The Controversy Over University of Pennsylvania Women’s Swimmer Lia Thomas


By Eunho Jung, Senior Editor

Lia Thomas, a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s Women’s Swimming Team, has been the subject of controversy in politics and national sports. Thomas, a transgender female, has set Ivy League records in the 200 meters, 500, 1,000, and 1,650 this season; however, her legitimacy as an athlete is questioned due to her transition from male to female.

Thomas has been swimming ever since kindergarten and has excelled in the sport, winning multiple titles and awards. In one race, Thomas finished almost forty seconds ahead of her closest competitor.

The debate over transgender women competing in women’s sports has grappled the nation and been a divisive issue. Over the past two years, nine states have enacted laws to prohibit transgender girls and women from competing in girls’ and women’s sports. In the state of Texas, Governor Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 25 on October 25, which took effect on January 18, 2022. The bill requires student-athletes who compete in interscholastic competitions to play on the team that aligns with their assigned sex given at birth.

The Republican legislatures in Texas who advocated for the passage of House Bill 25 believed that the bill will uphold Title IX. Passed in 1972, Title IX states “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Other states in the South and Midwest with Republican-dominated state legislatures have followed suit and enacted such bans of transgender girls and women competing in women’s sports. Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Arkansas are four states out of the nine that have either enacted state laws or executive orders to prohibit or limit participation.

Thomas competed for the Penn Men’s Swimming Team for three years prior to transitioning. In 2019, Thomas came out to her team and began undergoing hormone therapy. She returned at 22 to compete for the Women’s Swimming Team after undergoing one year of hormone therapy. Since her return, she has crushed records and flourished over her competitors drawing national criticism from politicians, celebrities, and even those on her own team.

Parents of other Penn swimmers sent a letter to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) expressing concern regarding Thomas on the team, calling her presence a “direct threat to female athletes in every sport.”

Penn Athletics swiftly responded to the outrage and issued a statement on January 6, 2022, stating their firm support for Thomas on the team. The tweet stated, “Lia 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.”

Responding to the calls for a review of the NCAA’s policies regarding transgender athletes, on January 20,, the NCAA issued a new policy regarding transgender athletes in collegiate sports. The NCAA Board of Governors met in Indianapolis as part of the 2022 NCAA Convention. Chair of the NCAA board and Georgetown President John DeGioia said that the board is “steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and the fostering of fairness across college sports. It is important that NCAA member schools, conferences and college athletes compete in an inclusive, fair, safe and respectful environment and can move forward with a clear understanding of the new policy.”

In short, the new policy calls for transgender participation for each sport to be determined by the national governing body of that sport. Thus, Thomas’ participation will be decided upon by U.S.A. Swimming. However, this does not affect Thomas’ eligibility to compete in the Ivy League Swimming & Diving Championship on February 16-19 at Harvard University in Cambridge University.

Thomas’ own teammates did not take well to this. On Thursday, February 3, sixteen members of the Penn women’s swimming team sent a letter to the school and the Ivy League asking they do not legally challenge the updated NCAA policies regarding transgender swimmers which could prohibit Thomas from competing in events. “We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her life authentically,” the letter states, “However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.”

Sex is a label that is assigned to an individual at birth, while gender is a social construct. Although Thomas was assigned as a male at birth, her gender is a female.

Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender female who competed in the Olympics in 1976 before transitioning, denounced Thomas’ participation on the women’s swimming team. “It is not fair for women to race against transgender Lia Thomas,” Jenner shared.

Legendary swimmer and 23-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps also showed his disapproval by telling CNN’s Christine Amanpour, “I think sports should be played on an even playing field.”

Maya Lozea, a senior at Wayne Hills High School, shared her opinions on the controversy surrounding Thomas. “Lia Thomas is an excellent swimmer. There is no question about that. What is important to note, however, is that her transness does not affect her skill. Biological factors vary even in cisgender women, and Ms. Thomas’ skill should not be dismissed or diminished for being trans,” Lozea explained. “Fairness guidelines in sports have only ever addressed artificial biological advantages (i.e. taking steroids), meaning that natural variation in body structure and function have no authority in determining a person’s eligibility to compete in their sport. Trans women are women, and no amount of testosterone can change that.”

As the Ivy League Championships approach, tensions are higher than ever in the Ivy League swimming world.