Meet the Roanoke Swimmers Who Stood up to Their College, the NCAA

By Ashley McClure

Last month, the Roanoke College women’s swim team made history when they became the first team to collectively stand up for the integrity of female-only athletics. 

In a press conference on Oct. 5, several members of the women’s team called on the NCAA to address the growing number of male athletes who identify as transgender participating in women’s sports. Just two days earlier, Roanoke College’s Board of Trustees had voted to adopt the NCAA’s transgender athlete policy, ignoring pleas from their own athletes. 

The female swimmers at Roanoke started off this school year with the unwelcome news that a male athlete, who formerly swam for Roanoke College’s men’s team, had taken a year off to “transition” and was now planning to join the women’s team. 

According to members of the women’s team, the male swimmer was added to the women’s team group chat, attended women’s team meetings, and wore a women’s swimsuit to practice, giving them every reason to believe that his official membership on the women’s team was imminent. Although their coach drew the line at allowing the male athlete to use the women’s locker room, the male athlete’s presence at practice and meetings was extraordinarily stressful for the women involved. 

Members of the women’s team said that Roanoke College’s lack of clear communication about the male athlete’s competition status failed both him and the women, which led to the male athlete ultimately withdrawing his request to join the women’s team. Now, women’s team co-captains Bailey Gallagher, Lily Mullens, and Kate Pearson are sharing more about their situation and calling out the NCAA—as well as their own college—to protect the integrity of the sport they love. 

Meet Bailey Gallagher, senior women’s team captain at Roanoke College, who – along with her co-captains Mullens and Pearson – inspired her teammates to stand up to the NCAA and college administrators.

When Gallagher first caught wind of a male athlete’s plan to join the women’s team, she wasn’t sure how the other girls would feel. 

“One day, one of the other swimmers mentioned that she was stressed out about it, and I was so relieved that I wasn’t the only one,” Gallagher said.

As the eldest captain, Gallagher’s teammates relied on her to learn more about the situation, and how it would affect their season. However, Gallagher said she felt “so lost” when she sought meaningful information from the school, which made her feel like an annoyance for even inquiring.

“It was very stressful and frustrating that we weren’t able to be in the loop, especially when we asked so many times,” Gallagher said. “I thought about quitting my final year here just because of this situation.”

To Gallagher, what mattered most was finishing out the season as strong as possible and leaving her team in a good position for the future. Instead, she spent much of her senior year working with her co-captains fighting against Roanoke and the NCAA forcing them to compete with a man.

The male swimmer specialized in different events from  Gallagher’s specialties, backstroke and individual medley, so she rarely saw him at practice. However, Gallagher said she couldn’t sit idly by as her teammates were forced to practice with a nearly six-foot man every day.

“He absolutely had an unfair advantage,” she said. “[He] was definitely way faster than us. Just diving off the block, he was already a body-length ahead of the next fastest female swimmer.”

After her team’s  viral press conference on Oct. 5, where they publicized the unfair and unsafe situation that Roanoke and the NCAA was putting them in, Gallagher said they were met with complete silence from the school’s athletic department. However, on the evening that the press conference was supposed to air on Fox News, Gallagher said that Roanoke’s president “coincidentally” sent out an email calling for inclusivity and attempting to downplay the seriousness of the situation. The email even claimed that the male athlete was never an official member of the women’s team, despite his presence at practice and team meetings all season. 

“It was incredibly frustrating that this was all sent out via email after we spoke up, since we spoke up because those things weren’t being communicated to us,” she said. 

Despite the challenges that she and her team have weathered this season, Gallagher is proud of her decision to speak out about protecting women’s sports.

“I don’t know if I could have done it alone,” Gallagher said, noting how encouraged she felt by her two co-captains. “But in my gut, I felt this was something that I needed to do.” 

Meet Lily Mullens, junior captain of the women’s swim team, who was inspired to speak her mind by none other than famed neurosurgeon and 2016 presidential candidate Ben Carson. She personally met Carson after he visited Roanoke College in September to deliver a talk entitled, “My American Dream.”

“He said, ‘most of the people in this country have common sense: what they lack is courage. You cannot be the land of the free if you’re not the home of the brave,’” Mullens recalled. “I was just overwhelmingly inspired to do something.” 

Carson’s words helped Mullens to overcome her fears about sharing her true feelings about being forced to swim with a male with her fellow swim captains Bailey Gallagher and Kate Pearson. 

Mullens said that because the issue of men in women’s sports is so politically fraught, she was initially afraid that the other girls would not agree with her female-only stance.

“We were sitting together in the locker room, and I just asked, ‘Do you guys agree with this?’ and they said ‘No,’” Mullens recalled. “I just thought, ‘Thank God.’”

Mullens looks back on that time, and all of the uncertainties she and her co-captains faced when a male athlete attempted to join their team, as particularly stressful. 

