USA Swimming Sheds Light On Process That Led To New Transgender Policy

USA Swimming published a new Athlete Inclusion, Competitive Equity and Eligibility Policy (AICEEP) at the beginning of February, outlining the requirements for transgender athletes to compete in its sanctioned events effective immediately.

The two pieces of criteria in the elite athlete policy (there is also a separate non-elite policy) are different than what we had seen in previously established policies, most notably the standard implemented by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The IOC previously allowed trans women to compete in the women’s division as long as they had a testosterone level of 10 nmol/L or less. USA Swimming’s new policy requires evidence that the athlete has maintained a testosterone level less than 5 nmol/L for a minimum period of 36 months, and has a second piece of criteria that states there needs to be evidence proving the athlete’s prior physical development as a male does not give them a competitive advantage.

The new policy raised many questions, and USA Swimming has shared insight with SwimSwam on the steps taken in developing the policy, why these are the criteria that the organization landed on, and how it will be enforced.

Below we’ll break down what the sport’s national governing body said in regards to certain aspects of the policy.

TIMELINE

In November 2021, the IOC released a new framework on transgender athlete eligibility that pushed the responsibility of establishing participation guidelines to each individual sport’s global (and national) governing body.

USA Swimming had put a policy in place in 2017, but it didn’t specifically address participation at the elite level. So once the IOC published its new guidelines in November, USA Swimming begin talking to FINA in working to establish a new set of criteria for the sport.

USA Swimming began establishing the policy in early December of 2021, with the process of developing it taking right around two months with it ultimately being published on Feb. 1.

The organization said the policy was discussed with its Athletes’ Advisory Council (AAC), its medical committees, along with USA Swimming’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Council, which has one transgender member.

STREAMLINING WITH FINA

USA Swimming felt the need to publish its new policy imminently with its competition calendar running continuously throughout the year. FINA, on the other hand, has a limited number of events, with the first swimming event of 2022 not until the World Championships in June.

So while FINA has yet to establish a new policy or a timeline of when it will do so, USA Swimming’s policy does state that it will adapt to FINA’s requirements once a policy is published. This can be found in Section 7 of the policy (19.0) in USA Swimming’s Operating Policy Manual.

WHY 5 NMOL/L?

The most noteworthy difference in USA Swimming’s policy and the former one enforced by the IOC was the testosterone threshold a transgender female had to be below in order to compete in the women’s category.

USA Swimming’s criteria states that there needs to be evidence that the concentration of testosterone in the athlete’s serum has been less than 5 nanomoles per litre continuously for a period of at least 36 months. The IOC policy was only 10 nmol/L, and didn’t distinguish a timeline as the one USA Swimming has.

The organization told SwimSwam that the 5 nmol/L limit was taken from the IAAF (World Athletics), which had one of the few policies in place after the IOC’s was removed in November.

USA Swimming also said it looked to a literature review of all the research and peer-reviewed studies that have been done in the area dating back to 1991.

The evidence showed that strength gains in transgender athletes remained after three years of hormone replacement therapy, which is why they landed on the 36-month minimum for 5nmol/L.

HOW TO PROVE THERE ISN’T A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

The other piece of criteria in the new policy states that there needs to be “evidence that the prior physical development of the athlete as a male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not the give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender competition.”

How exactly this can be proved is ultimately at the discretion of the three-person medical panel.

The key takeaway from what USA Swimming told SwimSwam was that the panel will be looking at biological markers, not swimming times, to determine whether an advantage has been successfully mitigated.

“We’re not looking at swimming success or results, more of the biological markers, an advantage is gained from how far through puberty someone could have gotten before a medical intervention transition occurs,” USA Swimming said.

“But that’s the reason for the independent medical panel. They’re not swimming people looking at swimming results or success, they’re looking at biological markers in transition.”

That’s a key point, because in conversations regarding Lia Thomas, the Penn swimmer who has served as a flash-point for this conversation, a lot of focus has been on her times and national rankings – comparing times and places pre-transition, when she was a sophomore at Penn, to post-transition, three years later as a 5th year senior. This lag in time comparisons between athletes pre-transition and post-transition can muddle their relevance as indicators of mitigation from transitioning.

