Riley Gaines reflects on when she became advocate for women’s sports: ‘What in the world are we clapping for?’

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Riley Gaines became the face of fairness in women’s sports, but it wasn’t exactly in her plans to do so.

Gaines decided to speak out against biological males in women’s sports shortly after Lia Thomas, a transgender female, took home the 2022 NCAA Division I title for the 500-yard freestyle.

But earlier that season, Gaines actually had no idea who Thomas was.


University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas and Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines tied for 5th in the 200 Freestyle finals at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on March 18th, 2022 at the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In the 2020-21 season, Gaines was ranked seventh in the country. Of course, she wanted to be at the top for her senior season the next year.

Early in the 2021-22 season, Gaines says she was on track to be there, ranking third by mere hundredths of a second. However, she had never heard of the person who was in first place “by body-lengths.”

Gaines and her teammates were confused about this mystery swimmer, and she “continued to stay in the dark” until an article revealed Thomas’ identity as a biological male.

Ironically, Gaines said she felt a “sense of relief.”

“I thought the NCAA would see this how I saw it, how my teammates saw it, how my coaches saw it, how my family saw it, how anyone with any amount of brain activity would probably comprehend this,” Gaines told Joe Rogan on his podcast. Nothing hateful about it, nothing even opinionated about it.”

However, the NCAA said Thomas’ participation in women’s events was “non-negotiable,” Gaines said.

“There was no questions that we could ask or concerns that we could raise. We were told we had to accept this with a smile on our face, . . .” she said. “We were told we fully had to treat this person as a woman.”

Gaines remained silent, though, until she felt she no longer could.

Lia Thomas enters the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas enters for the 200 Freestyle final during the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on March 18th, 2022 at the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta, Georgia.   (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


Gaines and Thomas actually tied for fifth place in the 200-yard freestyle championship. “Incredibly embarrassing for a 6’4″ man to not even be able to beat a 5’5″ female,” Gaines quipped. However, when it came time to receive trophies and go to the podium, the NCAA said they only had one trophy for the two swimmers, and gave it to Thomas.

Shortly afterwards, Gaines said the NCAA told her it was “crucial” that the trophy was in Thomas’ hands during photos.

That’s when Gaines, she says, “felt guilty for participating in the farce.” When others in the crowd were celebrating Thomas, Gaines had an epiphany: “What in the world are we clapping for?”

So, Gaines was done being silent.

“How in the world as female athletes can we, as women, expect someone to stand up for us if we aren’t willing to stand up for us?” she said.

Riley Gaines in November 2023

Former UK swimmer Riley Gaines speaks to the crowd during a campaign stop for Daniel Cameron in Shepherdsville on Wednesday, November 1, 2023. (Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK)


“I knew all season the unfair competition was wrong. I knew all season that the locker room aspect was wrong. I knew that the silencing that we were facing from our universities, I knew all of that was wrong. We all did. But it wasn’t until this official reduced everything that we had worked our entire lives for down to a photo-op to validate the feelings and the identity of a man, at the expense of our own. That’s really when I decided I couldn’t continue being silent.”

Gaines has since founded the Riley Gaines Center at the Leadership Institute and hosts “Gaines for Girls” on OutKick.

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