Swimming Against the Tide

Former NCAA swimming standout Riley Gaines fights for women’s sports

Swimming Against the Tide

Former NCAA swimming standout Riley Gaines fights for women’s sports

Riley Gaines was a nationally ranked swimmer on the University of Kentucky women’s team. The 12-time All-American set conference records, helped Kentucky win its first SEC championship and was named SEC Female Scholar-Athlete of the year. But since the spring of 2022, Gaines has become known nationally for speaking up against trans-identifying biological males competing in women’s sports. Gaines, a Christian, has faced threats, verbal abuse and was held against her will for several hours at San Francisco State University by activists who opposed her views. Decision Executive Editor Jim Dailey caught up with her recently by phone.

Q: You grew up in a sporting family, right?

A: My dad and all his brothers played in the NFL. My mom was a Division I softball player. My brother is in college playing football now. My little sister is only 14, and I would never tell her this, but she’s probably the best athlete of us all. 

Q: And you started swimming when you were just 4 years old?

A: That’s right. I’ve dedicated 18 years of my life to my sport.

Q: In discussing the initial controversy about competing and sharing locker room space with the transgender swimmer Lia Thomas (formerly known as men’s swimmer Will Thomas, from the University of Pennsylvania), you said your life just kind of suddenly flipped upside down. What did you mean?

A: I’ve realized the quickest way to make God laugh is to make plans for yourself. I graduated from UK and had every intention of going to dental school. That clearly did not come to fruition. I was set to go that summer or fall to school. But I decided I would take a year, I’ll fight for this, and I’ll go back to dental school later, because what a disservice it would be—not to me but to the women who fought for Title IX—if I didn’t. President Biden has proposed effectively silencing that next generation, like my sister, who doesn’t yet understand what these implications could mean for them, if the new Title IX rule is implemented. [Schools would not be able to bar transgender athletes from opposite sex competition.] I applied to dental school. I got reaccepted. I was ready to go this fall, but the battle hasn’t been won yet. 

Q: You tied for fifth place with Thomas in the NCAA 200-meter freestyle race. Thomas won the 500-meter freestyle. In a news photo, you seemed to be casting a little sideways glance at him. 

A: Until then I was being a coward like everyone else and I was waiting for someone else to stick up for us. In that moment, I remember getting slapped across the face with this thought: If we aren’t willing to stick up for ourselves, we can’t expect anyone else to stick up for us. I realized this has to come from us as women, as female athletes. 

Q: Is this when you decided that you would be the one to lead this fight?

A: After we tied—we finished the exact same time down to the hundredth of a second—we go behind the awards podium and the NCAA official looks at both Thomas and myself and says, “Great job, but you guys tied. And we only have one trophy, and we have to give this trophy to Lia because Lia has to have it for pictures.” We just got reduced down to a photo op to validate the feelings and the identity of a man, and I was just no longer willing to lie. 

Q: You’ve been at this now for months. How are you doing? 

A: It has taken a toll on me, at least on my emotional well-being. It’s a lot of travel. I just got married, yet I still find myself traveling more days than not. I would love to kind of sit back and enjoy other things, but there’s no time for that. There’s so much going on, and it’s translated beyond sports for me to the overall erasure of women in general. The breakdown of family. The breakdown of our freedoms. And I think the biggest piece of it is just the denial of objective truth and Biblical truth. When societies do that, when they try to make us say two plus two is five, that is so chilling. It’s like we’re living in this George Orwell dystopian novel. You can look at other civilizations and see how that turns out, like Germany, Russia, China, Brazil, North Korea, and it’s not pretty. Yet, this is the direction that our administration and the people leading this country are taking us.

Q: You had some horrifying moments at colleges in San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

A: Yes, and more schools than that. Even at the University of Buffalo, there was someone who had to be arrested for assaulting and trying to stop me from speaking. At San Francisco State, I was held for ransom for 3½ hours, where hundreds of protesters barricaded me into a room. They demanded I pay them money if I wanted to make it home to see my family safely again. There have been no expulsions and no arrests, no consequences for any of these people. Actually, the university doubled down on their stance by the vice president sending an email to their student body saying she was so proud of their students for handling me in that manner. 

Again, we can disagree. We can have different opinions. I think that’s how we survive as a country. But to resort to violence and have it be OK, actually be encouraged from the top, when I was assaulted in San Francisco, they kept using the verbiage, “We fight back.” They kept saying, “Trans rights are under attack. What do we do? We fight back.” And the day before I was assaulted, the Biden administration press secretary in her press conference, she said trans kids are resilient and they fight back. And so, you can’t help but notice the parallel there, whether it’s directly or indirectly encouraged. It’s a very scary thought.

Q: You were bold in your testimony on Title IX before the Senate. What is at stake on this issue?

A: It’s in the guise of equality and inclusiveness and feminism that they are trying to use Title IX to empower transgender people, but it’s the exact opposite of all those things. It’s not inclusive to allow a man onto our podiums. It’s actually exclusive to the very female athletes Title IX was passed to protect. 

And it’s not kind or welcoming to ask a young girl to undress in front of a man in a locker room. I feel like the Lord put on my heart the term true love. I think about what true love means, and it is actually a loving thing to tell the truth. I know I have no hate in my heart for anyone regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, age, any of those things. I have compassion in my heart for those individuals. And it reminds me that saying the truth—that is what love is. Anything else is telling a lie. 

Q: When Franklin Graham has spoken out on these issues, people have often accused him of being a hater. But his response is always, “The most loving thing I can do is to tell them the truth. That’s what love is. The hate would be not to tell them the truth.”

A: That’s absolutely how I feel, because even in San Francisco I got to look at these protesters who wanted to kill me; they said they did. When I looked them in the eyes, the only thing I wanted to do was pray for them. You can tell they’re just looking for their identity in something, but the only place you will satisfy that is by finding your identity in Christ, which is why I think we’re on this planet. Jesus says in Luke and I believe in Mark and Matthew that it’s not the healthy who need a doctor; it’s the sick. That’s the message I’m trying to communicate. 

Q: How can people pray for you?

A: A couple things: one, the need for direction. It’s hard to know the most effective way to make positive change within the community while also spreading Christ’s message. And also, pray for strength and wisdom—being wise in my actions, being wise in what I say, the verbiage of how I’m communicating the message, it requires wisdom. I’d like to think I’m wise, but I’m not that wise. ©2023 BGEA 

Photo: Rileygaines.com

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