There’s a controversy brewing at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) that is threatening the entire sport of women’s swimming. A biologically male swimmer who competed on the Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Penn team for three years is now swimming as a member of the women’s team. Lia Thomas, formerly Will Thomas, is the top swimmer on the Penn women’s swim team, breaking school and division records, and qualifying for the National Championship meet early in the season. Thomas was able to switch teams due to an NCAA rule that allows a male swimmer to compete as a woman after a year of testosterone suppression treatments.
These events became a national story after Thomas annihilated women’s swimming records at the Zippy Invitational at the University of Akron. Thomas swam the 200 freestyle with the fastest national time and now has the 17th all-time fastest time in women’s swimming. Thomas also achieved the fastest time in the nation for the women’s 500 freestyle — beating his teammate by more than 12 seconds (almost a full length of the pool). Moreover, in the 1650 freestyle, Thomas was 38 seconds faster than his opponent (Thomas touched the wall while the second place swimmer still had over two lengths of the pool to swim).
The National Swimming Championships take place in March, with Thomas positioned to be the first biological male to become the greatest swimmer of all time in collegiate women’s swimming. This has rightly led to outrage from both the swimming community at large as well as the female swimmers on the Penn team. At least two swimmers have spoken out, although anonymously due to fear of retribution from the school, NCAA, and future employers.
“They feel so discouraged because no matter how much work they put in it, they’re going to lose. Usually, they can get behind the blocks and know they out-trained all their competitors and they’re going to win and give it all they’ve got.
“Now they’re having to go behind the blocks knowing no matter what, they do not have the chance to win. I think that it’s really getting to everyone.”
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Parents of Penn swimmers wrote a letter to the NCAA calling for the NCAA to change the policy. Members of the national swimming community — current Olympians, former All-Americans, swim coaches, and swimming officials — have echoed the call for change.
And yet, the NCAA and University of Pennsylvania refuse to respond (Penn simply pointed to mental health services available to students). The NCAA is defying current scientific consensus by continuing to place inclusivity over common sense. While stating that they are committed to equity, female athletes are being shut out of the conversation.
The NCAA is defying current scientific consensus by continuing to place inclusivity over common sense.
Males have a biological advantage over women — larger hearts and lungs, denser bones, and stronger muscles. A recent study on the impact of testosterone suppression treatments found that policies like those of the NCAA do not create a level playing field. The study concluded:
“The data presented here demonstrates that the male physical performance advantage over females, attributed to superior anthropometric and muscle mass/strength parameters achieved at puberty, is not removed by the current regimen of testosterone suppression permitting participation of transgender women in female sports categories. Rather, it appears that the male performance advantage is largely retained by transgender women and thus remains substantial.”
To put this into perspective, John Lohn, editor-in-chief of Swimming World Magazine, writes that Thomas’ advantage over his female competitors has the same effect on the competition as doping.
Today’s woke athletic culture fails to recognize that identities don’t play sports, bodies do.
The effects of being born a biological male, as they relate to the sport of swimming, offer Thomas a clear-cut edge over the biological females against whom she is competing. She is stronger. It is that simple. And this strength is beneficial to her stroke, on turns and to her endurance. Doping has the same effect.
Lohn suggests that Thomas swim as a participant only (no points, no medals, no records). But he’s missing a clear solution that cannot be overstated. Thomas was on a team where he could participate fully: the Penn men’s swim team. Thomas should continue to swim as a member of the men’s team, with the same opportunity to set records, win championships, and gain accolades as other biological males.
The Penn women’s swim team is being forced to compete in an alternate reality because today’s woke athletic culture fails to recognize that identities don’t play sports, bodies do.
Emily Kreps serves as the Legal Assistant with the Pennsylvania Family Institute.
Editors’ Note: On January 6th, both Penn Athletics and The Ivy League shared statements on the situation, affirming their support for Thomas’ continued participation, inclusivity, and the NCAA protocols. These statements can be found here and here.