'Do we have a voice?': University of Arizona swimmers slam NCAA over Lia Thomas' participation in women's sports

"Do we have a voice?" the women wrote.

Hannah Nightingale Washington DC

Alumni members of the University of Arizona recently penned a letter to the NCAA, bashing their decision to allow biological male swimmer Lia Thomas to compete against women in the 2021 - 22 swimming season, culminating with the college athlete competing in the NCAA championships.

The letter, obtained by Swimming World Magazine, was sent shortly after Thomas competed at the championships, which drew protests over Thomas being allowed to compete.

"Do we have a voice?" the March 24 letter to the NCAA Board of Directors began.

"It's hard to express the anguish the women's swim community has experienced this past week watching the 2022 NCAA Swim & Dive Championship," it said.

The letter said that while "we feel we are witnessing irrevocable damage to a sport that has transformed our own identities for the better," the incident of Thomas competing has drawn alumni swimmers to reconnect with each other in "sisterhood" to speak out.

The alumni noted that USA Swimming chief Chuck Wielgus spoke out in 2008 about the "culture of fair play" in the sport following a female swimmer that tested positive for a performance enhancing, banned anabolic agent called Clenbuterol.

Wielgus reportedly claimed at the time "within the culture of swimming, if you're doing something you shouldn't be doing, we want to catch you and throw you out of the sport. In other sports, it's about excuses and justifications and being innocent until you’re proven guilty."

Drawing similarities between the banned substance and testosterone, the letter cites the Mayo Clinic, which states that "the main anabolic steroid hormone produced by the body is testosterone" and that it "has anabolic effects promoting muscle building."

"In a little over a decade, USA Swimming, the leading organization of swimming in the world has surrendered its firm stance on fair play. This has encouraged other organizations such as the NCAA to make accommodations for biological men who have had the benefits of testosterone throughout natural development and beyond," the letter stated.

Citing the Duke's Center for Sports Law and Policy, the letter notes that "there is an average 10-12% performance gap between elite males and elite females" in sport.

In asking "what advantage does testosterone have for natural born men in swimming specifically," the alumni note that there is a 24.14 second difference between the 500 freestyle A standard men's qualifying time and women's.

"To put that into perspective, the male swimmer in the last seed going into the meet would be two full laps ahead of his female counterpart in this event. This one example alone demonstrates the advantages a biologically male swimmer has over a female. Physiological advantages exist," the letter stated.

"The decisions of the NCAA this year hoped to appease everyone by allowing Lia Thomas to compete directly with women," the alumni wrote.

"Instead, the NCAA has successfully failed everyone," they continued, noting that the NCAA placed a target on Thomas' back, and that women were forced into unfair competition.

With the 50th anniversary of Title IX fast approaching, which went into effect in June of 1972, the swimmers said, "From the birth of the NCAA in 1906 until 1972, women had to fight to earn the law that provided equal opportunities for women in sports. It took a male to female transgender person one year to take the women's swimming national championship title."

"This is not equality. Women’s standings, titles, records, and scholarships are suddenly at risk again. Opening the door to allowing natural born men to acquire precious, life altering financial aid packages often split up between multiple women per team defeats the very essence of the flagship legislation we are ironically celebrating this very year," they stressed.

The letter also noted fellow transgender athlete Iszac Henig, who competes on the Yale team. Henig is biologically female, and the alumni stated that "Female to male transgender athletes do not have the same opportunities as their male to female counterparts. They are heavily disadvantaged when it comes to earning a spot on the team they identify due to strength and speed differences between gender categories."

The letter continued on to offer alternatives to the NCAA for cases where transgender swimmers want to compete.

Their first suggestion was to have transgender swimmers compete as their birth gender, using Henig as an example.

Their next suggestion was to have the swimmer compete in the extra lanes not used in meet races.

"At the championship level, there are 10 lanes available in the pool while only 8 swimmers compete per heat. Therefore, a trans athlete could have been added to any finals heat in addition to the 16 women who qualified without pushing any of the deserving women out of the finals such as VT's Reka Gyorgy, who personally spoke out about the inequality she was subjected to being shut out of the finals. Trans specific heats with separate awards categories and scoring was another alternative," they explained.

Their final suggestion stated that the NCAA "could have implemented the more stringent USA Swimming guidelines at the very least."

"Moving forward, trans swim meets could be organized and built into a new category of athletic competition similar to the Paralympic or Special Olympic platforms to continue to widen the umbrella of inclusion in athletics," they added.

The alumni noted that their letter is addressed to the NCAA, which has a president "at the helm responsible for cutting both the University of Washington’s swimming programs in 2009." They also noted that the NCAA Board of Governors is predominantly comprised of men, and the athletic directors in the Power 5 are also mostly men.

"At the University of Arizona, our Athletics Director, Associate AD for Diversity, and Senior Women's Advocate have remained silent on this issue unfolding over the course of this entire season. These revelations and disparities alarm us when it seems there was no urgency in skillfully and educationally addressing how the scientific and biologic differences may impact women’s competitions," they wrote.

"Do we have a voice? The people responsible for protecting women’s swimming should swiftly rectify the guidelines. The women from the University of Arizona will not quietly stand down while our victories and accomplishments float away," the letter stated.

Those who signed the letter include NCAA champion Marshi Smith, six-time NCAA Coach of the Year for the University of Arizona Frank Busch, members of the 2008 National Championship team, as well as countless NCAA award winners and Olympians.

The letter comes at a time where a number of people began to speak out publicly against Lia Thomas' ability to compete against females after months of silence pushed by schools forcing their athletes not to speak.


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