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USA Swimming announces new policy for elite transgender athletes

The policy requires transgender women competing at elite levels to have low testosterone for 36 months — the longest of any sports governing body.
Pennsylvania Quakers swimmer Lia Thomas
Pennsylvania Quakers swimmer Lia Thomas competes during a tri-meet at the University of Pennsylvania on Jan. 8.Hunter Martin / Getty Images file

The national governing body for competitive swimming in the United States released a new policy Tuesday for transgender female athletes, and it faced swift criticism from some advocates.

USA Swimming, which has more than 400,000 members who compete on club teams all the way up to the Olympic team, released the Athlete Inclusion, Competitive Equity and Eligibility Policy, which is effective immediately. 

It lays out two requirements for trans women who are members of USA Swimming: The concentration of testosterone in their blood must be less than 5 nanomoles per liter continuously for at least 36 months before they apply to compete, and they must provide evidence that going through puberty as their sex assigned at birth “does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.” 

A panel of three independent medical experts will be charged with reviewing applicants and implementing the policy.

In a news release Tuesday, USA Swimming cited statistical data comparing male and female cisgender athletes, who identify with their sex assigned at birth, that shows that the top-ranked woman in 2021, on average, would be ranked much lower in male events across short and long swimming distances.

The update comes a few weeks after the NCAA, which oversees collegiate athletics, announced it would scrap its previous trans athlete policy and instead adopt a sport-by-sport approach, similar to that of the International Olympic Committee. Under this guidance, athletes will look to the trans athlete policy developed by their sport’s national or international governing body. For swimming, those organizations are USA Swimming and FINA, the international governing body.

The timing of the NCAA announcement — in the middle of a season — surprised many advocates and athletes, with some arguing the organization “caved” to pressure from critics of Lia Thomas, a trans University of Pennsylvania swimmer who swam the fastest times in the nation this season in the 200-yard freestyle and 500-yard freestyle and qualified for the NCAA championships.

USA Swimming said in a letter to its members Tuesday that it released the new policy due to the NCAA’s announcement and after “a reevaluation of FINA’s expected policy timeline,” The Washington Post reported

It’s unclear how the new policy will affect Thomas, who is not a member of USA Swimming. A spokesperson for the organization said in an email that NCAA events are not included in the policy's list of elite events.

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."

Until then, the policy adopted Jan. 19, which defers to USA Swimming and FINA and requires athletes to document their testosterone levels four weeks ahead of championship selection, remains in effect. The policy says an athlete's testosterone level has to fall below the "maximum allowable level for the sport," which under USA Swimming's policy would be 5 nanomoles per liter.

Some advocates and experts criticized the new policy. 

No other national or international sport governing body has required more than 24 months of hormone therapy (or low testosterone) for trans female athletes, said 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. 

She added that most policies require 12 months of low testosterone or hormone therapy, and 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, she said in an email. 

Thomas, who declined an interview, told the SwimSwam podcast in December that she began hormone therapy, which included estrogen and testosterone suppressants, in May 2019, so she had been on it for 2 and 1/2 years by the time she began competing on the women’s swim team in November.

Regarding how it chose 36 months for its policy, a spokesperson for USA Swimming said the organization — like the IOC, NCAA and World Athletics (the international governing body for running events) — "created a policy and guidelines under the advisement of medical, ethical, and legal experts that fits athletes at every level of our sport."

Some advocates on Twitter argued that USA Swimming targeted Thomas in particular.

“This was a decision SOLELY to eliminate Lia Thomas from the team,” one person said.

Others argued the new guidance will bar young trans athletes who haven’t undergone hormone therapy from competing for years. The policy states that athletes in the 13-14 age group will need to abide by the policy in order to set USA Swimming national age group records.

Not all trans people want to undergo hormone therapy, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, a nonprofit organization considered the leading body in transgender care, states in its standards of care that treatments are highly individualized. Trans youth who want puberty blockers start it during the very early stages of puberty, usually between 8 and 13 years old, and might begin hormone therapy in their early or mid-teens.

Some have applauded the new policy. 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 on social media that USA Swimming “deserves our appreciation for prioritizing biological women in new eligibility guidelines.”

Harper, however, has said in previous interviews with NBC News that trans athlete policies should be less about eliminating competitive advantage — which is allowed in sports, generally — and more about ensuring meaningful competition between trans women and cisgender women.

“As a population group, trans women will have an advantage in any sport (including swimming) where height is advantageous,” she said. “Height is not markedly reduced by hormone therapy. Is this unfair?”

She said it's also uncertain whether the NCAA would apply the new policy to Thomas given that she's followed all of the previously established rules.

“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. 

USA Swimming announced the change the same day some of Thomas’ teammates released a public statement in support of her participation. Their statement also addressed an anonymous interview given by at least one supposed team member who criticized Thomas.  

“We value her as a person, teammate, and friend,” the statement said. “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.”

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