Lia Thomas has been performing for months in American university pools. But this transgender swimmer finds herself at the center of a lively controversy, accused of being unfairly advantaged because she was born a man.
The controversy, which again raises the delicate question of the place of transgender athletes, has already prompted the NCAA, the organization governing university sport, then USA Swimmings, the American swimming federation, to promise new regulations.
All this against the background of an offensive by conservative politicians. “We will ban men from participating in women’s competitions,” Donald Trump said on January 15 during a meeting in Arizona.
Without naming her, but calling her masculine, the former president then pointed to Lia Thomas, a 22-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the women’s swimming team since September 2021, after having competed in boys .
In one of her rare interviews, on the “TheSwimSwam” podcast, she explains that she realized she was “trans” in the summer of 2018, but first wanted to continue swimming for men. “It caused me a lot of distress (…). I was no longer able to concentrate on swimming, on studies, on my friends,” she said. She began her transition in May 2019, with hormonal treatment.
For her first season among women, Lia is a hit. At the beginning of December, in Akron (Ohio), she achieved the best performance of the year over 200 yards (183 meters) free (1 min 41 sec 93”) and over 500 yards (457 meters) free (4 min 34 sec 06) .
Saturday at Harvard (Cambridge, Massachusetts), she shone again by winning the 100 and 200 free yards.
The student abides by NCAA rules, which allow transgender women to compete after undergoing testosterone suppression treatment for at least a year. Not enough for some, especially in a power sport like swimming, because her transition started after puberty.
“Lia is overperforming in women’s events,” wrote the Women’s sports policy working group, which claims to defend women’s sport, in a letter to the NCAA.
It is based on a study, not yet published in a scientific journal, which reviewed the times of the swimmer.
“His post-transition times to date (…) remain too close to his best pre-transition times in men’s events, compared to the performance gap between male and female athletes” in college sport, adds the group, which includes in its ranks the former quadruple Olympic medalist in swimming (Los Angeles, 1984), Nancy Hogshead-Makar.
But for its defenders, the controversy is just one more proof of the discrimination suffered by transgender people.
“(Lia) Thomas is simply an athlete who loves her sport, trains hard and meets all the requirements to swim competitively. Despite this, she is the victim of violent rhetoric,” lamented the group Athlete Ally.
The subject is divisive in the United States, where several conservative states — ten according to Athlete Ally — have passed laws to block young transgender girls from women’s sports in school.
Five months after the first participation in the Summer Olympics of a transgender athlete, in weightlifting, the question remains a headache for sports institutions. In November, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) passed the buck to every sport, pointing to the lack of “scientific consensus on the role of testosterone in performance across sports.”
The NCAA took up this differentiated approach on Thursday, while evoking the idea of testosterone thresholds. Since 2019, the international athletics federation (World Athletics) has imposed such thresholds (less than 5 nmol/l for twelve months) and it is on this basis that the transgender athlete CeCe Telfer had been excluded from the Olympic selections, in June 2021.
For its part, the University of Pennsylvania has renewed its support for Lia Thomas, in particular with a view to the next NCAA championships in March, the flagship event of the university season.
If she qualifies, she could once again compete against Izzi Henig, a transgender Yale student who has decided not to take hormone treatments and continues to compete for women. On January 8, a first confrontation on 100 free yards had turned to the advantage of Izzi Henig.