NCAA ruling clears path for transgender swimmer Lia Thomas to compete at nationals

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Penn's Lia Thomas wins 200-yard freestyle vs. Harvard (2:09)

Lia Thomas dominates for Penn in the 200-yard freestyle event. (2:09)

The path for Penn transgender swimmer Lia Thomas to compete in the NCAA championships next month seems to be clear after the NCAA announced Thursday that it would not adopt a new USA Swimming policy for the winter championships.

The decision followed a recommendation from the administrative subcommittee of the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) to the NCAA board of governors.

"The subcommittee decided implementing additional changes at this time could have unfair and potentially detrimental impacts on schools and student-athletes intending to compete in 2022 NCAA women's swimming championships," the NCAA said in a statement.

Penn said it would continue to work with the NCAA regarding Thomas' eligibility for the event.

The rules governing transgender athletes' participation on the collegiate level have been murky since Jan. 19, when the NCAA announced a policy change. Revising a policy from 2010, which applied across all sports, the NCAA opted to adopt each sport's national governing body policy, allowing for different policies across sports.

But for the upcoming winter and spring championships, the NCAA stated that athletes who had been in compliance with the 2010 policy need only to demonstrate a testosterone serum level below the "maximum allowable limit" for that sport within four weeks of the championship. The limit for women's swimming had been set at 10 nanomoles per liter, the same threshold used by previous Olympic rules but double the threshold in the new USA Swimming policy.

USA Swimming announced its new rules for elite swimmers on Feb. 1. That policy includes a requirement that transgender women swimmers demonstrate they have maintained a testosterone level below 5 nanomoles per liter continuously for at least 36 months before competition. It also requires transgender women to provide evidence that they do not have a competitive advantage from being assigned male at birth. That evidence will be reviewed by a panel of three independent medical experts.

These rules apply to events designated as "elite" by USA Swimming -- such as the U.S. Open and Junior Nationals -- to USA Swimming members and to those wishing to be eligible for American records beginning with the 13-14 age group.

Neither the lower testosterone threshold nor the required length of time for testosterone suppression will be used at the upcoming NCAA championships.

"I'm happy to see the NCAA acknowledge that implementing additional policy changes at this time would have unfair and detrimental impacts on student-athletes who are currently competing," inclusion advocate and transgender athlete Chris Mosier said. "The next step is for the NCAA to establish a process for reviewing, modifying as needed, and implementing these policies by a specific date each academic year to prevent further reactionary policy changes in the future."

Three-time swimming Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar disagreed with the decision.

"Once again, biological women's cry for fair sports competition has gone unheard," Hogshead-Makar said. "If you re-read the NCAA's statement, biological women's interests were never considered. They were never mentioned. I'm sadly aware that [cisgender] women's exclusion from the table has been purposeful. I assure you, women are determined to rectify their sport's eligibility criteria to be consistent with science and fairness."

The NCAA announcement comes on the same day that more than 300 swimmers signed an open letter to the CSMAS supporting Thomas and urging the committee not to adopt the new USA Swimming transgender athlete policy ahead of the NCAA Division I championships in March.

Among the signatures were five of Thomas' current teammates, swimmers representing each of the Power 5 conferences and Tokyo Olympics silver medalist Erica Sullivan.

"With this letter, we express our support for Lia Thomas, and all transgender college athletes, who deserve to be able to participate in safe and welcoming athletic environments," the letter said. "We urge you to not allow political pressure to compromise the safety and wellbeing of college athletes everywhere."

Thomas has posted some of the nation's best times in the 200-, 500-, and 1,650-yard freestyle events this season. On Feb. 3, 16 members of Penn's women's swimming and diving team, along with their families, wrote to the NCAA asking the organization to adopt the new USA Swimming rules for transgender athletes.

Thomas is expected to compete in the Ivy League swimming championships next week at Harvard.