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February 14, 2022

Transgender Penn swimmer Lia Thomas cleared by NCAA ruling to compete in next month's championships

The 22-year-old senior will also be able to take part in the Ivy League competitions which begin this week on Wednesday

LGBTQ University of Pennsylvania
Lia Thomas Penn swimmer Thomas Park/Unsplash

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas can compete at next month's NCAA championships after the NCAA elected not to adopt USA Swimming's new rules regarding transgender athletes this season.

Lia Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania swimmer who has found herself at the center of a national debate on transgender athletes, will be in the pool for the NCAA championships in March. 

The NCAA will not adopt USA Swimming's new rules on transgender athletes until next season, meaning Thomas will be able to compete in next month's event, Billy Penn reported. 

The 22-year-old senior has also been given the green light to swim at the Ivy League championships this week in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The NCAA changed its policy on transgender athletes last month, taking a sport-by-sport approach on the matter and allowing each sport's governing body to make its own rules. The association's previous rule, which took effect in 2010, allowed transgender women who underwent at least one year of testosterone suppression treatment to participate in competitions.

USA Swimming, the national governing body for competitive swimming in the United States, then changed its policy earlier this month for transgender athletes competing in events. The new policy must be adopted by the NCAA, and includes additional requirements for swimmers who transition from male to female.

The concentration of testosterone in a transgender female swimmer's blood must be less than five nanomoles per liter continuously for at least three years before she can compete. Additionally, a panel of three independent medical experts must determine whether a swimmer's prior development as a man gives her an advantage over her cisgender competitors.

The new rules could have potentially prevented Thomas from competing in the NCAA championships next month. Thomas, who began hormone suppression therapy in May 2019, was in compliance with the NCAA's previous policy.

However, the NCAA said last week that it will not fully adopt USA Swimming's new rules until the 2023-24 season, thus clearing the way for Thomas to swim at next month's championships. Instead, the NCAA has elected to roll out the new policy in multiple phases.

The first phase affects championships held this winter and spring. To qualify, transgender swimmers must be in compliance with the 2010 policy and provide evidence of a one-time serum testosterone level below the maximum limit within four weeks of the event.

The second phase, which will be rolled out next season, will require swimmers to submit their testosterone levels at the beginning of the year and six months after. The third phase will incorporate the USA Swimming policy in the 2023-24 campaign.

Thomas spent three seasons on Penn's men's swimming team before completing her transition in 2020 and joining the women's squad this year. The Ivy League canceled its 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, postponing Thomas's final year of eligibility to this year. 

She told SwimSwam in December that she realized she was transgender during the summer of 2018, but did not begin her transition until the following spring. She competed on the men's team during her junior year after having already started hormone suppression therapy.

Thomas has dominated her competition, though her times are slower than what she clocked before transitioning. She has the top times in the 200-yard freestyle and the 500-yard freestyle, and is favored to win both events at the NCAA championships. She has also qualified in the 1,650-yard freestyle.

Her dominance has sparked a national debate over transgender athletes and has caused division among her own teammates.

A group from her team wrote in an anonymous letter that Thomas has "an unfair advantage" over the competition and asked Penn not to challenge the NCAA's new policy on transgender athletes. Another set of teammates released an unsigned letter in "full support" of Thomas.

Penn has previously committed to supporting Thomas through the NCAA rule changes.

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