Riley Gaines had big plans for her life: she was going to graduate from University of Kentucky, go on to dental school, become an endodontist, and ride off into the sunset with her husband and dog by her side.
All that changed when, at the last meet of an illustrious collegiate swimming career, she came face to face with a challenge that she knew was going to impact young female athletes for years to come unless someone — someone like her — stood up and said “no more.”
Gaines never planned a life of activism. She told The Daily Wire that her plan was to go to dental school and study endodontics — laughing as she admitted she would be the one responsible for performing universally dreaded procedures like root canals.
“But I quickly learned that the fastest way to make God laugh was to make plans for myself,” she said.
Gaines came from a family of athletes — a father who played football professionally, a brother who played college football, and a sister who is a gymnast — so it was no surprise that she made a name for herself as an athlete as well. The pool was where she shined, and after years of training, she was ready to compete in the NCAA finals — wearing blue for University of Kentucky.
It was the final meet of her collegiate career, and even though she had been warned ahead of time that she would be competing against a biological male — trans-identifying University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas — she and the other women competing had apparently not been warned that Thomas would be granted full access to the women’s facilities during the competition.
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Thomas, who was still biologically male in every way, was allowed access to the locker room while female competitors stripped down and struggled into their skintight racing suits. The women, Gaines said, felt uncomfortable and intimidated — but many were afraid to speak up for fear of backlash.
In the pool, Thomas tied Gaines for fifth place in the 200 freestyle — but when the time came for photos of the winners, the NCAA leadership insisted on having Thomas hold up the trophy for publicity purposes.
Gaines recalled the words of the NCAA representative, who told her, “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.”
Gaines was incensed, calling the overall experience “disheartening” not because she didn’t get the trophy, but because she saw what the NCAA had been willing to do for the right kind of photo opportunity.
That, she told The Daily Wire, is what told her that she might need to change her plans.
“I’m done competing, this is not about me. I can’t imagine my sister having to share her locker room with a man. I hope to one day have a daughter, and I can’t imagine her not having the same opportunities that I had up until my very last swim meets,” Gaines said.
Noting that she’s often then accused of not wanting trans-identifying students to have opportunities in sports, she said nothing could be further from the truth. She just believes that sports, on a fundamental level, have to be fair to have value — and that allowing biological males to compete with women is allowing certain people an unfair advantage.
“Involvement in sports is important, especially for girls, but for everyone. It fosters growth, leadership skills, and resiliency, and it teaches kids how to take constructive criticism and use it to make themselves better,” Gaines explained, adding, “I don’t think anyone should be denied access to this, that’s a silly accusation, I’m often accused of this. But it has to be fair.”
Gaines quickly realized that dental school would always be there, but the need for a loud voice defending women in sports was both immediate and urgent. Reflecting on the current state of affairs — the fact that biological males have been allowed into women’s spaces, often based on little more than self-identifying as transgender — Gaines said people have to realize it is not just about sports.
“This is bigger than just sports — the changing of the language, words that apply to women, the silencing of women’s voices. It may have to get worse before it gets better,” she said — but she added that she believes most people don’t align with the most radical activists. “I think the overwhelming majority are baffled by this that we can’t define woman.”
“When you see the bigger picture — looking at how universities, corporations, even political officials, are denying objective truth — we’re living in a George Orwell dystopian novel where they’re telling us to say that 2+2=5 and we all know it’s not 5,” she continued. “It feels as if it’s a cult — it must consume your every waking thought and action. But it’s important for people to understand that your gender identity is not all you are.”
For now, Gaines says, she’s going to fight. “Now I boycott,” she said with a laugh. “My husband gets so sick of it, there are companies that I won’t go into. I have always been strong-willed but now I stand stronger than I did before.”
She attributed her ability to stand strong to the support system around her and the lessons she learned from her own involvement in elite competition. “My wheels are always turning,” she said. “I find myself constantly questioning everything.”
Gaines concluded with her own advice to young girls who were thinking about competing or who were already involved, saying, “Do not get discouraged, do not cave. It breaks my heart to have parents tell me that their middle school and high school-aged daughters don’t want to compete anymore because they either have direct experience [competing against biological males] or because they’re afraid it might happen.”
“To parents, I’d say protect your daughters,” she added. “And teach your sons masculinity. Teach them masculinity because then they will want to protect your daughters as well.”