Transgender Issue In The Open Water Swimming World

Transgender Issue In The Open Water Swimming World

With the reported intentions of Lia Thomas to compete for a spot on the USA women’s Olympic Swim Team at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, it will be only a matter of time before the contentious issue of transgender females also compete in the 5 km, 10 km, 25 km or team relay events at the FINA World Championships or Olympics.

Similar to many current issues – social, political, religious, economic, and public health – in the United States and elsewhere, there seems to be two distinct perspectives on what is fair and inclusive.

While over 322 NCAA collegiate, USA national team and Olympic swimmers lent their written support and encouragement of Thomas and her participation in the upcoming NCAA Women’s Swimming Championships (see 300+ NCAA Swimmers Sign Letter In Support of Thomas, Trans & Nonbinary Athletes and below), there are separate and distinct petitions that support the exact opposite position.

Open Letter to the NCAA in Support of Transgender and Nonbinary Athletes

We, the undersigned members of the swimming community, support and welcome transgender and nonbinary athletes in our sport.

With this letter, we express our support for Lia Thomas, and all transgender college athletes, who deserve to be able to participate in safe and welcoming athletic environments. We urge you to not allow political pressure to compromise the safety and wellbeing of college athletes everywhere.

We ask the following: 1) do not adopt USA Swimming’s current policy mid-season; 2) establish clear and consistent guidelines for developing and adopting new eligibility policies, and ensure those policies are adopted and communicated well in advance of the season; and 3) ensure that transgender and nonbinary athletes are directly engaged in the policy development process.

We love swimming for the lifelong, invaluable lessons it has taught us about hard work, discipline, and the power of being part of a team. No one should be denied the opportunity to have their life changed through swimming simply because of who they are.

There are very real, documented threats to women’s swimming, including but not limited to rampant sexual abuse, and an inequitable number of women’s coaches within USA Swimming. The NCAA also faces its own deep and historical challenges with gender equity, as outlined in the detailed report released last year focused on the stark differences between NCAA D1 men’s and women’s basketball. We can and should address these challenges. Transgender women are not and have never been a part of these challenges to women’s swimming, and sidelining them from sport does nothing to protect women athletes.

What makes our sport great is the strength in the diversity of our athletes. No one swimmer is the same. We learn from each other, are inspired by one another, and support one another. We will not be silent as members of our swim community are unfairly targeted by discriminatory policies.

It is interesting to note that one of the signatories was Miki Dahlke who previously held the Ivy League records that Thomas broke. Another supportive signatory is Olympic 1500m silver medalist and top open water swimmer Erica Sullivan, who became the first openly gay U.S. swimmer to win an Olympic medal at the Tokyo Olympics, “I was fortunate enough to be welcomed with open arms in the swim community when I came out as gay. Just with my own personal good experience of coming out and feeling all that love and support within my swim community, I feel like [Lia] deserves the same thing.”

On the other hand, 5,446 athletes, parents, coaches and sports officials and others, including 297 Olympians and Paralympians, signed opposing petitions: The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group positions and model legislation and the ChampionWomen.com petition.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, J.D. summed up the petitions, “Both asked legislative bodies and sports governance organizations to prioritize fairness and safety for females over blanket transgender inclusion or exclusion in girls’ and women’s competitive sports. Both petitions ask that females receive equal opportunities to participate in competitive sports, in the same fair and safe competitive environment as afforded to male athletes.

Sports are sex-segregated around the world, in recognition of the biological, male-puberty athletic
advantage. This universal practice is not about privacy, modesty, or to make up for past sex
discrimination. Instead, sex-segregated sport is necessary to provide females – half the world’s
population – with equal opportunities to participate. It is the only legal basis to continue the practice of
sex-segregation.

She further explains her perspective, “From the onset of male puberty, male bodies develop to be faster, stronger, and more powerful than female bodies as a group. The performance gap emerging from that point forward ranges from 8% to 50% depending on the sport and event. The more explosive strength the sport or event requires, the bigger the gap between males and females.

In the unlikely event that sports were to be completely redesigned, to be segregated based on some objective physical criteria other than biological sex, e.g., height, weight, bone size, lung size, or wingspan, males would dominate these new categories. Only biological sex-categories can guarantee females a fair playing field in competitive sports. In other words, females cannot overcome this performance gap with more talent or training, better coaching, facilities, or nutrition.

The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group’s policy position is that sport leaders should work cooperatively to fashion rules so that transgender girls and women are fully welcome into sport. Their sport performances should be respected in girls’ and women’s competitive sports if they are separately scored OR if they can demonstrate that their male post-puberty advantage has been sufficiently mitigated. Similar separate scoring based on performance advantages are already fully accepted in sports, such as age categories, or weight categories in wrestling, rowing, and weightlifting, etc.

People of good faith must be able to come together and envision a girls’ and women’s sport space where all girls and women would be welcome, all girls and women would be respected, all girls and women would experience the same fair competition as boys and men; a place where the competitive achievements of females and transgender girls and women would be equally celebrated. In such a
construct, biological sex differences and gender identity differences would be accepted as normal human differences.

2022 is the 50th anniversary of Title IX. We should not be teaching our daughters to be gracious losers to athletes with unfair, insurmountable, biological advantage in their competitive sports.

There can be significant differences between the speed of men and women in the open water swimming world. In the typical professional 10 km marathon swim, the time differential between the top male and female swimmers is over 7 minutes, no matter if the course is saltwater or freshwater, tranquil or turbulent. In most channel crossings around the world, the male speed records dominate the female records – but that is not necessarily true across every channel or lake.

The transgender female versus biological female issue will be contentious at the Olympics or FINA World Championships, but the parameters of inclusion – or exclusion – will be standardized by the IOC or FINA. However, this same issue in the open water swimming world may be less standardized and more controversial at the local level. For example, will the Channel Swimming Association and Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association, the British Long Distance Swimming Association, the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association and individual races from Maratona del Golfo Capri-Napoli to the Traversée internationale du lac St-Jean all have similar, the same, or different perspectives and rules?

Who knows?

Time will tell.

It is best to be prepared and start addressing the situation ahead of time.

USA Swimming published its Athlete Inclusion, Competitive Equity and Eligibility Policy this February that described the requirements for transgender athletes to compete in its sanctioned events.

The IOC published its Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations.

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Steven Munatones
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