Lia Thomas celebrates another victory as swimming officials prepare for new trans policy

Lia Thomas of the Pennsylvania Quakers shakes hands with a competitor

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas clinched a pair of victories over the weekend amid uncertainty about the future of trans inclusion in student sports.

The 22-year-old won in the 100-metre and 200-metre freestyle races against Harvard on Saturday (22 January), bouncing back after a loss to Yale on 8 January.

Her wins came days after the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) revised its policy with regards to trans athletes. Previously its policy was uniform across all sports, however it will now vary from sport to sport.

The association will turn to the policies of each national governing body, which means Thomas will have to conform to USA Swimming’s policies on trans athletes.

Additionally, the NCAA will now require testosterone testing in championship windows. 

Braden Keith, editor-in-chief of SwimSwam, which covers college and Olympic swimming news, explained that there is nothing in the new policy that would “preclude” Lia from racing at the upcoming NCAA Championships in March.

Penn Athletics, Thomas’ team, said: “Penn Athletics is aware of the NCAA’s new transgender participation policy. In support of our student-athlete, Lia Thomas, we will work with the NCAA regarding her participation under the newly adopted standards for the 2022 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship.”

USA Swimming, which will now be providing the guidance for trans swimmers, said in a statement: “USA Swimming firmly believes in inclusivity and the opportunity for all athletes to experience the sport of swimming in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity and expression.

“We also strongly believe in competitive equity, and, like many, are doing our best to learn and educate ourselves on the appropriate balance in this space.”

USA Swimming added that its previous policy followed International Olympic Committee (IOC) guidelines, however following policy changes in November 2021, the IOC now requires international federations to create their own sport-specific eligibility requirements.

It said: “We have been proactively working with FINA (the international federation for amateur swimming) for several months to help shape and support their policy development efforts.

“We believe they will release a new policy shortly, which we will adopt for elite-level competitions.”

Thomas, from Austin, Texas, spoke about the “initial awkwardness” of coming out, and the support of her team, after she smashed two United States records in 2021.

In an interview with SwimSwam after she won the 200m and 500m freestyles at the Zippy Invitational in Ohio, Thomas said: “It’s been a lot of struggles in the 12 months prior to coming out to everybody, to the initial awkwardness, and the uncertainty of first starting out transitioning.

“There just seems to be so much to do and things you have to take care of, and it just seems like this mountain. But you get by it day by day, and build confidence each day, and I’m feeling confident and good in my swimming and all my personal relationships.

“Transitioning has allowed me to be more confident in all of those aspects of my life, where I was struggling a lot before I came out.

“The team has been unbelievably supportive since the beginning… I feel very supported. Just treated like any other member of the women’s team.”

Thomas’ wins come as ten US states, including Texas and Florida, have decided to ban trans athletes from competing in female sports at schools

Students in those states will now be forced to play on sports teams that correspond to the gender assigned to them on their birth certificate at or near the time they were born.

At the time the ruling was announced in Texas, Rebecca Marques, Human Rights Campaign Texas state director, said the legislation marks a “dark and frightening day for thousands of families in Texas who fear for the safety and future of their transgender children”.