Katie Keeley, '23
This is my fourth time starting this piece. I think I’m driving the editor a tad bit insane; I promised to get this done on time and that, in short, did not happen. I assure you there’s a good reason for this.
You see, when I said I’d write an article about swimming for the sports issue, I thought it would be really easy. I happen to know quite a lot about the sport, having done it since I was eight years old, and I haven’t written for the Exchanged nearly as much as I’ve hoped over the years (ever. I have never done this before). I was asked to write about Lia Thomas, a transgender Penn swimmer who made headlines last winter for her success on the Penn women’s team after swimming as a man for two years. It did not strike me how much of a challenge this would be until I sat down to write this five days ago.
I, a high school senior and relatively average swimmer, set out to answer a question that the NCAA, USA Swimming, and FINA could not. In retrospect, it may have been overly ambitious of me to take on such a charged issue in my first Exchanged article. But, having spent the week grappling with the question, I’ll share what I learned in the hopes of explaining why this article took me so long.
As this is technically an opinion piece, I’ll share my personal thoughts first. I think Lia Thomas, and all the trans swimmers like her, should be allowed to compete. She followed the rules set out years ago by the NCAA, even exceeding their standards, and it wasn’t until she started winning that people questioned whether she should be allowed to compete at all. What most people don’t realize is that the story broke in the swimming world weeks before it ended up on cable news. I acknowledge that the NCAA’s policy wasn’t ideal, and I agree that they needed to change it. In no way should Lia Thomas have borne the brunt of that debate. The new rule (which was actually created by FINA), in addition, is overkill. Preventing trans athletes from competing if they don’t transition before age 12 effectively bars all trans athletes. The NCAA made a series of announcements concerning how they’d include trans athletes, but they don’t intend to include them in traditional competition categories. This, to me, is automatically disqualifying.
The truth is, most people could never be elite Division I athletes in any sport. No matter how much you train or how dedicated you are, the vast majority of the population are physically incapable of competing at this level. This is evident in swimming: a group of swimmers who are roughly the same age and train together every day with identical workouts will still have different results. Training helps, of course––the best athletes are incredibly dedicated to their training––but studies have shown time and time again that elite athletes have specific anatomical differences that help them compete (Michael Phelps, for example, has a remarkably low resting heart rate, is hyper-jointed in his chest, and produces less lactic acid than other athletes, among other physiological advantages). As a swimmer, you’re going to encounter people who are taller than you or have longer arms and more flexible shoulders. It’s a part of life, really, that everyone has natural strengths and weaknesses. Some people are naturally good at solving polynomials or finding metaphors; that doesn’t mean we ban them from math and English classes.
I was asked a week ago to share my opinion on Lia Thomas. The problem is that despite what I feel is right, there are other factors that need to be considered. I guess my opinion is that we should leave her alone. Above all, this was never her choice. The swimming world created an impossible situation, one that required athletes to either conceal their true identities or go through the transition process only to face endless scrutiny and hatred once they’re cleared to compete again. This is in no way a problem unique to swimming or even sports. Trans people face challenges in expressing themselves every day. Why Lia Thomas was the one to spark outrage, and why this year, I can’t say for certain. I’ve never seen so many people aware of NCAA swimming before, and aside from all the noise from the general public, the swim community doesn’t know what to do either. We’re stuck.
I’ve had a lot of friends who aren’t familiar with swimming ask me what I think about the whole situation. The truth is, I don’t know. I think she and others like her should be allowed to swim. If I were a Division I athlete, I don’t know if I’d feel the same. If I were a coach, a parent, an official, a teammate, I can’t say if I would have a different opinion. In a world where athletes train for hours every day just for a few minutes of racing in one weekend, the question of who gets to compete is so much bigger than the 900 words I’ve written. It’s bigger than any of us, and in the end, it’s not ours to answer. Until we’ve learned exactly what we’re talking about and what our goals even are, it’s our responsibility to listen.