Being a Transgender Athlete in the Swimming World

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Being a Transgender Athlete in the Swimming World

By Tara Draper – Swimming World College Intern

Recently, I had a friend – who is not an athlete – come out as transgender. She has had many battles regarding her identity and has slowly started transitioning. Her transition led me to think about the transgender experience in general. I soon wondered what it’s like being a transgender athlete. The NCAA has a transgender inclusion policy, but in a sport like swimming where the uniform is revealing, being transgender can be an issue. I started doing more research to satisfy my curiosity and discovered there is no policy regarding transgender aquatic athletes. 

Due to muscular differences, there are separate regulations for transgender women/men who do not undergo hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Transgender men can compete on either the female or male teams, whichever best reflects their gender identity. Since transgender females tend to have a physical advantage, these athletes must compete only on the men’s team. 

In almost all other sports, transgender athletes who undergo HRT can move to a team that affirms their gender identity. Due to the restrictions of the men’s and women’s swimming uniforms, competing with one’s preferred gender is harder. However, there are ways around the uniform guidelines. Through conversations with the various Title IX and NCAA inclusion representatives at my college, I discovered these various waivers. Below are the NCAA’s playing rules, and can be found in this document

(Rule 3.1.1.b) identifies the suit design for men’s and women’s suits

Rule 3.1.1.b.3 – For men, the swimsuit shall not extend above the waist nor below the top of the kneecap;

Rule 3.1.1.b.4 – For women, the swimsuit shall not extend beyond the shoulders nor below the top of the kneecap, nor cover the neck.

Below are the rules, as stated in the transgender inclusion policy: 

A transgender male (FTM) student-athlete who has received a medical exception for treatment with testosterone for diagnosed Gender Identity Disorder or gender dysphoria and/or Transsexualism, for purposes of NCAA competition may compete on a men’s team but is no longer eligible to compete on a women’s team without changing that team status to a mixed team.

A transgender female (MTF) student-athlete being treated with testosterone suppression medication for Gender Identity Disorder or gender dysphoria and/or Transsexualism, for the purposes of NCAA competition 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 calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment.

What happens when an aquatics athlete decides to start HRT? Multiple steps in this process can be complicated and take a bit of time. 

Transgender male athletes have to switch sports immediately due to the effects of testosterone on the body. Switching genders can be done at any point in the year, even if the athlete is midway through a season. Transgender female athletes (as stated above) have to wait one year after they start treatment to compete.

Before the athlete can start their hormone treatments, their college must submit a waiver request to the NCAA to waive the rule regarding suits. From discussions with my sports information director, this is not a complicated nor time-consuming process. The only caveat is that the approval is yearly. Thus, the athlete needs to reapply each year to be able to compete in the proper suit for their body. 

The other area of approval the athlete needs is to take hormones. The NCAA website explains this process. It involves “the institution, through its director of athletics, (requesting) an exception for use of (hormones) by submitting to the NCAA medical documentation from the prescribing physician supporting the diagnosis and treatment.” Once these approvals have been received, the athlete can compete in a female suit and take their hormones. 

Even though this process is not the easiest to find information on, athletes have done it before. The NCAA informed me there had been two recent approvals (2014-15 and 2017-18-19) of student-athletes requesting approval to wear the “incorrect” suit. These applications were both approved. One of the most prominent openly transgender student-athletes is Schuyler Bailar, who swam at Harvard a few years ago. 

I hope that this article can provide some semblance of help to athletes struggling with their gender. Aquatic sports are fantastic sports to be involved in and need to be accessible to all athletes, regardless of their gender identity. 

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