News (World)

Lia Thomas begins legal battle to start competitively swimming again

Lia Thomas
Lia Thomas Photo: Screenshot

Transgender competitive swimmer Lia Thomas has taken legal action to challenge World Aquatics’ ban on trans competitors. She has recruited Tyr, a Canadian law firm, to challenge the ban in Switzerland’s Court of Arbitration for Sport, The Telegraph reported.

Thomas hasn’t swum since 2022, when World Aquatics, the global body overseeing competitive swimming events, changed its rules to prohibit anyone who had experienced “any part of male puberty” from competing in the female category.

Thomas first went to the CAS to challenge the ban in September 2023. However, World Aquatics asked the court to throw out her case since she’s not a member of USA Swimming, the U.S. member association impacted by World Aquatics’ rules.

Thomas’s lawyer, Carlos Sayao, slammed World Aquatics’ trans ban, calling it “discriminatory” and saying it causes “profound harm to trans women.”

“Lia has now had the door closed to her in terms of her future ability to practice her sport and compete at the highest level,” Sayao said. “She’s bringing the case for herself and other trans women to ensure that any rules for trans women’s participation in sport are fair, proportionate, and grounded in human rights and in science.”

World Aquatics changed its rules in June 2022, three months after Thomas, who was then a University of Pennsylvania swimmer became the first trans woman ever to earn a national title. She controversially won the title in the women’s 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA championships in Atlanta.

Thomas had begun transitioning fewer than three years before her win. She had previously competed on the university’s men’s swim team. She said that she transitioned to be true to herself, not to have a competitive advantage.

World Aquatics said it restricted trans women from participating based on a scientific policy document that concluded that trans women swimmers retain significant physical advantages acquired during puberty, like increased muscle mass and lung size, even if they reduce their testosterone levels through medication.

While World Aquatics accompanied its policy change by creating an “open category” welcoming trans female competitors, Thomas and other trans swimmers said that such a category doesn’t make them eligible to compete in higher levels of competition.

The Olympics, for example, only has men’s and women’s swimming categories, not an “open” category. So, even if Thomas performs well in the open category, her records there wouldn’t help her advance to the Olympics.

“It’s been a goal of mine to swim at Olympic trials for a very long time, and I would love to see that through,” Thomas told Good Morning America in May 2022.

Furthermore, so few swimmers applied for World Aquatics’ open category that the category was canceled due to lack of interest in the upcoming Swimming World Cup event in Berlin, Germany.

Responding to the category’s cancellation, World Aquatics said, “Even if there is no current demand at the elite level, the working group is planning to look at the possibility of including open category races at masters events in the future.”

But sports journalist and Fair Play author Katie Barnes recently told LGBTQ Nation that the number of out trans athletes competing at the elite level is so small that it makes open categories unrealistic to maintain.

“World Aquatics remains confident that its gender inclusion policy represents a fair approach and remains absolutely determined to protect women’s sport,” the governing body wrote in a statement.

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