A focus on times can bring up other issues as well: including doubt about swimmers’ efforts, and that a times comparison would require a transitioning athlete to compete in order to earn a relevant mark.

THE PANEL & APPEALS

USA Swimming said the plan is to have a pool of medical professionals available to participate on the three-member panel, with multiple individuals already in mind.

The AAC can appoint someone to serve as a resource on the panel, and both the AAC and National Team staff will be available to be consulted with by the panel in case they’re seeking swimming-specific knowledge. The AAC also has to approve the medical professionals on an annual basis.

The panel’s decision can be appealed by an appellate body that will be comprised of the Chair of the national board of review, an eligible athlete member, and an elite medical panelist, both appointed by the Chair. Only USA Swimming or an involved athlete is eligible to appeal a decision from the panel.

The full appeals process can be found in Section 8 of the policy (19.0) in USA Swimming’s Operating Policy Manual.

CRITERIA: AND/OR?

Another question that came out of USA Swimming’s release of the policy was if it was an and or an or policy. That is, do both pieces of criteria need to be met, or just one?

The answer is that both need to be met, but the panel has room for discretionary decisions.

Everyone needs to go through the panel, but if the panel concludes that the athlete’s advantage has been successfully mitigated, they have the ability to adjust things.

“(The panel) may decide that, for instance, the athlete has transitioned at a state where they wouldn’t require three years of hormone therapy,” USA Swimming said. “They may decide that an athlete who has transitioned later may need more time. So the panel has the latitude to make those distinctions and those determinations.

“The language is certainly that it’s a rebuttal presumption. So the presumption is that the athlete is not eligible if they haven’t met the 5 nmol/L prior to the application, but that would be a rebuttal presumption based on the information that they present to the panel.”

USA Swimming said it’s designed to be somewhat of a “living policy” that evolves as research improves over time. The group of medical professionals will have room to help shape the policy in the future as well.

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too fly
3 months ago

There is no good solution. Swimming as a sport has to decide: Is it better to be trans-exclusionary or to set an unfair playing field for the majority of women? It’s as simple as that.

Personally, I think both options are horrendous. But the second you make a trans woman compete with men or exhibition-only or prevent her from having records, you’re excluding her from part of the sport. (A sport which she may depend on for her mental health.) On the other hand, the second you let her compete against cisgender women, (especially if she’s fast enough), the cis women now have to compete with someone who (potentially) has the muscle memory of going times way faster than they… Read more »

SwimNick37
Reply to  too fly
3 months ago

I’m not sure the sport needs to decide one way or the other. I think we have to wait and see what USA swimming rules and policies moving forward result in. If you need to be under 5 NMOL/L for 36 months in order to compete in as a woman, that will likely force males to start hormone replacement before puberty. If they began after going through male puberty, how long would it take them on the hormone replacement to get under that threshold? If it took a year to get under that threshold, then you are looking at another 3 years after that point before they can compete in an elite USA Swimming meet. That may either push them… Read more »

too fly
Reply to  SwimNick37
3 months ago

I completely agree with you that the rules should be different for transgender athletes who transition during puberty (although I worry that the implementation of such a rule would encourage a confused child to rush a decision they should probably make over a period of several years).

That said, I think creating separate categories for transgender athletes is inherently exclusionary. It’s basically saying “you’re not part of us, just go do your own thing over there, away from us” and tacitly rejecting their identity.

