Leah Thomas’ success as a transgender swimmer is divisive – and unlikely to be repeated

Pennsylvania swimmer Leah Thomas’ decision to continue swimming as a transgender woman has led to thousands of thought articles, new rules and threats of legal challenges over her existence. And the waves you make will increase when you dive into the pool at the NCAA Championships on Thursday.

Thomas could win the 500 yard freestyle, the event she has the best time in the country. She could also score additional finals for the podium in the 200-yard freestyle on Friday and the 100-yard freestyle on Saturday.

In the eyes of many, her success in the pool has made her the embodiment of how transgender athletes will transform the sport and its record books of the future — for better or worse, depending on your viewpoint.

However, the truth is that Thomas is probably more of an extreme than a harbinger of a new reality. Few, if any, transgender swimmers are likely to follow in their wake.

That’s because Thomas’ success is the product of an unusual set of circumstances – including a pandemic – that are unlikely to be repeated. The rule changes implemented in response to it will make it difficult for future Lia Thomases to even compete, let alone dominate.

Leah Thomas smiles on the podium after winning the 200-yard freestyle during the 2022 Ivy League Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships.


Photo:

Kathryn Riley / Getty Images

Thomas was really quick when competing in the men’s competitions. The Ivy League’s unique decision to cancel the 2020-21 season, while the rest of Division One swam, created a rare opportunity to sit back and continue the gender transition out of the spotlight.

Without repeating such factors for other swimmers, Lia Thomas’ results may forever be just Lia Thomas’ results.

Its existence revealed an ugly rift and something of a generational divide among advocates for women’s sports. Some activists – usually from the older party – argue that her success is evidence that puberty creates an unfair advantage that cannot be tolerated in female competition categories. Others – mostly younger – consider Thomas an inspiring role model for transgender excellence and for breaking barriers.

There is data showing that men typically have physiological traits that can provide an advantage in swimming, including greater lung capacity, leaner body mass, and hearts that distribute oxygen more efficiently, said Dr. Catalina Casaro, associate professor of exercise sciences at the university. . From West Alabama who competed in swimming for Romania.

However, there is not a wealth of evidence on how well hormones can reverse these benefits, or the length of time during which this might occur. “We don’t know how much change or how long that change will take,” Cassaro said. And after Thomas, that data set may never come.

Thomas attracted an onslaught of attention, mostly negative, that could deter others from doing what I did. Private Security has been published in its events and training courses. Her team was visibly divided.

She also encountered a slew of new rules that didn’t stop her from competing, but might prevent athletes of similar status in the future.

Leah Thomas came out as transgender in the summer of 2019 and started hormone therapy shortly thereafter.


Photo:

Marie Schwalm/The Associated Press

The core of Leah Thomas’ position is that she is a swimmer. She swam as a child, swam as a teenager, and swam for the University of Pennsylvania men’s team as a freshman and sophomore in 2017, 2018, and 2018-19 while suffering from increasing gender dysphoria, a feeling her classification as male was not. t match her feminine identity.

Thomas came out as transgender in the summer of 2019 and started hormone therapy shortly thereafter. She has said she knew it could stop her from continuing to swim competitively if the hormonal shift was lowering her times, but she chose to prioritize that anyway. She competed moderately with the Pennsylvania men’s team as junior the following winter, and her times actually slowed down as her hormones rebalanced.

Then came the pandemic, which abruptly ended the 2019-20 season, creating a rare opportunity for Thomas to quietly complete her transition and fulfill NCAA requirements that transgender athletes undergo hormone replacement therapy for at least 12 months before appearing on a women’s team. at a more relaxed pace.

Thomas felt the convention would cancel the 2020-21 swimming season as it did for the spring sports, so he took the year off. It paved the way for her to compete for Ben in the 2021-22 season as an undergraduate, and for the women’s team.

Thomas’ admission relatively early in college that she wanted to relocate, and the fact that she started hormone therapy over the summer, enabled her to navigate the window enabled by NCAA rules in effect at the time where others might not have.

That’s not all that unusual in her setting, though. Another oddity is that she also happens to be very, very fast for a team swim – when compared to the men she was competing against. Thomas posted the fastest freestyle time at number 32 in the men’s 1,650 yards during her sophomore season in 2018-19. At 1,000 free yards, she ranked 18th.

This raised the possibility that she would be able to challenge the NCAA women’s records and dominate the women’s competition. Had she been just mediocre while competing in the men’s events, the fight over her participation might not have been burdened with additional controversy about rewriting the record books and dominating the competitions in which she participates.

The most vocal reason there are no swimmers compared to Lia Thomas for the foreseeable future, though, is the sweeping rules created this winter with Lia Thomas in mind.

The NCAA said in January it would change its rules for transgender participation to comply with rules set by the governing bodies of each sport — USA Swimming, in this case.

Soon after, USA Swimming announced a comprehensive set of new requirements, in which transgender swimmers seeking to compete in women’s events are evaluated by a panel that considers “evidence that the athlete’s prior physical development as a male, as mitigated by any medical intervention” It does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over competing female athletes.”

USA Swimming said the committee would also base its decision on evidence that an athlete’s serum testosterone concentration drops below the limit considered normal for women continuously for at least 36 months.

This triples the time required for any transition, making it It’s nearly impossible for a swimmer to start hormone therapy after they’ve reached college and still compete there again. It also makes it less likely that high school swimmers will convert without having much of an impact on their recruitment.

Lia Thomas will compete in the NCAA tournaments because she has met the current testosterone standard in force in NCAA swimming events.


Photo:

Josh Reynolds/The Associated Press

The rules haven’t affected Thomas, yet. The NCAA soon decided that it would refrain from applying it before the tournament, and only then would weeks later, citing “the unfair and potentially harmful effects on school and student-athletes intending to compete in the 2022 women’s swimming championships.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) said it will review U.S. swimming proposals for the coming years.

Thomas will compete in the NCAA tournaments because she has met the current testosterone standard applied in NCAA swimming events, which is based on the International Olympic Committee and has a higher testosterone threshold than USA swimming. And then you might be the last transgender woman to do that there for a long time.

Write to Louise Radnofsky at [email protected] and Laine Higgins at [email protected]

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