Now What? Analyzing The Questions Ahead In The Lia Thomas Controversy

Lia Thomas (Podium)

Now What? Analyzing The Questions Ahead In The Lia Thomas Controversy

In early December, in a relatively quiet manner, one of the biggest debates in the sport started to emerge. The controversy, which has been a point of contentious argument for the past two-plus months, ignited when the University of Pennsylvania traveled to Ohio and raced in the Zippy Invitational, a midseason opportunity for athletes to gauge their training progress.

When the meet was over, eyebrows raised. One swimmer, representing Penn in women’s competition, popped a trio of sensational times. She went 1:41.93 in the 200-yard freestyle. She clocked 4:34.06 in the 500 freestyle. And, she covered the 1650 freestyle in 15:59.71. Those times led to a pair of questions. One: Who was Lia Thomas? Two: Where did those performances come from?

It soon became common knowledge that Thomas was a transgender woman in her first season as a member of Penn’s women’s team, following three years as an athlete on the Quakers’ men’s roster. Having transitioned to female more than a year earlier, Thomas was in compliance with the NCAA’s requirements for transgender participation. At the time, the NCAA only required one year of hormone-suppressant therapy, and Thomas had obliged.

Now, what about those times? Well, Thomas’ efforts in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle ranked No. 1 in the nation and reflected a significant jump from her former racing days. Take the 200 freestyle for example. While Thomas topped the college scene among women, her top time from the 2018-19 season ranked in the mid-500s among men.

If Thomas’ emergence as a dominant force in women’s swimming was quiet at first, that scenario did not last long. Once word of her story spread, the situation revealed a massive divide. One corner featured those who couldn’t understand Thomas’ presence in women’s competition. The other corner featured those who believed she should have access to inclusion and racing as she identifies.

By transitioning to female after undergoing male puberty, Thomas owned several characteristics that provided an advantage over biological females. In addition to possessing higher testosterone levels, Thomas’ experience with male puberty also offered enhanced lung capacity, larger hands and feet and greater strength.

The outcry against her participation in women’s sports, including by Swimming World in its editorials, has surrounded the unfairness faced by biological women. While some Penn teammates have supported Thomas, others have been opposed to her participation. However, the individuals arguing against her participation have had to take an anonymous approach, with Penn threatening action and warning that speaking out would cause future harm to careers in the real world. Meanwhile, the Ivy League – of which Penn is a member – has supported Thomas throughout the winter.

Last week, at the Ivy League Championships, Thomas won all three of her individual events – the 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle. In the longer events, it was obvious the senior held back and did not exert her full energy. This sandbagging approach was likely designed to draw less attention to her performances.

In the time since the Thomas debate arose, there have been rules changes to the requirements for transgender participation by the NCAA and USA Swimming. The NCAA initially stated it would abide by USA Swimming guidelines on the topic, but upon hearing that the national governing body had instituted a testosterone threshold of 5 nmols/L, the NCAA retreated on its decision. Subsequently, the NCAA – for this winter – indicated that Thomas be eligible for next month’s NCAA Championships in Atlanta if Thomas can produce a testosterone threshold of 10 nmols/L.

So, where do we stand just a few weeks from the NCAA Champs, and with the invitations set to go out? Here’s a look.

The Waiting Game

The NCAA Women’s Championships are scheduled for March 16-19. Thomas is already qualified for the meet, provided she meets the NCAA’s testosterone threshold – if the NCAA holds her to it. It is uncertain when that news will be released, but it won’t be long with the meet just a few weeks away.

If Thomas meets the 10 nmols/L guideline established by the NCAA, it is important to note that the typical threshold for females is in the range of .5 to 2.4 nmols/L. So, there’s a chance Thomas would have anywhere between four times (4x) to 20x (20 times) the testosterone level of the opposition. More, testosterone only accounts for one of the advantages gained through male puberty, as previously noted.

The Schedule

If Thomas races at the NCAA Champs, what would her schedule look like? Undoubtedly, she would contest the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle, the events where she currently ranks No. 1 in the nation and has automatically qualified. Her third individual event would come down to the 100 freestyle and 1650 freestyle, with the longer distance the more likely selection. Thomas would have a better chance to contend in the mile than against pure sprinters.

Who Is Affected?

Thomas racing in Atlanta would have a serious impact on the competition. While Stanford’s Brooke Forde already released a statement that noted she would not have a problem racing against Thomas, the presence of the Penn athlete would create an uneven playing field for the competition in Thomas’ events. Potential foes include the likes of Forde, Arizona State’s Emma Nordin, Stanford’s Torri Huske and Virginia’s Alex Walsh – among others.

If Thomas prevails in one of her events, the runnerup would be deprived of a special moment, that period when an athlete realizes a career goal and accomplishment that does not come along very often. The biological females at the NCAA Champs deserve the opportunity to celebrate titles and not be robbed by an unfair situation which is out of their control.

At the Ivy League Championships, Catherine Buroker was an example of a swimmer who had a special moment stolen. Buroker won the 1000 freestyle and 1650 freestyle and was the second-place finisher in the 500 freestyle, placing behind Thomas. Had Thomas not been at the meet, Buroker would have been a three-time titlist and earned Swimmer of the Meet accolades, which went to Thomas.

Will Someone Speak Out?

To date, no athletes and few coaches at the NCAA level have spoken out publicly against Thomas’ participation, largely out of fear of retaliation. While there have been off-the-record comments that challenge Thomas’ presence in women’s sports, it would be more powerful if an athlete or coach voiced their feelings on a public stage. Of course, this move is considered risky due to the immediate response of many Thomas defenders, which is to hurl transphobic accusations.

It is unfortunate that the moment Thomas’ involvement is challenged, those taking that position are considered bigots. There is room to defend Thomas’ choice to live her authentic life, but not agree with her racing with an inarguable advantage.

Alternative Options

How can Thomas be provided an opportunity to showcase her skills without leaving biological females in an unfair situation? Can she be given the chance to exhibition? Would a time-trial suffice? Should an additional competitive category be created? Allowing Thomas to compete in women’s sports does not work, but something needs to be done to give Thomas some type of racing platform.

Wrapping Up

A little more than two months ago, the sport was presented with a situation that was unlike anything it previously dealt with. And now, weeks before the NCAA Championships, plenty of questions remain. Will Lia Thomas race in Atlanta? If so, how will her presence be received? Eventually, we’ll have answers.

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11 months ago


11 months ago

John, you first said that Brooke Forde had made a statement about not having a problem competing against Ms. Thomas, and then you wrote “ To date, no athletes and few coaches at the NCAA level have spoken out publicly about Thomas’ participation…”. Which one is it?

11 months ago
Reply to  SETH

You misquoted. “To date, no athletes and few coaches at the NCAA level have spoken out publicly ‘against’ Tomas’ participation.”

11 months ago

Wil”Lia”m Thomas is a male and will always be a male, even if he takes drugs and calls himself “Lia”. It is ludicrous to allow males to compete as a female just because they “identify” as one. A female is not an identity or a feeling, a female is one of the two human sexes, determined at conception. There is a biological reason for females to have their own sex based sports category based on the bigger, stronger male body. Stop the nonsense and keep biological males out of female sports! Let the males who identify as females compete against the other males or start a new trans identified category.

11 months ago
Reply to  Laurie

I agree!!!