There are way more cis people in the world than trans people. Therefore, trans people have to deal with cis people way more often than the other way around. So, it would be very hard… Read more »

Swim Parent
Reply to  too fly
3 months ago

I commend you for viewing this issue from a sensitive perspective. I come out on the side of changing the men’s category to open. When it comes to sports competition, I don’t believe emotions or comfort level should be a consideration at this level of competition. It is up to the sports’ governing bodies to establish rules to insure a fair and level playing field. Are trans people truly being “excluded” if they are able to compete in the “open” category? It could be viewed as the most “inclusive” category. No one is denying that coming out as trans is emotionally challenging and terribly difficult. Even so, is it reasonable to expect the biological women to compete against someone with… Read more »

too fly
Reply to  Swim Parent
3 months ago

I really appreciate your perspective, and I also really like your style of how your wrote the comment. I’m going to respond to the questions you posed with my opinions:

“Are trans people truly being “excluded” if they are able to compete in the “open” category?”

I suppose in the strictest sense of the word, they would not be excluded in this scenario. And, if for some reason a cisgender woman wanted to compete in the open category, it would give her more flexibility. That said, the vast majority of transgender women probably wouldn’t be fast enough to keep up with the open category if they are taking hormone replacement therapy, and so being required to compete in the open… Read more »

Tadpole 77
Reply to  too fly
3 months ago

Out of the 47 comments currently on this article, I think this one comes closest to an honest, inclusive, rationale position.

My curiosity/suggestion is about this statement:

I suppose in the strictest sense of the word, they would not be excluded in this scenario. And, if for some reason a cisgender woman wanted to compete in the open category, it would give her more flexibility. That said, the vast majority of transgender women probably wouldn’t be fast enough to keep up with the open category if they are taking hormone replacement therapy, and so being required to compete in the open category would probably prevent them from swimming beyond high school. So, even if it isn’t technically excluding them, it

… Read more »

Lucas
3 months ago

This whole thing is a pile of steaming manure

SwimSwamFan
3 months ago

Change the men’s division to open and leave women’s for cis-women, its very simple

612
3 months ago

All I can say, swimming is already struggling for any sort of popularity after Phelps. The sport is rolling down Dealey Plaza right now.

Swimfan333
3 months ago

I can’t help but wonder what’s Katie Ledeckys testosterone level? 🤔

mcmflyguy
Reply to  Swimfan333
3 months ago

why stop there right? why not titmus too… or Jacoby? king? heck just test them all am I right? /s (that means sarcasm)

SwimNick37
3 months ago

Does anyone (including USA Swimming) know where Lia Thomas sits now in regards to NMOL/L levels? Lia stated in the SI article that the Olympics in 2024 was a goal? Trials for 2024 are less than 36 months away, for Lia to compete at trials, the NMOL/L levels would already need to be below 5 NMOL/L.

cynthia curran
Reply to  SwimNick37
3 months ago

Well, I thought that Lia Thomas should have swam a stroke she was not as good in. Yeah, some people would still think she should not have competed in women swimming but others might have accepted her more if she was not the favorite in the 200,500, or up there in the 1500. Just my idea on a comprise in this situation.

Fishy
3 months ago

Biological females testosterone is between .7-1.2, it being 5 is still an insane advantage

Dave
Reply to  Fishy
3 months ago

And, it’s fine that competitors that through puberty as a male, have male skeletal structures, male lung size, male heart size and male musculature.

John Hueth
3 months ago

Lia should be able to compete as a female or women because that’s what she identifies as. It’s time to put biology aside.

swimfan27
Reply to  John Hueth
3 months ago

Incorrect.

Distance Per Stroke
Reply to  John Hueth
3 months ago

Exactly. If Lia is actually a women, a women can swim in a women category’s, no debate.

Big Kicker
Reply to  John Hueth
3 months ago

Agreed, let’s put biology aside. We’re all equals, why don’t we eliminate the categories and let us all compete together?

If you’re advocating for never seeing another female in elite competition, this is a wonderful take.

612
Reply to  John Hueth
3 months ago

Fred Durst, Keep on Trollin babay

Virtus
Reply to  John Hueth
3 months ago

“It’s time to put biology aside” so far left u ended up right

mcmflyguy
Reply to  John Hueth
3 months ago

say good by to title IX then

SwimMom
Reply to  John Hueth
3 months ago

Says someone with a presumably XY karotype. Anyone with an XY karotype will never be adversely impacted by this, but the XX set will.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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