However, she is no stranger to hard decisions. When she was 13 years old, Mullens suffered a debilitating back injury that forced her to abandon her successful dance career and focus exclusively on swimming. 

“I had three stress fractures and two of my discs were out,” she said. “Swimming was actually part of my therapy.”

Swimming provided Mullens more than just a physical outlet. It has also given her a community.

“Every team that I’ve been on, the girls I swam with have been my best friends,” she said.

The possibility of jeopardizing those relationships by speaking out against the male swimmer trying to join their team was nerve-wracking, but Mullens said she ultimately realized that it was the right thing to do.

“I told the team, ‘I don’t support this. It’s up to you whether or not you agree with me, but I think our sport is in danger, and that’s where I stand,’” Mullens said. “After I said that, girls started speaking up and saying that they also didn’t agree and were very worried about the situation.”

A major concern for Mullens and her teammates was how appearing with the male athlete at swim meets would reflect on them.

“If we went to competitions and didn’t appear to be protesting [his] presence on our team, we thought that [other teams] would look at us and think we supported that – or that we were cheaters,” Mullens said. 

After the women’s team spoke out as one against men in women’s sports, Mullens said that the college’s administration quickly tried to claim that the male athlete had never intended to join their team at all.

“The school told us, ‘she was never on the women’s team. You guys have nothing to complain about,’” Mullens said. “Why, then, was this person wearing a women’s suit? Why was this person at the women’s team meetings? Why was this person in our women’s team group chat? Please explain to me how all of this points to him not being on the women’s team.”

Roanoke’s lack of communication is likely why the male athlete withdrew his request to swim this year, according to Mullens. 

“The school failed all of us,” she said. “I think both [the male athlete] and the women’s team were all upset with the lack of clear communication. It was left to us to interpret or infer what was going to happen.”

According to Mullens, this “traumatizing” experience has not only brought the women’s team closer together but also gave her a newfound sense of courage.

“At first, I was very timid – I didn’t think I could be the next Riley Gaines or Paula Scanlan,” Mullens said. “But I thought, if we don’t want this to ever happen to anyone else again, if we don’t want it to happen to a coach again, if we don’t want it to happen to a school again, we have to speak out.”

Mullens continued, “I understand what I’m doing is right for what I believe in, and I know I’ve got nine other girls behind me. If Ben Carson, Riley, and Paula can do this kind of thing, then so can I.” 

Meet Kate Pearson, the sophomore women’s team captain at Roanoke who took a stand for women’s sports, despite pressure from college administrators to stay silent. 

“It seemed like they were trying to cover up everything and make us look ridiculous for even trying to speak out,” she said. 

Pearson’s second year at Roanoke started off with a whirlwind of meetings, all of which were about the male athlete attempting to join the women’s team. 

“It was very stressful all the time – there were meetings almost every night,” she said. “It took away from schoolwork, it was completely mind consuming, and I didn’t even feel like I was a student-athlete anymore.”

The male swimmer, who formerly swam for Roanoke’s men’s team, took his sophomore year off to “transition.” Since that year was Pearson’s freshman year, she had never met him prior to his attempt to join the women’s team – unlike her older co-captains Bailey Gallagher and Lily Mullens.

Pearson described her first encounter with the swimmer at a women’s team practice as “completely unmotivating.”

“I was watching [him] race at a Saturday morning practice thinking, ‘why am I here?’” she said. “It was the first week of practice, everyone was out of shape, and yet he was already going times that I couldn’t even go at a championship meet.” 

The male athlete’s presence on the team, as well as the school’s failure to communicate, put a damper on the excitement Pearson said she felt when she joined the team last year.

“I chose Roanoke because everyone on the team was so nice,” she said. “Every single person made an effort to say hi to me and ask me questions. It reminded me of my high school team, and it felt like home.”

Now, Pearson said, the team’s dynamic – at least among the younger women – is damaged because of how much time and energy was directed at the male swimmer.

“[Team] culture is not too hot right now,” she said. “We never really had a chance to get to know the freshmen before all this stuff started blowing up.”

In addition, Pearson said that the women’s team has faced backlash from the school.

“We’ve gotten a lot of nasty comments and anonymous hate, even posters hung up in our locker room,” she said. 

Pearson found support and solidarity among many of her team members, especially co-captains Gallagher and Mullens. However, she said she is worried about being the face of the swim team’s resistance after they graduate. 

“This year, Bailey will graduate, and Lily will graduate next year,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m going to be the sole person left, and that people will choose me as the main target. But if that’s what has to be done in order to speak out about this, I’m okay with it.” 

Standing up for the integrity of her team has changed her, Pearson said.

“I used to be afraid of what other people would think if I had an unpopular opinion, but this experience has given me the strength to stand up for my morals and opinions and not be afraid to share them,” she said. “I’ve never been one to enjoy the spotlight, and that has been scary, but it’s given me so much courage.”

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