Story at a glance
- Lia Thomas, the former University of Pennsylvania swimmer at the center of a national debate over whether transgender athletes should be able to compete on sports teams consistent with their gender identity, has been nominated for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award.
- Thomas in March became the first transgender woman to win a national title in Division I athletics.
- Thomas joins hundreds of other female athletes from member schools across the country representing 23 sports and all three NCAA divisions in being nominated for the award.
Lia Thomas, the former University of Pennsylvania swimmer who in March became the first transgender woman to secure a national title in Division I athletics, has been nominated for the NCAA’s Woman of the Year Award by her university, the athletic conference announced Friday.
Thomas this year rose to national prominence, drawing both passionate support and forceful criticism as her swimming success became a real-life proxy for the debate over whether transgender female athletes should be permitted to compete against cisgender ones.
Conservative lawmakers across the country have said her victories in the pool warrant greater regulation in women’s and girls’ sports to preserve their “integrity” and maintain fairness for all.
Since 2021, 18 states have enacted legislation barring transgender student athletes from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity, 10 of which were passed this year.
Thomas has also been targeted by conservative groups including Concerned Women for America (CWA), which filed a civil rights complaint against the swimmer’s school in March, arguing that cisgender female athletes have lost “opportunities afforded to them by law” because of Thomas.
In February, several of Thomas’ own teammates in an unsigned letter sent to Penn and Ivy League officials said Thomas holds an “unfair advantage” because she underwent male puberty. Thomas began her medical transition in 2019, complying with current NCAA guidelines that require transgender female athletes to complete a full year of testosterone suppressing treatment before they are able to compete on a women’s sports team.
Also in February, several members of Penn’s women’s swimming and diving team in a statement said Thomas has their “full support” in her transition.
Brooke Forde, a former Stanford swimmer who was also nominated for the NCAA Woman of the Year award this year, in January said she has “great respect” for Thomas. Forde raced against Thomas in the 500-yard freestyle event at the NCAA Championships in March, placing fourth.
“Social change is always a slow and difficult process and we rarely get it correct right away,” Forde said in January. “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.”
As of now, that future is uncertain. Last month, the International Swimming Federation (FINA), the world governing body of elite swimming, announced that a majority of its members had approved a new policy that effectively bans transgender women from participating in elite international swimming competitions.
USA Swimming, the national governing body of elite swimming in the U.S., in February said it would, effective immediately, require transgender female athletes to prove that the concentration of testosterone in their blood has been less than 5 nanomoles per liter continuously for at least 36 months — the most restrictive of any sports governing body.
The NCAA has said it is reviewing the new USA Swimming policy but has yet to adopt it.
Thomas ended her collegiate swimming career — and her first season competing for Penn’s women’s team after three years on the university’s men’s team — as a four-time Ivy League champion and NCAA title holder.
In being nominated for the athletic association’s Woman of the Year Award, Thomas joins hundreds of other female athletes from member schools across the country representing 23 sports and all three NCAA divisions.
“As 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the NCAA Woman of the Year program is an important opportunity to honor and reflect on the impact of women on intercollegiate sports,” the NCAA said Friday in a news release recognizing all 577 nominees.
Established in 1991, the NCAA Woman of the Year Award recognizes graduating female student athletes that have received high marks in athletics, academics and community service throughout their college careers.
A selection committee will choose 10 student athletes from each division, determining the top 30 honorees that will be celebrated at the NCAA 2023 Convention in January in San Antonio, Texas, where the Woman of the Year winner will also be announced.