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16 Penn swimmers issue letter in support of new transgender athlete rules

The swimmers argue that their trans teammate, Lia Thomas, has an unfair advantage and that some of them have “lost competitive opportunities” as a result.
Pennsylvania Women's Swimming
Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania Quakers after winning the 500 meter freestyle event during a tri-meet against the Yale Bulldogs and the Dartmouth Big Green at Sheerr Pool on the campus of the UPenn on Jan. 8, 2022 in Philadelphia.Hunter Martin / Getty Images

Sixteen members of the University of Pennsylvania women’s swimming and diving team sent a letter Thursday to the university and the Ivy League applauding USA Swimming’s new policy for transgender athletes and arguing against teammate Lia Thomas’ participation in the Ivy League Championships this month. 

The letter urges Penn and the Ivy League to support the swimmers “as biological women, and not engage in legal action with the NCAA to challenge” USA Swimming’s new policy

USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, released a new policy for elite transgender athletes Tuesday. The policy requires trans women to undergo hormone therapy and have low testosterone levels (less than 5 nanomoles per liter of blood) continuously for at least 36 months before applying to compete at the elite level. They must also provide evidence that going through puberty as their sex assigned at birth does not give them “a competitive advantage over” their “cisgender female competitors.” 

USA Swimming said it was prompted to release the policy after the NCAA scrapped its 11-year-old guidance for trans athletes and adopted a sport-by-sport approach similar to the International Olympic Committee. Under the new NCAA guidance, athletes will look to the trans athlete policies developed by their sports’ national or international governing bodies. For swimming, those bodies are USA Swimming and FINA, the international swimming federation, but FINA is still developing its own policy.

The NCAA released a new policy last month after weeks of pressure from critics who said Thomas’ participation is unfair. Thomas swam on the men’s team at Penn for three years, then began swimming on the women’s team in November. In December, she became the target of transphobic rhetoric when she swam the top times in the nation this season in the 200-yard freestyle and 500-yard freestyle.

It’s unclear whether the USA Swimming policy will affect Thomas’ eligibility. A spokesperson for the NCAA said in an email that, consistent with the group’s policy, “the Committee on Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sport will review this change at its next meeting and will make recommendations as it deems appropriate to the NCAA Board of Governors.”

The letter from Thomas’ teammates, which was sent Thursday by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic champion in swimming and founder of Champion Women, a nonprofit group that provides legal advocacy for girls and women in sports, said they “fully support” Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity. 

“Lia has every right to live her life authentically,” the letter, which Hogshead-Makar shared with NBC News, says. “However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.”

The athletes contend that Thomas has an unfair advantage and that some of them have “lost competitive opportunities” as a result. They say that, of the 41 members listed on the team’s roster, only 18 are chosen to compete in the Ivy League Championships, which begin Feb. 16. 

“We have been told that if we spoke out against her inclusion into women’s competitions, that we would be removed from the team or that we would never get a job offer,” the letter states. “When media have tried to reach out to us, these journalists have been told that the coaches and athletes were prohibited from talking to them. We support Lia’s mental health, and we ask Penn and the Ivy League to support ours as well.”

The athletes conclude by asking Penn and the Ivy League to refrain from suing the NCAA or trying “to interfere with or weaken” the new policies established by USA Swimming, urging that the policies should “be allowed to stand, so that we are able to finish our swimming season with distinction and pride.”

A spokesperson for Penn Athletics did not return a request for comment regarding the letter or the potential for a lawsuit against the NCAA. A spokesperson for the Ivy League said it does not publicly respond to letters submitted to its office. 

Thomas declined an interview, but she told the SwimSwam podcast in December that she began hormone therapy in May 2019, which would mean that she has been on testosterone suppression therapy for 32 months, and the new policy requires 36 months of documented low testosterone. 

Joanna Harper, a trans runner and a visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at England’s Loughborough University who published the first performance analysis of transgender athletes in 2015, said no other national or international sport governing body has required more than 24 months of hormone therapy (or low testosterone) for trans female athletes.

She added that most policies — including the previous NCAA policy — require 12 months of low testosterone or hormone therapy and that there is no data suggesting that 36 months “will be any more effective in mitigating advantages than 24 months would be.”

“I doubt that it is a coincidence that Lia will have had 34 months of hormone therapy by March 2022,” when the NCAA championships will be held, Harper said in an email.

“It is also not clear if the NCAA would suspend Lia from the NCAA championships given that she was eligible weeks ago, has done nothing to incur suspension and has consistently done everything asked of her by the NCAA,” Harper said. 

The letter from 16 of Thomas’ teammates followed another letter released Tuesday in which several other teammates said they supported Thomas’ inclusion.

“We value her as a person, teammate, and friend,” the team members said in the earlier statement, which a Penn spokesperson shared with NBC News by email after it was first reported by ESPN. “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,” the athletes said, referring to a recent Fox News interview with an anonymous team member who disagrees with Thomas’ participation on the women’s team. 

“We recognize this is a matter of great controversy and are doing our best to navigate it while still focusing on doing our best in the pool and classroom,” they added.

Neither of the two letters were signed, and the team members who have reportedly spoken to the press about Thomas’ participation have done so anonymously.

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