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Lia Thomas at the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championship on March 17, 2022. Credit: Jesse Zhang

Penn has nominated swimmer Lia Thomas — who sparked an ongoing national conversation about transgender participation in sports — for the 2022 NCAA Woman of the Year award, the NCAA announced on July 14.

Thomas, one of 577 nominees and one of more than 240 Division I athletes, was the first transgender woman to win an NCAA Division I Championship title. The Woman of the Year award, established in 1991, “honors the academic achievements, athletics excellence, community service and leadership of graduating female college athletes,” according to the NCAA. Penn also nominated tennis player Yulia Bryzgalova for the award.

The Austin, Texas, native started her Penn career competing on the men’s team for her first two seasons. Thomas sat out for a year in order to comply with NCAA-mandated testosterone suppression treatments for transgender athletes, which coincided with the cancellation of winter sports due to COVID-19. When athletics resumed in the 2021-2022 season, Thomas started competing with the women’s swimming and diving team. 

Thomas’ record-breaking season — during which she has broken the Penn record for the 500-yard freestyle twice — has been met with both national support and controversy, leading to a larger debate about transgender inclusion in competitive sports. 

FINA, the world governing body for swimming that also dictates eligibility for Olympic swimming, voted in June to restrict transgender athletes’ participation in elite women’s events. The new policy dictates that female athletes who were assigned male at birth and wish to compete in women’s competitions must “establish to FINA’s comfortable satisfaction that they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 (of puberty) or before age 12, whichever is later,” Reuters reported

In May, prior to FINA’s policy change, Thomas spoke to Good Morning America about her swimming career and future. 

“I intend to keep swimming,” Thomas said in an interview with ABC News’ Juju Chang. “It’s been a goal of mine to swim at Olympic trials for a very long time, and I would love to see that through.”

However, the new FINA policy will block her from competing with the Olympic women's swim team entirely. A new open category will be instituted to allow anyone "the opportunity to compete at an elite level." 

In February, 16 Penn swimmers opposed Thomas’ competition with the women’s team in an anonymous letter, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported. In the letter, the student-athletes claimed that her participation took away “competitive opportunities” from them. Shortly after the letter’s release, the NCAA announced they would not adhere to USA Swimming’s stricter policies for transgender swimmers before the 2022 championships, which allowed for Thomas’ participation in the 2022 women's swimming and diving championships. 

Both Penn and the Ivy League released statements supporting Thomas in early January. Thomas also has the backing of more than 300 former and current swimmers and divers from colleges and universities across the country, who signed a letter in support of her in early February. 

Thomas, who graduated in May, will attend law school in the fall with a focus on civil rights and public interest law, according to an interview with ESPN. 

"Having seen such hateful attacks on trans rights through legislation, fighting for trans rights and trans equality is something that I've become much more passionate about and want to pursue," Thomas told ESPN.