Allowing Lia Thomas to Compete At NCAA Championships Would Establish Unfair Setting

Lia Thomas (NCAA)

Allowing Lia Thomas to Compete At NCAA Championships Would Establish Unfair Setting

The competition is scheduled for March 16-19, 2022. The site is the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. A tantalizing Virginia-Stanford battle for the team title is expected. Maggie MacNeil should chase several individual records. Yet, the biggest storyline of the NCAA Women’s Championships could be the presence of Lia Thomas on the pool deck.

The story is well-known. Thomas is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, and a transgender athlete. She previously competed for three years as a member of the Quakers’ men’s team, earning All-Ivy League accolades. A year ago, the conference, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, canceled all athletics. Meanwhile, Thomas had transitioned to female, and awaited the opportunity to represent Penn in women’s collegiate competition. That time has now arrived.

In recent weeks, Thomas has been firing off a multitude of top times – primarily in the distance-freestyle events. At last weekend’s Zippy Invitational, on the campus of Akron University, Thomas blasted automatic NCAA-qualifying efforts in the 200-yard freestyle (1:41.93) and 500 freestyle (4:34.06). Both times rank No. 1 in the nation, and her 200 free performance was quicker than last year’s gold-medal time at NCAAs.

It is not a surprise that Thomas’ performances and presence on a women’s roster have generated passionate debate. Arguments for and against Thomas’ participation in a women’s sport have been posted on website articles and to social media, the anti-angle the consensus. More, many of the posts have included vile commentary in which Thomas has been subjected to name-calling and insults.

It was just yesterday that I wrote a short column asking for civility in regard to the situation involving Thomas. Unequivocally, I stand by that column and the need for commenters – wherever they leave remarks – to make their arguments without the use of heinous language or the designed decision to identify Thomas by incorrect pronouns and gender.

Simply because a request for humanity was made led to assumptions of support for Thomas and her involvement in women’s competition. Quite the contrary. Rather, Thomas should not be on the starting blocks in Atlanta in March. If she does race, it would be an indisputably unfair setting. To those she would race in the 200 freestyle. To her opposition in the 500 free. To the women she would battle in the 1650 freestyle.

Before delving deeper into this topic, let’s make something clear. According to the NCAA bylaws, Thomas has adhered to the requirements set forth for an athlete who has transitioned from male to female. According to the NCAA rulebook: “A trans female treated with testosterone suppression medication may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one year of testosterone suppression treatment.”

Last month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced a framework for transgender athletes that will not require athletes to undergo “medically unnecessary” procedures or treatment. The IOC statement noted: “This Framework recognizes both the need to ensure that everyone, irrespective of their gender identity or sex variations, can practice sport in a safe, harassment-free environment that recognizes and respects their needs and identities.”

The IOC’s decision is not legally binding and various sports will decide their own guidelines in regard to transgender athletes. While the NCAA’s rules demand the use of testosterone suppressants for a specific duration, the current requirements are not rigid enough and do not produce an authentic competitive atmosphere. It is obvious that one year is not a sufficient timeframe to offer up a level playing field.

Athletes transitioning from male to female possess the inherent advantage of years of testosterone production and muscle-building. There is also the advantage (in many cases) of larger body frames, hands and feet. All of these traits are beneficial in the sport of swimming. In the case of Thomas, she had nearly 20 years of this testosterone-building advantage, something cisgender women could not attain. Although she took part in the testosterone-suppression process, a look at her performances clearly reflects that she is benefitting from the genetics of her birth sex.

“There’s absolutely no question in my mind that trans women will maintain strength advantages over cis women, even after hormone therapy,” said sports physicist Joanna Harper in an interview with WEBMD Health News. “That’s based on my clinical experience, rather than published data, but I would say there’s zero doubt in my mind.”

With Thomas routinely producing swift times, the possibility she will break two major records exists. In the 200 freestyle, Missy Franklin holds the NCAA and Americans standard at 1:39.10. In the 500 free, Katie Ledecky’s NCAA and American record sits at 4:24.06. Based on what Thomas has already gone this year, coupled with her performances for Penn in previous years, those marks are certainly in jeopardy.

Since emerging as an international force at the 2012 Olympic Games, where she won the 800-meter freestyle, Ledecky has altered the landscape of distance swimming. Simply, she is an icon who changed what was perceived to be attainable. In the 800 freestyle, no woman has been within nine seconds of Ledecky’s world record. The gap is 18 seconds in the 1500 freestyle. And in the 400 freestyle, only Australian Ariarne Titmus, who topped Ledecky for gold at last summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, has been anywhere close to Ledecky’s global standard.

Now, Thomas is stalking Ledecky’s 500 freestyle record, a chase that reveals the unfairness in her racing against cisgender women. A look at the all-time rankings in the 500 free shows that Leah Smith is the second-fastest female performer in the event. Yet, she is almost five seconds back of Ledecky. The fact that Thomas could break the record of such a once-in-a-generation athlete confirms the biological advantages she possesses, and their power.

