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NCAA clears path for Penn swimmer Lia Thomas to compete in championships

The announcement comes on the heels of a letter sent to the NCAA signed by 310 current and former collegiate swimmers advocating on Thomas' behalf.

Penn swimmer Lia Thomas fists bumps Harvard swimmer after finishing the 200 yard freestyle during the women’s swimming and diving meet at Harvard University last month.
Penn swimmer Lia Thomas fists bumps Harvard swimmer after finishing the 200 yard freestyle during the women’s swimming and diving meet at Harvard University last month.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The NCAA announced Thursday that it will not change its eligibility policies for transgender athletes ahead of the women’s swimming and diving championships, officially clearing the way for transgender University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas to compete. The competition is scheduled to take place March 16-19.

The agency’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports met this week and recommended to the NCAA’s board of governors not to adopt the latest USA Swimming policy, which requires trans women swimmers to undergo at least 36 months of hormone therapy and provide evidence to a panel proving that they do not have a competitive advantage from being assigned male at birth.

That policy, released earlier this month, would have barred Thomas — a 22-year-old freestyle swimmer who currently holds the nation’s top times this year in two events — from competing, as she has been on hormone therapy for about 33 months.

» READ MORE: 16 Penn swimmers send letter saying teammate Lia Thomas has an unfair advantage

“The subcommittee decided implementing additional changes at this time could have unfair and potentially detrimental impacts on schools and student-athletes intending to compete in 2022 NCAA women’s swimming championships,” the NCAA said in a statement.

The announcement also comes on the heels of a letter sent Thursday to the NCAA urging it to not adopt the policy, signed by 310 current and former collegiate swimmers. The letter was headed by Schuyler Bailar, a Harvard University swimmer and the first openly trans Division 1 athlete for the sport.

“With this letter, we express our support for Lia Thomas, and all transgender college athletes, who deserve to be able to participate in safe and welcoming athletic environments. We urge you to not allow political pressure to compromise the safety and wellbeing of college athletes everywhere,” the letter reads.

It was signed by five members of Penn’s swimming and diving team — the first public show of support from Thomas’ individual teammates thus far.

Last month, the NCAA revised its policy on transgender athletes’ eligibility. Now, instead of a uniform policy, the NCAA will use the policy of each sports’ national governing body, meaning eligibility requirements will vary by sport.

Since USA Swimming is the sport’s national governing body, the NCAA will likely adopt its policy. The NCAA said Thursday that the “new policy will be part of the subcommittee’s future analysis when recommending additional updates to eligibility requirements.”

USA Swimming’s policy has been considered one of the strictest in the nation when it comes to eligibility requirements for transgender athletes, and groups who’d lobbied against Thomas’ participation in the upcoming Ivy League and NCAA championships, saying she holds an unfair advantage, initially celebrated it.

But on Thursday, former Olympic swimmer and lawyer Nancy Hogshead-Makar called the NCAA’s decision “spineless.”

“What was the point of the NCAA begging Sport Governing Bodies to create new eligibility rules, tailored to each sport — just to ignore them?” she wrote in an email statement.

Hogshead-Makar, CEO of Champion Women, sent a letter on behalf of 16 Penn swimmers and their parents to Penn and the Ivy League last week speaking out against Thomas’ participation and claiming the university has ignored their frustrations.

A spokesperson for Penn athletics said the university continues to work with the NCAA regarding Thomas’ eligibility.