Top competitor of Lia Thomas defends transgender swimmer’s right to compete

Swimmer Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, competes for the University of Pennsylvania
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After the NCAA abruptly changed its transgender eligibility policy last week, it is currently unclear whether University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas will be allowed to compete at this year’s NCAA Championships.

Many LGBTQ+ advocacy groups – including Athlete Ally – criticized the NCAA for its hasty decision, arguing that the organization reversed its longstanding policy as a result of one specific athlete. Thomas, a transgender woman in her final year of collegiate eligibility, currently owns the fastest times this season in the women’s 200-yard and 500-yard NCAA events.

While many of Thomas’ critics have cited “fairness” as a reason to exclude her, she has followed NCAA participation guidelines, which until last week’s change, required transgender women to be on testosterone-suppressing drugs for 12 months before becoming eligible to compete in women’s events.

Now, Thomas is essentially in limbo. It’s as if she dove into a pool to swim a race, only to resurface to the news that officials moved the competition to a different venue.

Talk about unfair.

The topic of transgender athlete inclusion is often debated without much reliance on facts, in part because there is so little robust scientific research on the topic, but also because of how ingrained transphobia – and sexism – remain in society.

Instead, subjective ideas about “fairness” – specifically, what is considered fair for cisgender women and cisgender women only – have become the focal point, even in non-elite sports. It is a vexing choice for public outcry given the very unfair playing field most women’s sports continue to be played on.

Earlier this week, one of Thomas’ top competitors expressed her desire to see the UPenn swimmer included at this March’s NCAA Championships, citing the importance of treating others with dignity and respect.

Stanford’s Brooke Forde, who made her Olympic debut at last summer’s Tokyo Games, owns four individual NCAA titles, including one in the 500-yard free. She is currently ranked third in that event this season (4:36.96), behind Thomas (4:34.06) and Arizona State’s Emma Nordin (4:34.87).

In an episode of Yahoo Sports’ College Football Enquirer podcast, Sports Illustrated reporter Pat Forde shared a statement from his daughter Brooke about her thoughts on competing against Thomas. Here is the statement in-full:

I have great respect for Lia. Social change is always a slow and difficult process, and we rarely get it correct right away. Being among the first to lead such a social change requires an enormous amount of courage and I admire Lia for her leadership that will undoubtedly benefit many trans athletes in the future. In 2020 I, along with most swimmers, experienced what it was like to have my chance to achieve my swimming goals taken away after years of hard work. I would not wish this experience on anyone, especially Lia, who has followed the rules required of her. I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.

“I was impressed by the perspective,” Pat said after reading his daughter’s thoughts. “People don’t necessarily have to agree. I’m not sure I agree completely because I’m not sure this is a level playing field. My daughter’s thing is, ‘I’m the one that has to get in the pool with her and I’m fine with it.’ I think some people could take a good lesson from that.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC