Riley Gaines remembers the moment at the 2022 NCAA Swim Championships when she watched Lia Thomas race for the first time. It was the 500-yard freestyle.
“I remember watching it, and [Lia] destroyed everyone,” Gaines said. “I was standing right next to the girl who placed 17th, which means she didn’t make it to the final or get to be All-American, when Lia touched the wall. She just looked at me and had tears in her eyes and she told me, ‘I just got beat by someone who probably didn’t have to try this morning.’”
Thomas, who swam for three years on the University of Pennsylvania Men’s Swim Team as Will Thomas before switching to the Women’s Team as Lia last fall, has made waves in and out of the pool for breaking records and for the devastation to female athletes left in Thomas’s wake.
Gaines, who swims for the University of Kentucky, describes that day as heartbreaking and somber. She later would race Lia in the 200-yard freestyle, tying for 5th place.
Fairness in Women’s Sports
Gaines’ love of swimming started, like most young women at this level of their careers, when she was just a toddler. But by age 12, she had started to “separate from the kids in her age group” in races.
“I would have parents come up to me to congratulate me because I was breaking pool times,” she said. “It progressed from there. In high school, swimming became my passion.”
Fast forward four years, and Gaines accepted a spot on the Kentucky Women’s Swim Team. She chose UKY for the swim culture, positive coaches, and amazing team. It didn’t hurt that it was only three hours away from home.
In November 2021, Gaines was reading an article on Swim Swam that mentioned a female swimmer who went 1:41 in the 200y freestyle. That time was so fast, it was considered a national time. The name of the swimmer: Lia Thomas. It was a name that Gaines didn’t recognize.
“Being a top swimmer on the collegiate league, you recognize the tip-top and know who they are. I clicked on the article and was like, Lia Thomas — I have never heard of her. The article at the time didn’t mention being a transgender.”
After more digging, Gaines and her coach realized the truth. “At this point I was like, ‘What, there’s no way this can be a nation-leading time if she’s not a biological female.’ I was worried about if she would be allowed to swim at the NCAA’s.”
The NCAA avoided making a firm decision about Thomas’s eligibility until three weeks before the start of the Championships. It was an agonizing wait-and-see game for Gaines and her teammates. And then, the NCAA released a statement: Thomas would be allowed to compete.
The decision didn’t sit well with Gaines. She feels it was made out of a fear of backlash.
“I don’t see how people don’t see the blatant issue with it,” she said. “It has nothing to do with being transphobic. There’s no doubt [that Lia has] worked hard and sacrificed. You can’t do this sport and not do those things. But it’s just amazing to me that it got to this point. People are not fully grasping the severity of it.”
“Seeing a biological male win a national title in a female sport, that’s an opportunity that so many people could take advantage of unless action is taken, and things can be implemented to prevent that from happening.”
Speaking Up and Speaking Out
Unlike many of the female swimmers in the SEC and Ivy League, Gaines has the full support of her school to speak out.
“I’m really grateful for the support from the University and [for] allowing me to speak out,” she said. “My team and my coaches have both been so supportive. Not once have they told me that I couldn’t speak.”
Gaines says she has no personal animosity toward Lia or any transgender individual. Her objection is to the actions of the athletic governing bodies.
“You need to protect the integrity of sports, whether it be male or female. Females have worked way too hard for the past 50 years. What occurred the past month is a total step in the wrong direction.”