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Brava, Brooke Forde. Brava.
The Olympic swimmer and Stanford grad student is taking a beautifully human stance when it comes to transgender swimmer Lia Thomas.
For background: Thomas is a senior swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania; during her time in college, she came out and has transitioned from male to female. Current NCAA rules require that she undergo testosterone suppression for at least one year, and at this point, she has been doing it for well over two years.
Before her transition, Thomas was strong enough to be second-team All-Ivy League in multiple events. But on the national level, Thomas' 500-meter freestyle time was not quite good enough to compete at the season-ending NCAA championships.
Thomas said during a December interview she began hormone therapy treatments in May 2019, and swam the 2019-2020 season on the men's team at Penn while transitioning, which made for an "awkward experience." She only competed in a few events, and already was seeing a decline in her times.
This winter, Thomas is the fastest swimmer in the country in the 200 free and 500 free, though by small margins, particularly in the 500 distance. This, of course, has led to a tidal wave of outrage, much of it phony and politically motivated.
Just as the discourse surrounding the teaching of race relations (namely, America's history of mistreating Black people) almost always centers around white parents and their alleged discomfort with facts, there's a similar trend in discussion about Lia Thomas. We rarely see opinions from the swimmers who will be in the pool with her.
That's why Forde's words are so important.
Currently, Forde is ranked third in the 500 freestyle. Thomas' best time is 4 minutes, 34.06 seconds, with Arizona State's Emma Nordin at 4:34.87 and Forde 4:36.96. Forde will swim the 500 free at the NCAA championships in March, and it is expected Thomas will as well, though that is not a given.
On Yahoo Sports' College Football Enquirer podcast this week, Brooke's father, longtime sportswriter Pat Forde, shared some of the discussion he had with Brooke last weekend when he went to her meet against Arizona State.
To his surprise, Brooke had a statement prepared, and Pat read it:
“I have great respect for Lia. Social change is always a slow and difficult process, and we rarely get it correct right away. Being among the first to lead such a social change requires an enormous amount of courage and I admire Lia for her leadership that will undoubtedly benefit many trans athletes in the future. In 2020 I, along with most swimmers, experienced what it was like to have my chance to achieve my swimming goals taken away after years of hard work [due to COVID]. I would not wish this experience on anyone, especially Lia who has followed the rules required of her. I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.”
As Pat Forde acknowledged, this is a complicated issue. Unlike sports like wrestling or weightlifting, swimming does not have weight classes.
But as Brooke recognizes, it's about a human being, and someone who has been thrust into the spotlight as the current poster child for an often volatile topic. Thomas just wants to swim. She has followed the rules as they are currently.
She is not causing the downfall of all women's sports, as cringeworthy headlines produced from a Google search might suggest. Lest we forget, there were people not too long ago who were appalled at the idea of racially integrated athletics teams or events and thought that would bring the downfall of society.
While Thomas does have the fastest times in two events, they are not by wide margins — 0.66 seconds in the 200 free and 0.81 seconds in the 500. In the 1,650 freestyle, Thomas has the seventh-fastest time in the country, more than 12 seconds behind Nordin.
The NCAA's recent cowardly decision on transgender athletes, in which it said it will follow guidelines set forth by each sports' national governing organization, could mean a late national championship ban for Thomas. USA Swimming said it is working with FINA, swimming's global governing body, to finalize a policy, and it is expected next month.
But if that final policy is based on testosterone levels, it is likely that Thomas, having taken hormone treatments for well over two years, will likely be within the acceptable standard.
Some day, there may be meets for transgender athletes, but at the moment, we're talking about a handful of athletes across different sports; Outsports.com reports there have been just 27 out transgender NCAA and NAIA competitors over the last 12 years, in 14 sports, though there are surely others who did and are competing who are not out publicly.
They are all human, just as Thomas is, and should be treated as such.
Brava to Brooke Forde for understanding that.