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USA Swimming announces stricter trans athlete policy in the wake of UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas

Lia Thomas, Trans Penn Swimmer
Lia ThomasPhoto: Screenshot

Amidst continued conservative backlash over the success of the University of Pennsylvania’s swimmer Lia Thomas, who is transgender, USA Swimming has unveiled stricter rules for transgender athletes that may affect Thomas’s ability to compete.

A Tuesday press release explained that effective immediately, an athlete will not be eligible for women’s elite competitions hosted by the Olympics or FINA, the international governing body for Olympic water sports, unless they show testosterone levels less than five nanomoles per liter of serum testosterone (nmol/L) for at least 36 months.

Related: Trans woman athlete gets conservative backlash for setting Ivy League swimming records 

For context, the policy of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for 17 years was that trans athletes had to show testosterone levels of up to 10 nmol/L for a period of 12 months, making USA Swimming more strict than the Olympics’ previous policy. In November, however, IOC announced that it was discontinuing this policy starting in March 2022 and leaving the decisions up to each individual sport.

According to the press release from USA Swimming, the strict policy “acknowledges a competitive difference in the male and female categories and the disadvantages this presents in elite head-to-head competition.”

It also stated that USA Swimming “remains steadfast in its continued commitment to greater inclusivity at the non-elite levels.”

At non-elite levels, it said swimmers will be able to compete as their lived gender without strict guidelines, but at the elite level, policies will rely “on science and medical evidence-based methods to provide a level-playing field for elite cisgender women, and to mitigate the advantages associated with male puberty and physiology.”

While Thomas is not currently a member of USA Swimming – she is a college athlete – the NCAA previously made it clear that its policies on transgender athlete participation will follow Olympic guidelines to align with the large number of college athletes who go on to become Olympians.

As such, it is possible these new rules could affect Thomas’s ability to compete in the national championships in March.

The NCAA also already announced its own new rules set to begin in March that will require transgender athletes to “document  sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections,” rather than the current requirement that athletes merely undergo one year of testosterone suppression before competing.

Upon the revelation of these new NCAA rules, an unnamed source from the UPenn swim team said the school could sue if Thomas is banned from the 2022 winter championships.

The student claims to have “heard that from some of the administrators” but doesn’t know if the lawsuit would be filed directly from Penn Athletics or from the broader university.

UPenn has already made it clear that it stands with Thomas.

Earlier this month, Penn Athletics released a statement affirming its support for her.

“Penn Athletics is committed to being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all student-athletes, coaches, and staff and we hold true to that commitment today and in the future,” it said, adding that Thomas has “met or exceeded all NCAA protocols over the past two years for a transgender female student-athlete to compete for a women’s team. She will continue to represent the Penn women’s swimming team in competition this season.”

Now, however, it remains unclear whether all of these new guidelines will change anything.

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