A transgender swimmer prompts a backlash in the pool
Athletes and advocates call Lia Thomas’ swim records unfair
In early December, Lia Thomas, a male competing on the University of Pennsylvania women’s swim team, outswam second-place female swimmers by 38 seconds in the 1,650-yard freestyle, 12 seconds in the 500 freestyle, and nearly 7 seconds in the 200 freestyle. The 22-year-old senior set new program, meet, and pool records at the Zippy Invitational and has qualified to compete in the NCAA championships in March.
Thomas’ 200 freestyle time was just two seconds shy of a 2015 NCAA record set by Missy Franklin, now an Olympic gold medalist. The transgender swimmer is slated to qualify for Olympic trials and to break NCAA championship records held by women.
Thomas’ performance has prompted a backlash among athletes and advocates within the swimming world over the fairness of allowing men to compete against women in the pool. It has also revived a debate over the NCAA’s 2010 transgender policy that permits men to compete on women’s teams after one year of medical testosterone suppression. Many argue those rules ignore the clear advantages biological males have over female athletes, even after hormonal treatments.
The 41-member Penn women’s swimming team competed in its final home meet on Saturday. There Thomas won two races but, in a twist, lost the 100 freestyle to another transgender swimmer, Iszac Henig, a female who identifies as a man. Thomas, previously known as Will, swam on the Penn men’s team for three seasons before taking a year off, then joining the women’s team.
Speaking anonymously, two of Thomas’ teammates voiced their frustration to the media outlet OutKick, saying the swimmer’s recent record-setting was unfair and “upsetting” and had cast a cloud over the team. They said other teammates feared retaliation for speaking out. Parents of 10 Penn female swimmers sent a letter to the NCAA on Dec. 5, stating, “At stake here is the integrity of women’s sports,” according to a copy obtained by the Daily Mail.
The concerns about fairness prompted Cynthia Millen, 66, to resign from her position as a USA Swimming official last month. The Ohio mother of five had officiated club, high school, university, Paralympic, junior, and senior-level national swimming competitions for three decades. In a Dec. 17 resignation letter, she said she could no longer support a sport that allowed men to compete in women’s races.
Comparisons show men swim up to 12 percent faster than women thanks to advantages in their skeletal frame and lung capacity. A study in 2020 found that men retain a 10 to 50 percent advantage over women after puberty—an advantage not significantly reduced by testosterone suppression.
Millen chastised sports governing bodies such as the NCAA, USA Swimming, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for jeopardizing the advances in women’s sports in recent decades. She recalled the limited sporting options for girls during her childhood: “You had to be a cheerleader for the guys.”
In November, the IOC updated its transgender guidelines, ending a 2015 policy that put restrictions on male testosterone levels. Months earlier, Laurel Hubbard, a male athlete who identifies as a woman, became the first transgender person to compete in the Olympic Games in the women’s weightlifting category.
“Pretty soon it’s not just going to be swimming or weightlifting. It’s going to be every sport,” Millen said.
Other critics of the NCAA transgender policy include swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a four-time Olympic medalist; professional swimmers Gabby DeLoof and Erika Brown; and John Lohn, editor-in-chief of Swimming World.
“The current requirements are not rigid enough and do not produce an authentic competitive atmosphere,” Lohn wrote in an editorial last month. He called on the NCAA to bar Thomas from the women’s championships in March, saying the effects of Thomas’ athletic advantages are “akin to doping.”
The NCAA and Penn coaches have remained silent. “They are leaving it up to vulnerable female athletes and parents to say something,” said Linda Blade, president of Athletics Alberta and a coach and Team Canada heptathlon competitor.
Blade, who co-authored Unsporting: How Trans Activism and Science Denial Are Destroying Sport, said she was working with multiple international women’s sports groups to form a united consortium to lobby for young female athletes: “We are trying to organize and say, Who is going to be the female voice at the table?”
—WORLD has updated this story since its original posting on Jan. 7.