Lia Thomas & The Complicated Matter of Transgender Athletes

by Katie Frauenfelder, MA, LPC, NASM CPT

A couple weeks ago, The University of Pennsylvania nominated swimmer Lia Thomas for the 2022 NCAA Woman of the Year award. According to the NCAA website, the award is meant to honor the “academic achievements, athletics excellence, community service, and leadership of graduating female college athletes from all three divisions”. While being nominated for this prestigious award is often a highlight in a young athlete’s career, Lia’s nomination came with a fair amount of controversy which ultimately led to her losing the nomination.

Thomas was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when she became the first transgender NCAA champion in Division I history after winning the women’s 500-yard freestyle. This sparked a tempestuous debate about whether transgender athletes should be allowed to participate in elite women’s competitions. While FINA (the international federation recognized by the International Olympic Committee for administering international competitions in water sports) formally put an end to the debate by voting to restrict transgender people from competing in the Olympics, a public debate continues.

Thomas competed on U Penn’s men’s swim team for three seasons before joining the women’s team. As seamless as that statement makes it sound, both transitions Thomas was navigating were anything but.

Thomas’s gender transition began roughly two and a half years, prior to her transition from the men’s to women’s swim team. Before Thomas joined the women’s team in November 2021, she had undergone 30 months of hormone therapy, which was well above the NCAA’s requirement at the time of 12 months of hormone therapy for transgender women. While the NCAA ended up changing its policy in January 2022 to defer to the policies of the governing bodies for each sport to determine eligibility, it was not enforced for the 2022 swimming and diving championships. Instead, the NCAA enforced the previous policy which required transgender swimmers in the women’s field to have a testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per liter. Or wait, did they decide that transgender women must show that they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond “Tanner Stage”? Or is it after age 12? Ahhh, even I’m confused!

If you find all the inconsistent, back-and-forth rules and guidelines hard to keep track of, welcome to the club. This is a topic so nuanced and emotionally arduous that finding a resolution, at least one that will appease the masses, feels like a pipe dream. No matter where you stand on the matter (and, to be honest, I’m not quite sure where I stand), I had an interesting thought come to mind recently that you might want to consider, too. Hear me out.

Most people opposed to Lia Thomas’s ability to compete in elite competitions feel that, because Thomas was assigned male at birth, this puts her at a natural physical advantage. While this may be true, isn’t this also the case for many other elite athletes allowed to perform in competitive sports? Take Michael Phelps for example. He has double jointed ankles, shoulders, and elbows. His body parts bend 15% more than his opponents, and swims upwards of 6 mph, while the average swimmer caps out at around 2 mph. Boban Marjanovic is another example. With hands that are 10.75 inches long and 12 inches wide, he has the biggest hands in the NBA. Standing at 7 feet and 3.5 inches, he is also one of the tallest players in the NBA and can dunk without jumping. The last example I have is Usain Bolt. His long legs give him longer strides than his rivals. Scientists also believe Bolt benefits from an extraordinary rich supply of fast-twitch muscle fibers due to a sprinting gene called ACTN3 which they theorize is powered by the aluminum-rich soil of Jamaica.

These are only a few examples of elite athletes born with genetic advantages but enough to get the point across. Which advantages are fair in sport and which aren’t? Who makes that determination? And how? While I don’t pretend to have the answer, nor do I have any idea where to look, I do know one thing to be true. The answer is not black and white. According to neuroscientists, endurance athletes’ brain scans show more extensive gray area than a non-athlete’s brain. And just like the hue of their brain scans, this issue has some gray to it, too.