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Penn teammates back transgender swimmer Lia Thomas in public statement

The unsigned statement comes after at least one anonymous member of the Penn women’s swimming and diving team spoke out against Thomas. 
Lia Thomas
University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas at a meet with Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on Jan. 22.Josh Reynolds / AP file

Members of the women’s swimming and diving team at the University of Pennsylvania released a statement Tuesday in “full support” of their teammate Lia Thomas, a transgender woman who has become the subject of debate and transphobic rhetoric since she broke multiple records at a meet in December. 

“As members of the Penn Women’s Swimming and Diving team and teammates of Lia Thomas, we want to express our full support for Lia in her transition,” the team members said in the statement, which a Penn spokesperson shared with NBC News by email after it was first reported by ESPN

“We value her as a person, teammate, and friend,” it continued. “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. 

The athletes added, “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.” ESPN reported that the statement was not signed, and it is unclear how many of the team members supported it.

Thomas’ participation on the women’s team has fueled debate over trans inclusion in sports. At a meet in Ohio in December, Thomas qualified for the NCAA championships after her wins in the 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle. Her times were the best in the country this season, according to Penn Athletics. In the 1,650-yard freestyle at the same meet, she was 38 seconds ahead of teammate Anna Kalandadze, who finished second. 

A media firestorm erupted, with some outlets posting pre-transition photos of Thomas and using her previous name, also known as her deadname. She declined an interview and has granted only one interview so far, to the SwimSwam podcast, during which she said she does not engage with the criticism. 

“It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t, and that’s all I’ll say on that,” she said.

Some of Thomas’ critics have called for her to be barred from competing entirely, while others argue that the NCAA, which oversees collegiate athletics, should adopt stricter rules for trans athletes. To compete on the women’s team, Thomas had to undergo at least one year of testosterone suppression treatment in line with NCAA guidance released in 2011. By the time she began competing, she told SwimSwam, she had been receiving treatment for two years. 

The NCAA scrapped the guidance last month, and some advocates said it had “caved” to pressure about Thomas. The new NCAA policy will take a sport-by-sport approach, similar to the International Olympic Committee, and athletes will look to the trans athlete policy developed by their sports’ national or international governing bodies. 

Athletes have been divided over Thomas’ participation. Olympic swimmers Donna de Varona and Nancy Hogshead-Makar have criticized her inclusion, arguing that trans women should not be allowed to compete against cisgender women in certain sports in which testosterone suppression does not completely mitigate their competitive advantage. 

But Brooke Forde — who is ranked third in the country behind Thomas in the 500-yard freestyle — said last week that she does not have any issue with Thomas’ competing.

“I have great respect for Lia,” she said in a statement read by her father, sportswriter Pat Forde, on Yahoo Sports’ College Football Enquirer podcast. “Social change is always a slow and difficult process and we rarely get it correct right away. Being among the first to lead such a social change requires an enormous amount of courage, and I admire Lia for her leadership that will undoubtedly benefit many trans athletes in the future.”

She continued, “I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.”

Thomas has qualified for the NCAA championships, which are scheduled for March, although it is unclear whether she will be able to compete under the new NCAA guidance. ESPN reported that USA Swimming is working with FINA, the international governing body for swimming, to develop and release a new policy soon. 

Without a policy from USA Swimming or FINA, the NCAA guidance says athletes should look to previously established IOC guidance, which required transgender women to have undergone at least one year of hormone therapy and to maintain a testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per liter.

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