Leah Thomas has been performing for months in American college pools. But this transgender swimmer finds herself at the center of a heated controversy, accusing her of receiving unfair advantages for having given birth to a man.
The controversy, which once again raised the exact question of where the transgender athletes are, has already prompted the NCAA, the organization that runs college sports, and then USA Swimming, the American Swimming Federation, to promise new regulations.
All this against the background of attacks by conservative politicians. “We will ban men from participating in women’s competitions,” Donald Trump said on January 15 during a meeting in Arizona.
Without naming it, but calling it masculine, the former president then referred to Leah Thomas, a 22-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the women’s swimming team since September 2021, after she competed in the boys.
In one of her rare interviews, on the “TheSwimSwam” podcast, she explained that she realized she was a “transient” in the summer of 2018, but first wanted to continue men’s swimming. “It caused me a lot of distress (…). I can no longer focus on swimming, studies and my friends.” She started her transformation in May 2019 with hormone therapy.
Leah achieved great success in her first season among the women. At the beginning of December, in Akron, Ohio, she had this year’s best performance in 200 yards (183 meters) free (1 minute 41 seconds 93 in) and over 500 yards (457 meters) free (4 minutes 34 seconds 06). ).
On Saturday at Harvard (Cambridge, Massachusetts), she shined again by winning the 100 and 200 free yards.
The student adheres to NCAA rules, which allow transgender women to compete after undergoing testosterone suppression therapy for at least a year. Some are not enough, especially in vigorous sports such as swimming, because its transmission begins after puberty.
“Lea’s underperforming in women’s events,” the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, which claims to advocate for women’s sports, wrote in a letter to the National Women’s Sports Association.
It is based on a study not yet published in a scientific journal that reviewed swim times.
The group that includes in its ranks adds: “Post-transition times so far (…) are still very close to the best pre-transition times in men’s events, compared to the performance gap between male and female athletes” in college sports, which includes in its ranks the winning The former quadruple medalist in swimming (Los Angeles, 1984), Nancy Hoogscheid-McCarr.
But for its defenders, the controversy is just another evidence of the discrimination that transgender people suffer.
“(Lea) Thomas is simply an athlete who loves her sport, trains hard and fulfills all the requirements of competitive swimming. Despite this, she has been a victim of violent rhetoric,” the group Athletic Ally lamented.
The topic is divisive in the United States, where several conservative states – ten of them according to Athlete Ally – have passed laws banning transgender girls from playing women’s sports in school.
Five months after the first participation in the Summer Olympics for transgender athletes, in weightlifting, the question remains a nuisance to sports organizations. In November, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) distributed the responsibility to each sport, citing a lack of “scientific consensus on the role of testosterone in performance across sports.”
The NCAA embraced this differentiated approach Thursday, while invoking the idea of testosterone thresholds. Since 2019, such thresholds have been imposed by World Athletics (<5 nmol/L for twelve months) and on this basis transgender athlete CeCe Telfer was excluded from the Olympic selections, in June 2021.
The University of Pennsylvania, for its part, has renewed its support for Lia Thomas, particularly with regard to the upcoming NCAA Championship in March, the main event of the college season.
If she qualifies, she can compete again against Izzi Henig, a transgender student from Yale who has decided not to take hormonal treatments and continues to compete for women. On January 8, the first game turned 100 free yards in favor of Azi Hennig.
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