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Transgender swimmer's participation on women's team ignites fairness debate

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Two transgender swimmers have become Ivy League champions. Yale University's Isaac Henig and Lia Thomas from the University of Pennsylvania broke records in the Ivy League championships, which wrapped up this weekend. Michaela Winberg from member station WHYY reports on these victories.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MICHAELA WINBERG, BYLINE: Lia Thomas won three individual events at Harvard University's Blodgett Pool.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And in first place, from the University of Pennsylvania, Lia Thomas.

WINBERG: Thomas is a transgender woman, and she competed on the men's team for her first three seasons. In 2019, while competing on the men's team, Thomas began to medically transition. She took testosterone blockers and estrogen. This season, the NCAA has allowed her to swim for the women's team. They've already announced the rules will be more strict next season.

At the championships, most people seemed supportive. Fellow swimmers congratulated Thomas with fist bumps, and the crowd cheered for her victories. Earlier this season, Thomas told swimswam.com what it's been like to compete as a trans woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIA THOMAS: I can continue to do the sport I love as my authentic self. And basically being in a swimsuit 20 hours a week has sort of helped me with accepting my body as it is and being proud and comfortable in my body and in who I am.

WINBERG: But some argue that because she was assigned male at birth, she has an unfair advantage. Just weeks before the championships, 16 anonymous teammates of Thomas wrote a letter to their school and the Ivy League saying they support Thomas in her transition, but they don't think it's fair for her to compete with cisgender women.

Peter Larsen was at the championships this weekend to support his daughter, who swims for Columbia University and competed against Thomas in multiple events. He says he has sympathy for Thomas.

PETER LARSEN: For Lia to be up on the blocks and looking around and all the world talking about her - that's such a huge burden on her, as well. And I think people have to remember that this young girl is dealing with a lot herself, and have some support there.

WINBERG: Joanna Harper researches trans athletic performance, and she's advised the International Olympic Committee on this issue. She believes that trans women likely maintain some advantage from going through testosterone-driven puberty. On average, they're taller and they have larger lung capacity. But when they receive hormone replacement therapy, Harper says trans women have testosterone levels similar to most cisgender women. And because they're taking estrogen, they're powering a larger frame with reduced muscle mass.

JOANNA HARPER: The important question is, can we have meaningful competition between trans women and cis women? And meaningful competition, you know, doesn't mean that there's not advantages. It just means that cis women can beat trans women.

WINBERG: At the Ivy League championships, Thomas wasn't the only trans competitor. Yale's Isaac Henig is a trans man who hasn't started hormone replacement therapy yet, so he can continue to compete on the women's team. He won the 50-yard freestyle.

Schuyler Bailar was there to support Henig and Thomas. He's a graduate of Harvard and was the first trans man to compete for a D1 men's team. At the championships, he held up a trans pride flag whenever Henig or Thomas swam.

SCHUYLER BAILAR: I really wanted them to see the support. I think, especially for Lia, who has seen so much negativity, so much vitriol, straight-up cruelty, I wanted her to feel seen.

WINBERG: Next month, Thomas is set to compete at the NCAA championships in Atlanta.

(APPLAUSE)

WINBERG: For NPR News, I'm Michaela Winberg in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLETCHER REED'S "ROTTERDAM RITA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaela Winberg