. “However, competing against biological women and having full access to the locker room should not be the case.”

During the Ivy League finals, Penn swimmer Andie Myers, who has supported Thomas’ ability to compete throughout the season, donned a facemask with the transgender flag. Icon Sportswire/Erica Denhoff

WHEN THOMAS JOINED THE PENN WOMEN’S SWIMMING TEAM, THE NCAA’S TRANSGENDER PARTICIPATION POLICY FROM 2011 WAS STILL BEING EVALUATED. The NCAA will organize a summit on gender identification and student-athlete involvement in October 2020. The meeting’s declared goal was to “seek comments in order to build a consensus framework that may drive policy and practice development in the field of gender identity and college athletics…” It was the first stage in a long process to rethink the organization’s policy, which had been in place for almost a decade.

LGBTQ sports inclusion advocate Pat Griffin, who worked on the initial policy, stated, “The entire idea of it was to initiate the review process of the 2011 policy.” “That procedure was still in progress. The board of governors, I believe, then hijacked the process by announcing themselves and surprise everyone.”

The NCAA declared on Jan. 19, 2022, that it will use a sports-specific approach to evaluating national governing body laws and adopting them for NCAA eligibility. At the time, USA Swimming’s elite athlete policy deferred to that of the International Olympic Committee, although it was in flux as well, after a statement in November 2021 that enabled each international federation to set their own rules, with the IOC providing advice.

“By not emphasizing equity, they failed women.” Nancy Hogshead-Makar is a writer who lives in New York City.

Others who believed Thomas should be able to swim and those who believed she should be disqualified reacted angrily to the NCAA ruling.

At the time, duathlete and transgender inclusion advocate Chris Mosier remarked, “This modification complicates the NCAA policy in a manner that I don’t feel they are able to manage.” “Because many [national governing bodies] have yet to develop policy for transgender athletes, and because regulations differ from sport NGB to sport NGB, the NCAA will have a difficult time keeping track of compliance. This results in a wide range of requirements for trans athletes.”

Hogshead-Makar was similarly disappointed. “The new NCAA regulation seems eerily similar to the previous one,” she observed. “The board hasn’t figured out how to strike a balance between justice, safety, and inclusivity. They failed women by failing to put justice first.”

The impact of Thomas’ accomplishment and attention was palpable for Ivy League executive director Robin Harris. “It’s evident to me that Lia [Thomas’] popularity and achievement escalated this issue at the NCAA,” Harris said. “I feel the NCAA wasted a chance to lead by attempting to avoid having the NCAA policy be the center of attention, since Lia has met the NCAA regulation that has been in place for more than a decade.”

On February 1, USA Swimming released a new regulation controlling transgender swimmers’ eligibility. The guideline applies to USA Swimming members, designated elite events (except NCAA championships), and swimmers who desire to be eligible for American records, which starts at the age of 13-14. Transgender women who wish to participate in the women’s division must submit proof to an independent panel that they have no competitive advantage and maintain a testosterone level below 5 nanomoles per liter for 36 consecutive months, according to USA Swimming’s regulation. That amount is much lower than the previous IOC requirement of 10 nanomoles per liter, which was in place until November, and it will take three times as long to show the lower level.

It would have been impossible for Thomas to compete for a national title if the NCAA had adopted such criteria for the 2022 winter championships, as the Jan. 19 release suggested. Thomas has said that she started hormone treatment in May of this year, which is 34 months before the NCAA finals in 2022.

However, the NCAA declared on February 10 that the revised USA Swimming criteria will not be used for the 2022 women’s swimming and diving championships. Instead, transgender athletes who meet the prior requirement must submit a one-time test demonstrating a testosterone level of less than 10 nanomoles per liter. Thomas will compete in the 100, 200, and 500-yard freestyles in Atlanta this week as a result of the news.

“There’s a feeling that they’ve been abandoned,” Hogshead-Makar said, referring to Ivy League swimmers and their families. “Nobody is speaking out for them, and the sport’s leaders haven’t gotten their act together before Lia arrived. They are correct, and I agree with them.”

