NCAA Swimming Holds Fast on Transgender Student-Athlete Eligibility, Lia Thomas to Swim at Ivies

Steven Hao

The regulation of transgender athletes at elite levels of competition has seen significant debate, upheaval, and at times, progress, in recent years. In 2021, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) modified its policy on transgender and intersex competitors, a shift that came just three months after the Tokyo Summer Olympics, where the first transgender and/or nonbinary athletes (Laurel Hubbard, Alana Smith, Quinn, and Chelsea Wolfe) represented their countries on sports’ highest stage.[1] The new IOC framework replaced previous policies that originally required athletes to get gender reassignment surgery and later, prescribed limits to testosterone levels.[2]

This year, the debate on transgender athlete eligibility has centered, perhaps unexpectedly, on the world of collegiate swimming, and on one athlete in particular: star swimmer Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania. Thomas, a 22-year old transgender woman currently in her senior year, holds the fastest 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle times nationally this season.[3] In one race, she finished nearly 40 seconds ahead of the second-place swimmer.[4] Given that these times were achieved at smaller-scale duel meets, it is entirely feasible that Thomas could challenge, if not eclipse, standing US swim records in the aforementioned events, which are currently held by Olympic legends Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky, respectively.[5] But until recently, it was unclear if Thomas would be able to vie for a place in the record books at the season’s most prominent and competitive events, the Ivy League Championships and the NCAA Division I Championships.

Thomas’ dominance has come with a considerable amount of controversy, including—it appears—within her own team. A letter, purportedly signed by 16 Penn athletes (anonymously), was sent to the NCAA, arguing that Thomas should not be allowed to compete at the NCAA championships.[6] It must be noted that Thomas entered the season fully compliant with the NCAA’s then-policy on transgender athletes, which required that transgender female athletes must have undergone one year of testosterone suppression treatment in order to compete on a women’s team.[7] Thomas began hormone replacement therapy in May 2019, almost two full years ago.[8] But as backlash formed in response to Thomas’ performances, the NCAA faced pressure to change its rules, and in January 2022, they updated their transgender athlete participation policy. Instead of a uniform approach, each NCAA sport would follow the lead of that sport’s national governing body.[9] At the time, USA Swimming itself deferred to IOC medical criteria, which required a testosterone level of below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 consecutive months prior to the competition.[10] But shortly thereafter, on February 1, 2022, USA Swimming announced new rules for elite swimmers. Transgender women swimmers were now required to maintain a testosterone level of below 5 nanomoles per liter for at least 36 months before the competition.[11] This new threshold likely threatened Thomas’ ability to compete. But just days ago, on February 10, 2022, the NCAA declared that it would not be adopting USA Swimming’s new limits for this upcoming winter championship. While the NCAA’s future regulatory decisions are still to be seen, this means that Lia Thomas will at least be able to compete in the capstone competitions of her senior year.


[1] Matt Lavietes, International Olympic Committee Issues New Guidelines on Transgender Athletes, NBC News (Nov. 16, 2021),

[2] Id.

[3] Sarah Berman, Ivy League States Lia Thomas is Eligible to Compete in Ivy League Championships, Swim Swam (Feb. 9, 2022),,freestyle%20(15.59.71).

[4] Dan Gelston, Penn Swimmer Lia Thomas swims on amid controversy, AP News (Feb. 9, 2022),

[5] John Lohn, Allowing Lia Thomas to Compete at NCAA Championships Would Establish Unfair Setting, Swimming World Magazine (Dec. 9, 2021),

[6] Gelston, supra.

[7] Jo Yurcaba, NCAA’s new trans athlete guidelines sow confusion amid Lia Thomas debate, NBC News (

[8] Gelston, supra.

[9] Transgender Student-Athlete Participation Policy, NCAA (February 14, 2022),

[10] David Rieder, NCAA Announces Changes to Transgender Athlete Policies Effective Immediately; Defers to USA Swimming, Swimming World Magazine (Jan. 20, 2022),

[11] Katie Barnes, NCAA ruling clears path for transgender swimmer Lia Thomas to compete at nationals, ABC News (Feb. 10, 2022),