Former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas has been nominated for the 2022 NCAA Woman of the Year award by her alma mater. Thomas became the first transgender woman to win a Division 1 title when she won the women’s 500-yard freestyle event in March, The Dallas Express reported.
The Ivy League swimmer clarified her motivation for transitioning, refuting what she calls “ridiculous claims” that she did so to gain an “advantage” while competing, according to ABC News.
“Trans people don’t transition for athletics,” she said. “We transition to be happy and authentic and our true selves. Transitioning to get an advantage is not something that ever factors into our decisions.”
Thomas revealed to Sports Illustrated in March that she struggled with gender identity during her freshman year at UPenn.
“I felt disconnected from my body,” she recalled.
The swimmer began her medical transition in 2019 after completing at least one year of hormone therapy before competing in women’s sports categories, as required by the NCAA.
There has been considerable controversy over transgender athletes’ participation in sports, mostly concerning trans women’s participation, especially since Thomas became the first transgender NCAA champion in Division I history.
Beth Stelzer, an amateur powerlifter, protested at the NCAA swimming championship with a “Save Women’s Sports” vinyl banner, The Dallas Express reported.
Stelzer says she fights for biological sex-based eligibility for female sports, and her group — Save Women’s Sports — is part of a growing backlash against transgender athletes like Thomas.
“This is not an anti-Lia campaign,” Stelzer told The New York Post. “It’s a pro-woman campaign. We think everyone should play sports fairly.”
Reka Gyorgy, a Virginia Tech swimmer, agreed. After missing the cut to compete in the finals of the 500-yard free at the NCAA Championships, Gyorgy took to Instagram to challenge college sports to change their policies on transgender athletes.
“It doesn’t promote our sport in a good way, and I think it is disrespectful against the biologically female swimmers who are competing in the NCAA,” Gyorgy said.
Beyond elite competition, the controversy has spread across the country; in the last year, 18 states have enacted legislation prohibiting transgender student-athletes from competing on sports teams that correspond to their gender identity, with 10 passing legislation this year, according to The Hill.
Swimming’s international governing body, FINA, voted in June to enact a new policy defining which transgender athletes are eligible to compete at the highest levels of aquatics competition, The Dallas Express reported.
FINA approved the new “gender inclusion” policy on Sunday after 71.5% of the global governing body’s member federations voted in favor of at the FINA Extraordinary General Congress 2022.
USA Swimming, the national governing body of elite swimming in the U.S., announced in February that transgender female athletes would be required to demonstrate that their blood testosterone concentration was less than five nanomoles per liter for at least 36 months — the most stringent requirement of any sport’s governing body, according to The Hill.
The NCAA has stated that it will review the new USA Swimming policy before adopting it.
After three years on the university’s men’s team, Thomas finished her collegiate swimming career as a four-time Ivy League champion and NCAA champion in her first season competing for Penn’s women’s team.
Along with hundreds of female athletes from NCAA member schools across the country, Thomas has been nominated for the Woman of the Year Award, which spans 23 sports and all three NCAA divisions.