While a number of swimmers and parents have privately expressed their displeasure with Thomas, few have expressed their displeasure in public. In January, two ladies gathered outside a Penn meet in Philadelphia. Chris Szagola/AP Photo

DISCUSSIONS OVER WHETHER Thomas — and other transgender women — should be permitted to participate in the women’s division are sometimes framed as an issue of justice. But it’s also about gender, sex, and the definition of “woman.”

“Right now, two ideologies are at odds,” Hogshead-Makar said. “One is a gender identification ideology, while the other is a scientific and biological concept. Trans women are treated as women, according to the concept. Individuals, for the most part, agreed that transgender people should be welcomed in places of work and public amenities. When it comes to medical care or women’s sports, there’s also the biological factor to consider. That ideology is not based on reality. The concept that trans women are women is a myth.”

Although the science of transgender athletes is still developing, there are a few facts to be aware of: testosterone levels are many times higher in transgender women than in cisgender women at birth; testosterone confers physiological and metabolic advantages such as increased muscle mass, lung capacity, and height; testosterone suppression effectively reduces testosterone levels in transgender women to levels comparable to cisgender women after approximately one year.

“We know that testosterone is not always directly indicative of physical performance, albeit it may have a role in certain sports undertakings,” said Jason Klein, a pediatric endocrinologist at NYU Langone Health who works with children, adolescents, and young adults.

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Some research have looked at the impact of hormone therapy on sports performance and physiological strength retention. The first, conducted by Joanna Harper and published in 2015, tracked a group of transsexual women who ran long distances. Harper’s research indicated that transgender women did not improve post-transition after a year of hormone treatment, despite the fact that it was a tiny trial. If they were rated 15th among men, they were also ranked 15th among women. Harper’s research was the first of its sort, despite its scale, and offered a foundation for policy frameworks.

In 2021, Harper released an assessment of the extant literature on the subject. She discovered that although transgender women’s hemoglobin levels (red blood cells that deliver oxygen to muscles) fell with hormone treatment, their strength remained after 36 months. This was in accordance with a research released in 2019 that looked at how much muscle mass transgender women lost following a year of hormone treatment and found that they only lost 5% of their muscle mass.

Only Harper’s study on distance runners included transgender athletes in its findings. They were also all about transgender people who had transitioned after puberty.

Thomas, who started hormone treatment in 2019, has set timings this season that are much slower than her career best. Getty Images/AFP/Joseph Prezioso

Christina Roberts studied available data on transgender military veterans undertaking situps, pushups, and 1.5-mile runs at different phases of hormone treatment to get closest to examining the results of transgender athletics. The findings demonstrated that the performance disparity between transgender and cisgender women on pushups and situps vanished after two years. Transgender women’s pace decreased during the 1.5-mile run, but they still outperformed cisgender women. “It just goes to demonstrate that notions like, ‘Oh no, trans women will never catch up to cis women,’ are just not accurate,” Roberts said.

“Are there any anatomical differences that have remained? The typical individual born as a guy is taller than the average cis female. So, if having narrower hips and longer limbs is advantageous, there is some anatomical benefit preserved. On the other side, tall slender-hipped ladies are not prohibited. In sports, anatomic advantage is a fundamental reality.”

There is data accessible for Thomas both before and after the shift. The gap in her relative performance as shown in that statistics is significant for those who claim she shouldn’t be allowed to swim in the women’s division. Prior to transition, Thomas had the 465th quickest time in the 200 free. In that event, she is presently the quickest. She was 65th in the 500 free and is now first. Thomas’ best finish in the 1,650, her previous best event, was 32nd. Despite not swimming in that event since December, she owns the 11th best time.

Harper said, “She is almost unquestionably better as a girl swimmer than she ever would have been as a man swimmer.” “However, the assumption that all trans women would do better in the women’s category than in the men’s category is erroneous. I’ve witnessed trans women struggle to adjust to fluctuating hormone levels and/or medications. When compared to other women, these ladies fare worse than they did when compared to males. Of course, since trans women aren’t successful in women’s sports, no one will ever hear of them.”

