USA Swimming changes rules in wake of transgender athlete's success
A transgender American swimmer's controversial career hung in the balance Wednesday after the collegiate body governing the sport announced new rules, including testosterone limits, that could impact her ability to race competitively.
Lia Thomas has dominated US collegiate women's swimming as a student athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, where just a few years earlier she had competed on the men's team.
Now, amid an uproar fueled by anger among American conservatives who accuse Thomas of an unfair advantage, USA Swimming unveiled guidelines that do not mention the 22-year-old by name but will impact her swimming future -- although exactly how remains unclear.
The policy said that because swimming is "an important vehicle for positive physical and mental health," it remains committed to "greater inclusivity" at the non-elite levels of the sport.
For the elite level, however, the body said it created a new set of guidelines for transgender athlete participation that "relies on science and medical evidence-based methods to provide a level-playing field for elite cisgender women, and to mitigate the advantages associated with male puberty and physiology."
USA Swimming said that a three-member panel comprised of medical experts and a veteran athlete was being established to implement the new policy and to rule on specific cases.
A key criterion that the panel will look for is that "from a medical perspective, the prior physical development of the athlete as a Male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete's cisgender Female competitors."
In addition, a swimmer is ineligible "unless the athlete demonstrates that the concentration of testosterone in the athlete's serum has been less than 5 nmol/L (as measured by liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry) continuously for a period of at least 36 months before the date of Application."
Doctors measure testosterone in nanomoles per liter (nmol/L). According to New York's Mount Sinai hospital, the healthy range of testosterone in a woman is 0.5 to 2.4 nmol/L.
Thomas followed National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules, undergoing a year-long testosterone suppression treatment.
But some organizations, such as the Women's Sports Policy Working Group, have deemed these rules insufficient, especially in cases where an athlete has begun her transition after puberty.
- 'Full support' -
The NCAA, which governs US college sports, said in January it would enforce rules set forth by USA Swimming, which has the authority to bar swimmers from competitions.
A swim meet for the Ivy League of mostly northeastern colleges is scheduled for February, and the NCAA National Championships are in March.
Thomas said she began her transition in May 2019 with hormone replacement therapy -- a combination of estrogen and testosterone suppressants.
In early December, in Akron, Ohio, she recorded the best performances of the year at the university level, in the 200-yard freestyle (1 min 41 sec 93") and in the 500-yard (457 meters) freestyle (4 min 34 sec 06").
Her performances have renewed a long-running debate about the fairness of a transgender woman competing against biological females.
Members of the Penn swimming team and diving team issued a statement supporting their transgender teammate.
"We want to express our full support for Lia in her transition," they said in the statement released late Tuesday, apparently after one teammate spoke out about Thomas.
"We value her as a person, teammate, and friend. The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values, and opinions of the entire Penn team, composed of 39 women with diverse backgrounds."