Lia Thomas, a trans member of the women’s swim team at the University of Pennsylvania, has found herself embroiled in controversy after the NCAA updated its transgender policy to potentially block her from being able to compete.

Competing at Harvard last month and setting record times in both the 100-yard and 200-yard freestyle, Thomas qualified for the NCAA Championships in March. In response, the NCAA announced a new policy set to kick in for the 2022-2023 season, subjecting trans athletes to mandatory testosterone testing.

While some students supported her last week, a new letter written on behalf of 16 UPenn swimmers was recently sent to the university and the Ivy League asking that they refrain from pursing legal action against the NCAA’s new transgender policies.

“We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman,” the letter read. “Lia has every right to live her life authentically.”

“However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity,” the letter continued. “Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category, as evidenced by her rankings that have bounced from #462 as a male to #1 as a female.”

Before transitioning, Lia competed on the men’s swimming team and then underwent over two years of hormone therapy. The NCAA’s previous rules for transgender athletes only included testosterone suppression treatment for a year before being allowed to compete on the women’s team.

UPenn in Philadelphia, where Lia Thomas swims for the Quakers women's swim team
UPenn in Philadelphia, where Lia Thomas swims for the Quakers women’s swim team. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

While the letter from the 16 UPenn students was not signed, it was reportedly written and submitted to the university by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic champion in swimming and CEO of Champion Women, an advocacy group for women in sports.

The letter did not state whether they were OK with Lia Thomas competing on the women’s team if she passed all the NCAA’s updated transgender policies, or if they thought that the collegiate swimmer should be banned from competing entirely.

Responding to the letter, Penn Athletics said that it would work with the NCAA on Lia Thomas’ future in swimming, while the Ivy League stated that it does not “publicly respond to letters submitted to our office.”

Trapped in the middle of the debate is 22-year-old Lia Thomas, one of many trans athletes across the country who could potentially be barred from competing in the sport they love due to their gender identity.

Earlier this week, a couple students from the Quakers swim team expressed their support for Lia Thomas and that they “value her as a person, teammate, and friend.”

“The sentiments put forward by anonymous member[s] of our team are not representative of the feelings, values, and opinions of the entire Penn team, composed of 39 women with diverse backgrounds,” the statement continued. “We recognize this is a matter of great controversy and are doing our best to navigate it while still focusing on doing our best in the pool and classroom.”

After many news sites posted photos of Lia Thomas before her transition and referred to her using her dead name, she declined all interviews and removed herself from the toxic debate.

“It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t,” she told the SwimSwam podcast. “And that’s all I’ll say on that.”

Brooke Forde, an Olympic silver medalist and Stanford University swimmer ranked third in the country behind Thomas, announced her support for Lia Thomas on the Yahoo! Sports podcast last week, stating that she looked forward to competing against her at the NCAA Championships in March.

“I have great respect for Lia,” Forde said via a written statement. “Social change is always a slow and difficult process and we rarely get it correct right away. Being among the first to lead such a social change requires an enormous amount of courage, and I admire Lia for her leadership that will undoubtedly benefit many trans athletes in the future.”

“I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be,” she continued, “which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.”