Trans swimming star Lia Thomas Accused of having an unfair advantage. The data tells a different story

On March 17th, Lia Thomas made history as the first openly transgender athlete to secure victory in a university sports event of such magnitude, winning the women’s 500-yard freestyle race at the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) first division swimming championship. While her triumph was significant, it thrust her into the heart of a contentious debate surrounding transgender athletes in sports, making her a focal point for many on the American right.

Critics have questioned her right to compete in women’s races and even her gender itself. This controversy has sparked debate among sports stars, politicians, activists, fellow athletes, parents of teammates, and protesters at the NCAA championship, who argue that her previous identity as a man may provide an unfair advantage. Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, even went as far as declaring the runner-up, Emma Weyant, the “rightful winner” in a proclamation, given his stance on transgender participation in women’s sports.

However, amidst this fervor, there has been a notable absence of detailed analysis on how Lia Thomas’s performance stacks up against other female athletes at her level. In an effort to shed light on this matter, The Independent conducted a comprehensive analysis of performance data and found little evidence to suggest that she poses a threat to women’s sports.

Lia Thomas’s journey in swimming began at the age of five, and she came out as transgender in the summer of 2018. Embracing her new identity as Lia Catherine Thomas, she embarked on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in May 2019, a pivotal step in her transition. HRT involves supplementing estrogen or testosterone to align a transgender person’s hormone levels with those of a cisgender individual.

While men and women typically have distinct hormone profiles, our bodies retain the capacity to respond to new hormones in adulthood. HRT, for trans women, leads to significant changes in secondary sex characteristics, such as breast development, reduced body hair, emotional changes, redistribution of body fat, and, significantly for sports, a decline in muscle mass and strength.

Both the NCAA and the Olympics permit trans women to compete in women’s events, provided they have undergone HRT for a specified duration and their testosterone levels meet specific criteria. Trans men, on the other hand, have different regulations due to their similar pre-HRT performance to cisgender women and their tendency to gain strength and muscle mass with HRT.

Despite opponents arguing that these changes don’t negate the natural advantages of growing up with testosterone, the scientific evidence remains mixed. Post-HRT trans women haven’t emerged as dominant figures in professional sports.

Lia Thomas, having been on HRT for nearly three years, has notably lost strength and an inch in height. This transformation has made it impossible for her to match her previous athletic performance.

So, how does she fare as a swimmer today?

To assess her performance, let’s consider her NCAA record, focusing on “short course yards” races, typically done in a 25-yard pool.

Lia Thomas secured victory in the women’s 500-yard freestyle race in 4 minutes and 33.24 seconds. In the 200-yard race, she came in fifth with a time of 1 minute and 43.40 seconds, and in the 100-yard race, she finished eighth, clocking in at 48.40 seconds. While her results were impressive, they fell short of record-breaking achievements. Although the competition witnessed 27 NCAA records being shattered, Lia Thomas’s times did not contribute to that tally.

Kate Douglass of the University of Virginia (UVA) dominated the field, breaking a remarkable 18 records and securing the fastest times in U.S. college history across various events. The depth of her performance earned her significant recognition.

While Katherine Berkoff of North Carolina State University and Alex Walsh of UVA, along with UVA’s medley teams, also set new records, Lia Thomas’s 500-yard time positions her as the 15th fastest college swimmer. This places her approximately nine seconds behind Katie Ledecky’s record set in 2017, according to an Independent search of women’s records listed by USA Swimming, the U.S. national governing body for the sport.

In conclusion, the data shows that Lia Thomas’s performance, while commendable, does not stand out as a dominant force in women’s college swimming, and her times fall short of record-breaking achievements. This analysis suggests that concerns about her posing a significant threat to women’s sports may not be supported by the available performance data.



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