More than three dozen University of Arizona women’s swim-team alumnae want the NCAA to take action on policies allowing male-born swimmers to compete against females, calling for “immediate action to protect our women athletes.”
The open letter from the “Women of Arizona Swimming & Diving” was signed by two former coaches and 36 women who belonged to the team at various points from 2002-20, including 11 members of the 2008 NCAA Division I championship team.
“Do we have a voice?” asked the Thursday letter to the NCAA Board of Governors. “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.”
Their appeal came as part of a rising tide of criticism following University of Pennsylvania fifth-year senior Lia Thomas’s success at the March 16-19 championships in Atlanta, where Thomas became the first male-born athlete to win an NCAA Division I women’s title.
Thomas, who joined the women’s team after three years on the men’s side, placed first in the 500-yard freestyle after the NCAA cleared the way for the Ivy League swimmer to compete, a decision that the Arizona program grads said “has failed everyone.”
“A target was placed on the back of a trans athlete subjecting this person to devastating national outcry and humiliation,” said the letter. “This swimmer’s lone points for Penn this March catapulted a team to a top-20 program in the country after failing to score a single point last year. Additionally, women athletes competing in the meet were forced to swim in unfair direct competition therefore eliminating all integrity of the entire championship meet.”
The NCAA had required male-born swimmers to undergo at least a year of testosterone suppression, which Thomas had done, but in January, the collegiate authority said it would defer to national sports governing bodies to set the eligibility criteria.
After USA Swimming released last month a stricter standard that Thomas would not have been able to meet, however, the NCAA reversed course, saying it would be unfair to change the rules mid-season.
“The NCAA could have implemented the more stringent USA Swimming guidelines at the very least,” said the letter. “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.”
The ex-Arizona swimmers said they were inspired by the 36 University of Texas women’s swimming alumnae who penned a March 16 letter urging the school’s athletic department to “exercise its leadership and influence to protect women’s swimming.”
— Save Women’s Sports (@SaveWomensSport) March 25, 2022
The Arizona grads said that this year’s men’s NCAA “A” standard qualifying time in the 500 freestyle was 4:11.62, while it was 4:35.76 for the women, a difference of 24.14 seconds.
“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,” the letter said. “This one example alone demonstrates the advantages a biologically male swimmer has over a female. Physiological advantages exist.”
The letter’s signers included Lacey Nymeyer-John, a member of the 2008 championship team and silver medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics; Frank Busch, former Arizona coach and six-time NCAA Coach of the Year, and Dennis Pursley, former USA Swimming team director and University of Alabama men’s and women’s swim coach.
All 38 signers used their names, which is itself noteworthy. Only a few leading figures in the U.S. swimming community, including three-time NCAA champion Jeri Shanteau and former USC coach Dave Salo, have been willing to risk speaking out against male-born athletes in women’s races.
Just one active NCAA Division I swimmer, Virginia Tech’s Reka Gyorgy, has put her name on criticism of policies that allowed Thomas to compete. Several others have spoken to news outlets anonymously over fears of being labeled transphobic.
No such concerns appear to have held back active collegiate swimmers on the other side of the debate.
More than 300 current NCAA swimmers, Team USA members and Olympians signed a Feb. 10 letter to the NCAA circulated by Athlete Ally and former Harvard swimmer Schuyler Bailar in support of Thomas and all “transgender and nonbinary athletes in our sport.”