Transgender athletes “are not a threat” to women’s sports, says American swimmer Lia Thomas.
MarchThomas was the first known transgender swimmer to win the United States’ highest national collegiate title by winning the women’s 500-yard freestyle.
She said athletes did not switch to gain a competitive advantage.
The debate surrounding the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sport has divided opinion inside and outside of sport.
Many argue transgender women should not compete in women’s sports for any benefits they might retain – but others argue that the sport should be more inclusive.
World Athletics President Lord Coe said the “integrity” and “future” of women’s sport would become “very fragile” if sports organizations got regulations wrong for transgender athletes.
“The biggest misunderstanding, I think, is why I switched,” Thomas said ABC and ESPN. “People will say, ‘Oh, she only switched to have an advantage so she could win.’ I’ve moved on to being happy, being true to myself.”
She added: “Trans women competing in women’s sport do not threaten women’s sport as a whole.
“Trans women are a very small minority of all athletes. The NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] Rules for trans women competing in women’s sports have been in place for more than 10 years. And we haven’t seen a massive wave of dominant trans women.”
US swimmer Erica Sullivan, who competed against Thomas in the collegiate event, said Thomas deserved “to be celebrated for her hard-fought success.”
Sullivan said she is “proud” to be one of more than 300 collegiate, Team USA and Olympic swimmers who have signed an open letter in support of Thomas and all transgender and non-binary swimmers.
But other athletes and organizations have also raised concerns about trans inclusion.
Some of Thomas’s teammates and her parents wrote anonymous letters supporting her right to transfer, but added that it was unfair for her to compete as a woman.
“You can’t half say you support trans women and trans people, but only up to a point,” Thomas said.
“If you support trans women as women and they meet all NCAA requirements, then I don’t think you can say such a thing.
“I knew that if I competed as a woman, I would be checked. But I also don’t need anyone’s permission to be myself and do the sport I love.”
When asked if she has any ambitions to compete in the US Olympic Trials in June 2024, Thomas said, “It has been a goal of mine to swim in an Olympic Trials for a very long time and I would love to do it. “
At the heart of the debate over whether transgender athletes should compete in women’s sport concerns the complex balance between inclusion, sporting fairness and safety – essentially, whether trans women can compete in women’s categories without giving them an unfair advantage or posing a risk of injury to competitors.
Trans women must abide by a number of rules in order to participate in certain sports, including, in many cases, lowering their testosterone levels to a specified amount for a set period of time before competition.
However, there are concerns that athletes retain an advantage as they progress through male puberty that is not addressed by lowering testosterone levels.
Two current elite runners said BBC Sport Earlier this month that transgender women should compete in an “open category” to “protect women’s sports,” arguing that transgender competitors in the female sports category were depriving women of opportunities.
They added that transgender athletes are welcome in elite sport and an open category would mean “a level playing field”.
Former swimmer Sharron Davies has said “no rules can undo the advantage of male puberty,” a point supported by sports scientist Professor Ross Tucker, who says, “As human males go through puberty, the heart gets bigger, the.” Lungs get bigger, body fat percentage goes down, and the skeleton changes.
“Collecting these things creates significant performance benefits.”
Recent studies and reviews have also questioned the effectiveness of testosterone suppression.
However, there is limited research on the impact that transition can have on an athlete – because there are so few transgender athletes, and even fewer in elite sport.
Joanna Harper, a researcher at Loughborough University and a trans athlete herself, says her research “suggests a significant loss of performance with testosterone suppression.”
Thomas swam for the Pennsylvania men’s team for three seasons before beginning hormone replacement therapy in the spring of 2019.
Since then, she has broken records for her varsity swim team.
Thomas says depression affected her performance in her first two years at university, but after the transition she was able to focus better on her swimming.
“There are many factors that go into a race and how well you do and the biggest change for me is that I’m happy,” she said.
“Sophomore [second] I was miserable for the year so it’s incredibly relieving to have it lifted and allowed me to give my all in training and racing.”
USA Swimming has updated its guidelines for elite swimmers in February Allowing transgender athletes to swim in elite events alongside criteria aimed at reducing unfair advantages, including testosterone testing for 36 months before competitions.
Thomas’ experience has contributed to the growing debate about transgender athletes’ participation in sports.
British transgender cyclist in April Emily Bridges was prevented by the world governing body of cycling, the UCI, from competing in her first elite women’s race.
Bridges, 21, came out as transgender in 2020 and a year later began hormone therapy as part of her treatment for gender dysphoria.
At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, transgender athlete Laurel Hubbard made gaming history by competing in the women’s weightlifting over 87kg.
Hubbard was the first openly transgender athlete to compete in games in a gender category other than that into which he was born. But she failed to record a successful lift in the women’s weightlifting over 87 kg.