College swimming champion Riley Gaines didn’t set out to become a highly visible crusader to save women’s sports for—well—women.
The then-University of Kentucky senior already had received a scholarship to attend dental school. She had put down a deposit for her spot.
But something snapped when Gaines and Lia Thomas, a biological male who identifies as a transgender woman, tied for fifth-place in the women’s 200-meter NCAA championship match.
Gaines was told, “Hey, I just want to let you know, we only have one fifth-place trophy, so yours will be coming in the mail. We went ahead and gave the fifth-place trophy to Lia, but you can pose on the podium with the sixth-place trophy,” according to a swimming magazine.
“I had waited and waited and waited and waited for someone else to stand up for us,” Gaines tells IWF. “From the time I found out who Lia Thomas was in November of 2021 until March of 2022, I thought surely some coach would stick up for us, or some parent, maybe someone’s dad, or someone with political power, or someone within the NCAA, someone who was supposed to be protecting us would protect us.
“And I had just reached a breaking point when Thomas and I tied in the 200 freestyle and they told me that he had to have the trophy when pictures were being taken because it looked better for the optics. That’s when I really reached the point of no longer willing to lie, because that’s what they were asking us to do. They were asking us to lie and smile and step aside and allow this man on our podiums. They were asking us to feel comfortable dressing and undressing in a dressing room next to a fully intact male. That’s lying. None of us felt comfortable in that environment. And so, I had just reached a breaking point.”
Gaines has since become one of the country’s most prominent advocates for limiting women’s sports to women. She has pointed out the obvious fact that males who identify as transgender women have an enormous physical advantage over females in competitive athletics. For Riley, the idea that it’s either fair or safe for men to compete in women’s sports is simply a lie—and part of a larger debate. “Think about this,” she said to a U.K. newspaper, “in the 1940s, World War II, men lied about their age to enlist. Now, in 2023, we have men lying about their sex to get into women’s sports or women’s prisons or domestic shelters or sororities or bathrooms, locker rooms.”
Gaines serves as an Independent Women’s Voice advisor on women’s athletics issues and recently launched The Riley Gaines Center at the Leadership Institute, which will train others to stand up for causes such as women’s rights. “When they want you to remain silent, speak louder,” Riley explains.
Riley recounted that a woman, falsely claiming to be a member of the campus police, grabbed her by her hair and pulled her into a stairwell blocked by protesters.
Her message is not welcome everywhere. When Riley went to San Francisco State University this spring, protesters stamped their feet, heckling and shouting her down. After getting hit in the face, Gaines recounted that a woman, whom she later found out was an undercover campus police officer, escorted her into a hallway—which was also blocked by protestors. Uniformed officers came to her aid, and Riley was finally able to escape and barricade herself in a small room. For three hours, protesters screamed, chanted, and demanded a ransom.
“The San Francisco incident was a turning point for me,” Riley says, “because I realized these protesters know no bounds. When they don’t have truth on their side, or common sense, or logic, or reasoning, or science, they resort to violence, they resort to petty personal attacks, name-calling, labeling. They will do anything they can to silence you. It’s a pretty scary thought, because again, they don’t see consequences anymore because they get away with it. Those students who attacked me in San Francisco were applauded by their university.”
In response to a query from FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), SFSU’s Director of Communications Bobby King responded by saying the university was “proud to say that the First Amendment was honored” that night. FIRE linked to viral videos that showed just the opposite.
“I don’t think people understand the scope of what is happening, and understandably so because it’s not covered a ton,” Riley tells IWF. “But I do understand because I get the messages. I get the messages from girls who are distraught. I get the messages from parents who want to defend their daughters but are terrified because they don’t want to lose their jobs. I get the messages from coaches who are silenced even by their administration. And I see the scope of this happening on a broader scale.
“So, the threat is very real,” she continues, “but almost more important than the threat of women’s sports is that we’re trying to deny reality, and that’s a really big problem. When you start to deny objective truth, man and woman, the essence of humanity, when you start to deny that, there’s not a lot we can fall back on, and it’s a slippery slope. What’s next? We need to be proactive about handling this so we can prevent girls and women from being injured, or losing out on their privacy, or losing out on opportunities, and to preserve reality, and sanity, and common sense in America.”
Gaines has pointed out the obvious fact that males who identify as transgender women have an enormous physical advantage over females in competitive athletics.
Riley has loved swimming since childhood and was already entering and winning competitions by the age of 12. Her father, Brad Gaines, was a football star at Vanderbilt University, and her mother Telisha played softball at Austin Peay. “I did the thing that a lot of kids do—play all kinds of different sports, right?” she says. “Like, you’ll play softball, and soccer, and basketball, and all the sports. Neither of my parents pushed me to excel in something. They wanted it to be natural. They wanted it to come from me. And so, when I decided I wanted to stick with swimming, my dad said ‘Swimming, Riley? We play sports that have balls and sticks. What are you doing?’ But I’ve always had their support, and they’ve always been there for me. So, it’s a blessing to have such an amazing family.”
