Transgender swimmer’s NCAA win could have positive ripple effects

Guilford women’s swimming team members say Lia Thomas’ participation in the sport is fair and important

On March 17, Lia Thomas, a transgender female swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania, won the 500-yard NCAA freestyle event in Atlanta at 4:33.24. Thomas, a senior, also had good times in the 100- and 200-yard freestyle events that weekend. While Thomas made history by becoming the first transgender woman to win an NCAA championship, there are some who say she should not have been allowed to compete in women’s swimming at all.

Thomas was assigned male at birth and participated in men’s swimming at the University of Pennsylvania for three seasons. Then, according to the Wall Street Journal, when the 2019 season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, she underwent 12 months of hormone treatment and joined women’s swimming as a transgender athlete.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Thomas was allowed to compete at the NCAA championships because she met the current testosterone standard for NCAA swimming events. However, including transgender swimmers in women’s competitions has been controversial because some think it is unfair.

For instance, Catalina Casaru, associate professor of exercise science at the University of West Alabama, told the Wall Street Journal that men typically have physiological characteristics “that could provide an advantage in swimming, including larger lung capacity, leaner body mass, and hearts that circulate oxygen more efficiently.” Those who oppose Thomas’ participation in women’s swimming believe her physical characteristics give her an unfair advantage compared to cisgender women.

However, according to Sports Illustrated, Thomas was already a very fast swimmer when she identified as male.

“In her first Ivy League championships, in February 2018, she had top-eight finishes in the 500-yard freestyle, the 1,000-yard freestyle, and the 1,650-yard freestyle,” the magazine reported.

Those who say that Thomas’ participation in swimming is about equality point out that she was always good and that being transgender has nothing to do with her excellent results.

“I feel like Lia Thomas just had a better swim than everyone else (and) that is why she won. Not because she is transgender,” said Guilford sophomore Hannah Lambeth, who is a member of the women’s swimming team.

“Emma Weyant, who came second to Lia Thomas, was supposed to win,” Lambeth said. “She had a time better than Lia Thomas but she just didn’t have a good swim. That is why she (was) second, not because…a ‘man’ raced against her.”

“People say Lia Thomas is genetically faster than everyone,” Lambeth added. “Then why didn’t she win all her races? No one is talking about how she got second in her first event and third in her other event.”

In response to views that transgender women who are athletes have unfair advantages compared to cisgender women, Rachel G. Riskind, an associate professor at Guilford and chair of the Department of Psychology, says this: “Transgender women are women. Period. These criticisms emerge as the latest in a long, racist and sexist history of policing the bodies of women athletes as insufficiently feminine.

“Women athletes are diverse in many ways,” Riskind said. “One could argue that it’s unfair for tall women to compete against shorter women, or for women from wealthy families, with access to expensive coaching and equipment, to compete against women without such privileges. When it comes to elite athletic competitions, there’s far more evidence that family wealth provides an unfair advantage—where is the outrage about that?”

Thomas appears to be the most visible example of a small number of transgender athletes who are competing in female sports on the high school and college levels. However, some states, most recently Oklahoma and Arizona, have passed bills that prevent transgender athletes from participating in female sports.

Guilford swimming team member Lambeth believes that Thomas will have a positive impact on the sport “because Lia Thomas is opening so many doors and questions, not only for the swimming community but for sports as a whole. I think it’s 100% fair for Lia Thomas to swim.”

Megan Cessna, captain of Guilford’s women’s swimming team, said she hopes that Thomas’ switch from men’s to women’s swimming will have a positive impact on the sport. “However, it seems that people who have never followed the sport before are suddenly interested because it involves a transgender person,” Cessna said.

“The question we must then ask ourselves is: is this really about swimming as a sport or is it about transphobia?” Cessna continued. “I think her success as a transgender woman is important for young transgender athletes. (Thomas) is a part of the new generation inspiring the next generation of transgender athletes. I do not believe it is unfair for transgender women to compete against cisgender women.”

“Sports aren’t fair. Genetics aren’t either,” Cessna said. “If Michael Phelps is allowed to compete with a genetic advantage, then Lia Thomas and every other transgender athlete should too.”