While on the men’s squad, Thomas’ best marks were 1:39.31 in the 200 free, 4:18.72 in the 500, and 14:54.76 in the 1,650. Thomas’ best marks so far as a member of the women’s squad have been 1:41.93 in the 200 meters, 4:34.06 in the 500 meters, and 15:59.71 in the 1,650 meters.

Her top three times this season came at the Zippy Invitational in Akron in early December. Thomas didn’t set a personal best in the 100 meters until the Ivy League finals.

Thomas won three solo races in the conference championships and helped Penn win its first relay victory, starting each race beneath an Ivy League banner that said “8 against hate.” USA TODAY Sports/Paul Rutherford

Last month, HARVARD’S BLODGETT POOL, which will host the Ivy League women’s swimming and diving championships in 2022, seemed like a sauna. The room was packed with people cheering on the ladies from the conference’s eight schools who were participating in the pool.

Thomas went out to the blocks for the 100 freestyle final, passing under a transgender flag placed over the railing by Bailar, who had come to the event to support her, and another transgender Yale swimmer, Iszac Henig. In this event, Henig, a transgender guy, swam for the women’s squad and was pitted against Thomas. Henig shot to fame after defeating Thomas in a competition in January.

“I believe that individuals have the right to express beliefs, but such opinions may sometimes be harmful,” Henig said after the race in January. “It’s difficult to see athletics being used as a justification to be cruel to others. Because I believe that, despite ‘doing everything right’ by competing with the gender that was given to me at birth, I got entangled into some of those horrible pieces. When you get right down to it, it’s not about justice.”

Because he recalled his own last match at Harvard, Bailar presented the flag to Blodgett. A transgender flag was brought to the game by some of his social media admirers, who waved it in the stands. “I found myself in tears every time I saw it in the stands because it was so amazing to witness that reminder of our own perseverance as trans people,” Bailar added. “There has been a lot of anger and hostility directed against Lia and trans athletes in general across the globe. There’s a lot of negative energy around us, with a record-breaking amount of anti-trans athlete measures in the nation in 2021 and 2022. And that’s not even a complete list of what’s available. There is significantly more support than the media seems to recognize.”

Thomas and Henig dived into the pool as the trumpet sounded. Thomas was looking to revenge her defeat to Henig earlier in the season by defending the pool record he’d established in the prelims. They began home neck and neck at the last bend. Thomas, on the other hand, outtouched Henig at the wall, establishing a meet and pool record in the process. It was her third individual conference title, and she went on to win the meet’s top point scorer award.

Thomas congratulated Henig and raised her index finger to the heavens.

Henig said, “Swimming is considerably more about the race than it is about winning.” “Sure, winning is exciting, but at the end of the day, I am proud of myself. My teammates were ecstatic. What important to me is that I made my coaches pleased.”

Even though they cheered respectfully when Thomas collected her trophies and medals, the realization that not everyone was delighted with Thomas’ presence lurked underneath the joyous moments in the water.

“I simply want people to understand that supporting trans individuals in athletics also means supporting them in other areas.” Andie Myers, a Penn swimmer

On the Women’s Declaration International YouTube channel, a lady who only identified herself as the mother of an Ivy League swimmer read an account of her and her daughter’s experiences. “The fun of the meet was ruined from the start, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave our children to face this on their own,” she said of her Blodgett experience. “Day after day, we watched as a young girl was replaced by a male in a final swim, on the podium, wiped from a record or relay slot, and eventually replaced by a man as the meet’s swimmer of the meet.”

Following the competition, an unnamed Penn swimmer talked with NewsNation. “I’ve faced discrimination, and so have my teammates,” she remarked. “It’s disgusting that the NCAA allowed it to happen.”

With the exception of DeBruyn and Myers, almost all Ivy League swimmers and coaches who received requests refused to be interviewed for this article, including every member and coach of the Penn women’s swimming and diving team. A second Penn swimmer consented to be questioned, but refused to comment on Thomas.

