The University of Pennsylvania nominated swimmer Lia Thomas — who has become the face of the debate on transgender women in sports — for the 2022 NCAA Woman of the Year award. The Ivy League swimmer was nominated as a Division I athlete for Swimming and Diving, according to the NCAA website. The award is meant to honor the “academic achievements, athletics excellence, community service and leadership of graduating female college athletes from all three divisions,” according to the website. In March, Thomas became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I title after finishing first in the women’s 500-yard freestyle event and recording the fastest time of the NCAA season. With that victory, she became the first transgender athlete to win a D-I title in any sport.
Thomas, who previously swam for Penn’s men’s team, brought renewed attention to the debate on trans women’s participation in sports and the balance between inclusion and fair play during a time when states across the US are passing laws aiming to curb the rights of transgender people.
She first launched into the public eye with a stunning performance at the Zippy Invitational in Ohio in December, when she set NCAA season-best times in the 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle races. And she won the 100-yard, 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle races at the Ivy League women’s championships in February.
In a May interview with ABC, the swimmer talked about feeling depressed early in college, before her transition. She began hormone replacement therapy in 2019 and, following NCAA protocols, took a year off swimming before joining the UPenn women’s team in 2020.
“I knew there would be scrutiny against me if I competed as a woman. I was prepared for that,” she said in the interview. “But I also don’t need anybody’s permission to be myself and to do the sport that I love.”
Thomas said “there are a lot of factors that go into a race,” but the biggest difference now is that she is happy, adding that trans women are “not a threat to women’s sports.”
The Woman of the Year selection panel will pick 30 honorees, from which they will then announce nine finalists — three from each NCAA division, according to the organization’s website. The NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics will then review those finalists before deciding on a 2022 NCAA Woman of the Year, according to the site. The Woman of the Year will be named at the NCAA Convention.