When the NCAA Champs are held, nearly 300 women will race at the venue which served as host of the swimming competition at the 1996 Olympics. During this collegiate season, thousands of women will log countless hours of training in the water and in the weight room. Going a step further, to reach the college ranks as an athlete – especially Division I – athletes put in years of work. This effort and dedication should not be denied by advantages out of their control. At the NCAA Championships, a runnerup finish to Thomas in the 500 free by Arizona State’s Emma Nordin would be unfair. So, too, would a second-place showing to Thomas by Stanford’s Torri Huske in the 200 free. Sure, these are hypothetical scenarios, but they are legitimate possibilities.

The NCAA’s minimal standard of testosterone suppressants for the inclusion of trans women in competitive sports has created a situation in which cisgender women are put at a disadvantage. The organization has an obligation to further investigate this topic and institute guidelines which protect the greater good of thousands of athletes.

Lia Thomas deserves the opportunity to continue racing, and to pursue the sport without vicious attacks against her character and identity. Perhaps this chance can be presented at Penn meets, but without the results influencing meet scores or altering record books that are kept to acknowledge the excellence of those who have preceded her. But on a larger scale?

In three months, Atlanta will be the focal point of collegiate swimming, the city playing host to the NCAA Championships. A team title will be awarded. Individual crowns will be collected. And, for the protection of cisgender female athletes and the sport, Lia Thomas should not influence what unfolds.


Definition of Cisgender: Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.


  1. avatar

    Let her race, it’s just a sport.

  2. avatar

    “Lia Thomas deserves the opportunity to continue racing” No, the women deserve the opportunity to compete against women. That should be the priority.

  3. avatar

    Let me urge everyone to consider this: Thomas has been at a disadvantage all her life. Being born in a body that isn’t yours is a life challenge that, I endeavor to say, none of you reading this can fully understand. Why are so many people so quick to shout “not fair” to the person who has had life unfair their entire life?

    There are many athletes who are superior at what they do, not only because they train hard, but because their body mechanics give them an inherent advantage – is that unfair to short people? People who don’t have long arms? There are athletes born female who have testosterone at the same levels of males who are elite athletes.

    True athletes should be satisfied by their performance for themselves, not for where they place, but for their improvements and achievements individually and as a team. For their perseverance and hard work.

    My identity, particularly in my high school and college years, was deeply rooted in being a swimmer. I suspect Thomas’s is too. She has struggled all her life with her identity. I don’t think she should have to suffer more because she was born in the wrong body by taking away her achievements in her sport.

    I don’t know the best answer, but I think we need to consider the people who have struggled for a place in society *before* we consider those who work very hard but have many invisible privileges.

    • avatar

      Quite frankly, while I respect Lia as a person, in sport and this case collegiate swimming, her personal struggle doesn’t matter. Everyone faces struggles in life some bigger than others but nonetheless who is to say one persons struggle is worse than another. Regardless of the personal adversity lia has faced that does not mean she should be allowed to compete with biological females. And if you want to talk about a group that has been marginalized throughout history we can talk about women. Women have had to fight tirelessly for their right for opportunities in life and opportunities and a place in sport. We finally have title 9 that allows women to have this space to compete fairly so they are not overlooked by men who have many physical advantages. Things like this put women on the sidelines in their own sport which is not acceptable. It’s not just a sport it’s our entire lives that we’ve put so much into. While I respect Lia and what she is going through I do not believe that marginalizing women is the answer either.

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  4. avatar

    NCAA is to blame for this. Same as the IOC and other sporting bodies, changing the rules for women’s sports based on a flawed study of 8 trans identified males. That is all it took to ruin sports for women and girls. Why can’t transwomen continue racing in the male category? Why can’t men be more inclusive of all males with all genders?
    Sports have sex-categories to ensure the fairness, safety and comfort of women and girls. Gender is not the same as sex
    For information calling women and girls “cis” is offensive and hateful to many women because it makes us a subset of our own sex-category and presumes we “identify” with regressive harmful gender stereotypes. Women are not a gender, we are adult human females

    • avatar

      Sex is the important factor in this. As gender is not the same as sex, correctly stating a persons sex is not misgendering anyone

    • avatar

      I think you misunderstand what cis gender means. It simply means you were born with the parts that match your gender identity. Most of us are cis. It is not a slur or derogatory term at all.

      • avatar

        Most women (and men) do not have a gender identity. Think about what is meant by the word gender; traditionally for women, it means, being submissive to men. Our foremothers have fought hard to get away from these regressive stereotypical gender roles. By labelling us “cis” you force these harmful gender roles back upon us. Women are adult human females of any or non-gender.

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  5. avatar

    Sure….In the category she belongs, as a gender identity diverse MALE sexed athlete. Men need to be welcoming and accepting of diverse expression of identity by members of their own sex.

  6. avatar

    Discussions like these and others deservedly put a big asterisk next to her name. The more discussions the bigger the asterisk.

  7. avatar

    Every article about Thomas should include pics of her with her teammates.
    Just for the visual.
    For those who *believe* there is no advantage for her in women’s sports.

  8. avatar

    If this is allowed to continue, women’s sports will cease to exist.

  9. avatar
    Andy C.

    At this point, I’m wondering if there is a short-term solution that would allow her to compete, while addressing the issues that are raised in this article.

    For example – she races in the prelims and if she qualifies for the final (not a given, by the way)…she is allowed to swim in Lane 9 as a non-scoring athlete. The 9th qualifier would swim in Lane 8 and score points, and the 17th qualifier would swim in the consols and score points…

    Just a thought.