Myers stood off to the side, watching Thomas swim. She spent the whole event wearing a transgender flag face mask to show her support for Thomas. “A lot of people claim to support trans people, but when it comes to sports, they start to draw the line,” Myers said. “There are subtleties, but I believe that a lot of them are lost in translation, and that many people end up utilizing transphobic arguments against her. So I simply want people to know that supporting trans individuals in athletics also means supporting them in other areas.”

The unrest in Blodgett had already spread throughout the nation, and Thomas remained at the epicenter.

After the 100-yard freestyle awards ceremony, Thomas hugs Yale’s Iszac Henig. “I was pleased with myself. My teammates were ecstatic. What important to me is that I made my instructors proud “Henig explains. USA TODAY Sports/Paul Rutherford

BEHIND THE SCENES Jackie Stein, the mother of two girls who participate in swimming, spoke behind a wooden platform in the Senate chamber of the Indiana state capital in Indianapolis, arguing why pending bill HB 1041 should pass. “Due of the media publicity surrounding University of Pennsylvania rival Lia Thomas, this problem is quite evident right now in the swimming world,” Stein said. She then quoted Hogshead-Makar, who argued that Thomas had an unfair edge as a rationale for Indiana lawmakers to enact HB 1041, which would restrict transgender females from participating in girls’ sports.

HB 1041 is only one piece of legislation affecting transgender minors that has been filed around the nation. According to the ACLU, which monitors such legislation, proposals prohibiting transgender youth’s sports participation have been submitted in 25 states as of this writing. Similar legislation has previously been passed into law in eleven states. In 17 states, measures impacting transgender youth’s access to healthcare have been introduced. Bills prohibiting single-sex facilities, sometimes known as “bathroom bills,” have been filed in four states.

“It’s going to be terrible,” Mosier said. Mosier was travelling back to Chicago after a demonstration in St. Paul, Minnesota, where a law was introduced prohibiting transgender females from participating in girls’ sports in middle and high school. Mosier left his house at 6 a.m. to travel the six hours to the state capitol of Minnesota, arriving 10 minutes before his scheduled speech. He was standing on the stairs in front of the stone-faced structure, which had hosted a triumph gathering in 2012 after the state’s historic rejection of a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited marital equality. Mosier got back in his vehicle and drove home after exchanging a few greetings. When he phoned, it was almost dark again.

“We’re witnessing an uptick of assaults against the trans community in what I believe to be a predictable manner,” Mosier said. He cited wording in several proposals introduced in 2020 and 2021 that focused on sex proof tests. If a person’s sex was disputed, a signed physician statement confirming “The student’s internal and external reproductive anatomy; The student’s normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone; An analysis of the student’s genetic makeup” was required to prove sex, according to the original text of Idaho’s HB 500. Such regulations have been compared to “genital inspections,” rather than normal checks, as proponents have maintained.

“Anything less than that looks more reasonable when you go to that extreme,” Mosier added.

Many measures introduced in the 2022 legislative session changed that terminology to “official birth certificate” (read: not modified) as the sex demarcation. This strategy was similar to a legislation approved in Texas in October 2021. This session, South Dakota and Iowa both passed bills including such phrase. It was also used in Indiana and Arizona for pending legislation.

Though Thomas’ name has been mentioned in Indiana, Arizona, and other places, many of the legislation and rules that have been approved impact not just college players, but also children who participate in school sports, some as young as elementary school.

Olympic swimmer Casey Legler, who supports Thomas’ eligibility, said, “Generally, when we’re talking about playing sports, definitely what comes to our mind’s eye are the pros.” “That is not a sporting event. Sports is your neighborhood club. Sports refers to a pick-up game that takes place in a park. Sports is the man who can’t lift weights but goes to the gym anyhow because it makes him feel better. That is, in fact, how most people see sports.”

One of the states with a pending law is Georgia, where Thomas will run this week. All eyes will be on her as she jumps into the pool at Georgia Tech. She may win, she could place third, or she could place last. She will, however, be swimming. She’s been doing that all season.

The “lia thomas controversy” is a debate that has been sparked by the NCAA swimming championships. The controversy surrounds Lia Thomas, a swimmer who was born male but identifies as female. Reference: lia thomas birth name.

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