Riley has a brother and two sisters, who, needless to say, play sports. “We are so incredibly close, even still,” says Riley. “Even this morning I go and work out with my mom and my grandma. I have just the greatest family, the best support system. I really do.” They grew up in Gallatin, Tennessee, where Riley was a swimming champion at Station Camp High School. Riley attends a local church and speaks unselfconsciously about her faith. “I grew up in the church and am very fortunate to have that foundation,” she says. “I’ve always been spiritual, but this past year I really have just been spiritually eye-opened to see just how clearly God works, and how He moves and how He has His hand on me. That being said, I see almost as clearly how His opposition works.”
In addition to swimming at the University of Kentucky, Riley earned a degree in human health sciences and health law and met the man she would marry: Louis Barker, who lived in England and Dubai for the first 18 years of his life and moved to the U.S. to swim at the University of Kentucky. “We dated for four years,” Riley recalls, “and he proposed to me the day after Lia Thomas and I raced. I don’t know if he knew what he was getting himself into. The past year has had a lot of ups and downs, but marriage is fun.” Louis works in the construction industry, and “funny enough,” she notes, he specializes in swimming pool installations. The couple lives in the Nashville area with their two Springer Spaniels, Buddy and Lady, who were “running around and chasing butterflies” while their mom spoke to IWF.
“I’ve always been pretty politically in tune with conservative ideas,” Riley says. “I’ve always been aware of current events and what’s going on. I’ve always thought it is important to know, at least from a broader sense, how your country is doing, how your state is doing, what they’re doing. But this issue has been eye-opening for me on a lot of different fronts. For example, I realized just how divisive the media is. I knew media bias existed before, right? But I didn’t know how they twist stories.”
Riley has been critical of the response of many leading mainstream feminists to the transgender issue, which she says is moving in two different directions. “It makes you ask yourself the question of where are the feminists?” she says. “There are some feminist groups who have stuck true to their mission. However, there’s another portion of this feminist movement that has stayed entirely silent. And then there’s another portion that is undermining everything they once fought for, and including males into our spaces and our sports. Megan Rapinoe who fought for equal pay, and equal access, and equal resources for women is now fighting for male inclusion.
“The double standard, the irony, the hypocrisy of what these feminists are doing—in the name of inclusion, they’re excluding women, which is the exact opposite of what feminism was originally about.”
What about Lia Thomas’ contention that she is a woman? “What Thomas is doing … is simply gaslighting people into feeling like they’re wrong for feeling uncomfortable in the locker room, feeling like they should be okay with stepping aside and smiling and allowing these men to take our spots on the podium, take our titles, take our scholarships, take away our opportunities,” Gaines said in a previous interview with Fox.
“Without fairness and safety, integrity is lost and the foundation of sport is integrity. Everyone should play, just play where it’s fair and where it’s safe.”
The mainstream media often presents Riley as hostile to transgender people. “I would love for them to show me one thing I’ve ever said that’s anti-trans,” she said. “This isn’t about being anti-anything. It’s pro-fairness, it’s pro-woman, it’s pro-truth, but it’s not anti-anything, and that’s a silly accusation. If someone wants to transition, you know, in their adult life, cool. That’s totally fine. But you have to understand there are consequences with that, and one of those consequences might be you don’t get to play in the sport that matches your gender identity. You play in the sport that matches your sex. And that being said, I’m not advocating for any trans athlete to be banned from sports. That would be so silly. There’s so much benefit to playing sports that no one should be denied that opportunity. But again, you just have to compete where it’s fair and where it’s safe. It needs to go in the order of preserving safety, and then preserving fairness, and then we can look to inclusion. But without fairness and safety, integrity is lost and the foundation of sport is integrity. Everyone should play, just play where it’s fair and where it’s safe.”
With her wholesome looks and Breck girl blonde mane, Riley looks like the girl next door. She is gutsy and grounded and driven. She believes her work with IW and the Riley Gaines Center has an important part to play in the debate over women’s sports and for our country broadly. “I want to be able to empower, and inspire, and train,” Riley says.
But what about her career in dentistry? “If all of this could be fixed tomorrow, if common sense would prevail across the country, I would be thrilled to go back to dentistry. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. So, this is where I am for now, and for the time being I’m finding it more fulfilling than performing root canals.”
As much as we admire a steady hand when we’re in the dentist’s chair, we’re glad that Riley is working to save women’s sports.