What Lia Thomas’s Ascendancy Can Teach Us

In recent months, Lia Thomas has become the nexus for the debate around trans athletes in sports, for better or worse. Transphobes have repeatedly claimed that her genetics give her an unfair advantage, as demonstrated by her record. But a recent analysis of her record by The Independent has shined a light into just how false this narrative is.

Lia Thomas recently made history as the first trans woman to win an NCAA championship. Her participation in the NCAA was mired in controversy from the start, and TERFs seemed to feel that her victory gave them even more ammunition. We’ll get into the whole ‘trans athletes are not allowed to win races’ logic, but first, it’s important to point out that’s not the whole story.

For context, trans athletes are required to be on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) for a sustained period of time before participating in competitions that align with their gender. For trans women, the result manifests in changes in body fat and loss of muscle mass and strength. Thomas has been on HRT for almost three years.

While there could be more research done into HRT and sports performance, it has been demonstrated in a time and again that trans women competing does not negatively impact cis athletes. Thomas’s performance in both men’s and women’s categories is yet another example of this.

This year, 27 NCAA records were broken in women’s swimming, and all of those were by cis women. “A whopping 18 of those were broken by Kate Douglass of the University of Virginia (UVA), who now has the fastest times in US college history in the 50-yard freestyle, the 100-yard butterfly stroke, and the 200-yard breaststroke,” says The Independent.

In comparison to other women, Thomas’s performance has not differed remarkably. “Ms. Thomas’s time in the 500 yards is the eighth fastest out of 56. … In the 100-yard race, her time is 55th out of 56 in The Independent’s data, and her time in the 200-yard race is the 31st out of 5.

“Her 500-yard time of 4m 33.24 is just above the average (4m 36.07s), while her 100-yard time of 48.18s is just below average (47.06s), as is her 200-yard time of 1m 43.24s (compared to 1m42.85).”

So what about her performance in men’s categories? Anti-trans pundits have claimed that Thomas was not a remarkable swimmer prior to her transition—as though someone would go through the complicated process of coming out to their family and medically transitioning just for an edge in sports.

Thomas’s best times in the men’s competition were in the 1,000 and 1,650-yard freestyle (where she came in 9th and 29th nationally). She has not competed in these races during the NCAA championship (possibly due to the effects of HRT on her long-distance endurance), but these times demonstrate her promise as a top athlete even before her transition.

But at the end of the day, the premise behind this controversy has always been suspect. If a trans woman were to win big and break records, that is not the unshakable evidence of “unfair advantage” transphobes think it is. And Thomas’s case shows that HRT has put her much closer to female than male athletes in terms of performance. But as the analysis sums up, “It would be strange to contend that trans women should only be allowed to compete in women’s sports as long as they never win anything.”

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