The Potential Impact of Transgender Swimmers Beyond NCAA Competition

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The Potential Impact of Transgender Swimmers Beyond NCAA Competition

Ever since Penn’s Lia Thomas recorded the nation’s fastest times in the 200 and 500-yard freestyle at the recent Zippy Invitational, the swimming world has been debating how her situation should be handled. The questions largely have revolved around whether a transgender female swimmer should be allowed to compete at the NCAA Championships.

Thomas has followed all guidelines for changing an athlete’s gender category in college competition. Transgender athletes transitioning to female are required to undergo at least one year of hormone therapy prior to competing in their new category. However, some have argued that going through male puberty has provided Thomas with inherent advantages over her female competitors.

The college championships are just three months away, but the discussion about transgender athletes competing in female sporting events is sure to continue on. Thomas has not publicly discussed whether she hopes to continue swimming beyond this season, her final year of eligibility at Penn, but as more young people around the country and world begin to come out as transgender, there will surely be more in her situation.

With regards to Thomas, USA Swimming has confirmed to Swimming World that she is not currently a member of the organization, and it is believed that Thomas has not competed in a USA Swimming event since before she transitioned. That means that if Thomas does decide to continue her career after March, she will have numerous steps to follow before she will be allowed to race.

According to USA Swimming documentation adopted in May 2018, any athlete seeking “to participate in swimming in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity and expression” would have to follow a seven-step process that includes extensive documentation and review from an Eligibility Review Panel that takes into account medical eligibility. Unlike the NCAA, there is no specific requirement for hormone therapy within USA Swimming’s requirements for transgender athletes, which implies that a committee would take such considerations into account on a case-by-case basis when determining eligibility.

If an athlete’s request to compete under a different gender category is denied, a National Eligibility Appeal Panel “will handle all gender-related eligibility protests from any USA Swimming member, including non-athlete members.”

So there is a pathway for transgender swimmers to compete within USA Swimming, and it is even possible for a transgender swimmer to represent the U.S. in international competition, provided criteria from USA Swimming as well as FINA, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee is followed.

At the Tokyo Olympics this summer, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard made headlines as the first transgender female to compete in the Games after transitioning. A few months later, the IOC revamped its policy around transgender athletes, striking down a provision that required any athlete who has transitioned to undergo specific procedures and treatments.

In its place, the organization debuted a 10-point approach that would determine how to handle specific circumstances of each transgender athlete. Some of those points include: Inclusion, Prevention of Harm, Non-Discrimination, Fairness, No Presumption of Advance, an Evidence-Based Approach and the Right to Privacy.

The full document is worth checking out. It stresses that “everyone, regardless of their gender identity, expression and/or sex variations, should be able to participate in sport safely and without prejudice” and that “measures should be put in place to make sporting environments and facilities welcome to people of all gender identities.” Later, the document states that eligibility criteria should “not systematically exclude athletes from competition based upon their gender identity.”

However, issues of equity will be addressed. Item No. 4, “Fairness,” states that sports organizations should set eligibility criteria “providing evidence that no athlete within a category has an unfair or disproportionate competitive advantage.” The document states that “no athlete should be… excluded from competition on the exclusive ground of an unverified, alleged or perceived unfair competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status.”

In the next section, it notes that “any restrictions residing from eligibility criteria should be based on robust, peer-reviewed research that: demonstrates a consistent, unfair, disproportionate competitive advantage in performance.”

In short, the IOC’s requirements mesh with those that USA Swimming has laid out, leaving flexibility for organizations to decide upon athlete eligibility based on individual circumstances, rather than the NCAA’s blanket-like approach.

With Thomas’ situation right now, this is a hypothetical situation. We don’t know if she will choose to pursue swimming beyond her college career, and we certainly will not know whether that’s possible until she begins USA Swimming’s process to determine eligibility. It’s worth noting that Thomas has not competed in a long course meet since 2017, long before she came out as transgender and began to transition. From her career, her best times stood at 1:55 in the 200 free and 4:02 in the 400 free, but those times date back to 2017 and 2016, respectively.

Whatever Thomas decides for her swimming future after this college season, also consider the bigger picture: Thomas is just the first prominent transgender female swimmer, and we will see more in the coming years. We will see what is expected of transitioning females to become eligible to swim in the category of their preferred gender identity.

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Nick Alderfer
5 months ago

Tim hinchey was interviewed by Brett hawke on his podcast. Hinchey said that on these issues USA swimming defers to the ioc which defers to FINA.

5 months ago

If we are to go with the idea that sex and gender are actually two different things, then clearly we base separate divisions in sport on sex characteristics, not gender. Transgender individuals can’t change their sex. Will/Lia Thomas may be a transgender woman but will always be of the male sex and that comes with inherent advantages. They should not gain an unfair advantage over female swimmers.