All-American swimmer-turned-activist Riley Gaines is crisscrossing the country to talk about her concerns with transgender athletes competing in women’s sports.

Before her remarks at the University of Utah last weekend, she spoke to the Deseret News about why she is speaking out, even as many people have publicly disagreed with her.

“I graduated from the University of Kentucky last year where I got my degree in human health sciences and health law. And I had every intention upon graduating to be in dental school,” Gaines said to an audience Friday night at the University of Utah.

“That is to say, it would have been really easy for me, really safe, really secure for me to essentially ride off into the sunset with the plans that I had made for myself,” she added. “But I understood that the quickest way to make God laugh in your face is to make plans for yourself. Because he very clearly had different plans for me.”

Gaines, director of The Riley Gaines Center at the Leadership Institute, visited the college campus Friday evening as part of her Reclaim Feminism Campus Tour sponsored by the Leadership Institute. She has been touring the nation, advocating for preserving women’s spaces and has urged other female athletes to speak up on transgender athletes competing in women’s sports.

In a room of nearly a hundred audience members and supporters, Gaines shared her experience as a 12-time All-American swimmer who competed against transgender athlete Lia Thomas during her senior year of college.

As a competitive college athlete, Gaines said you have to devote your whole life to make it to the top level. “It’s a lifelong journey and impossible to put into words the amount of sacrifices, and I know none of that would have been possible without the women’s sporting category.”

Swimmer turned activist Riley Gaines waits outside the auditorium prior to her speaking at the Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City about women's rights on Friday, April 5, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The change in competition

“In most sports, your top tier athletes know each other, regardless of where you compete in the country, because we’ve grown up competing against each other,” Gaines said. So, she said, it was strange during senior year when neither she, her team or coaches recognized the name of the athlete leading the nation.

“This was a senior from the University of Pennsylvania, which is not a school that historically produces fast swimmers, again, leading the nation by body lengths in events ranging from the 100 freestyle, which is, of course, a sprint, and all of the freestyle events in between through the mile, which is, of course, long distance,” Gaines said. “And for those of you who might not necessarily understand swimming, think about that in terms of your Olympic runners. That’s like saying your best 200-meter runner is your best marathon runner — it doesn’t happen. Those are two totally different systems.”

It wasn’t until a news article came out that Gaines said it started to make sense to her and her team why Thomas was winning.

“I believe every single person is entitled — actually — I encourage every single person to play sports because I’ve reaped the benefits of what sports have meant for me in terms of leadership and competence, and setting goals and working to achieve those goals, all things that are very much playing out in my life,” Gaines told the Deseret News.

She emphasized that, however, first and foremost, it needs to be fair.

“I don’t think a third category (for transgender athletes) would suffice. Because at the end of the day, you would still very much have males competing against females,” Gaines added. “So, do you further break it down between males who identify as women? And then, do you go even further? Again, fairness and safety matter, even on the men’s side between men who started puberty blockers before puberty for example, and it’s just too much.”

Gaines said that the beauty of sports is that you don’t pander to outside identifiers. “We don’t look at religion, we don’t look at race. We don’t look at anything like that,” she said.

Audience members listen as swimmer turned activist Riley Gaines speaks at the Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City about women's rights on Friday, April 5, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

However, not everyone in college athletics shares Gaines’ sentiments. Over the weekend, the head coach of the South Carolina women’s basketball team shared her support of transgender athletes.

Ahead of the women’s NCAA championship, Dawn Staley was asked by a reporter what her opinion on the controversial topic was. She replied, “I’m of the opinion that if you’re a woman, you should play. If you consider yourself a woman and you want to play sports or vice versa, you should be able to play. That’s my opinion.”

When directly questioned about transgender women’s participation in women’s sports, Staley recognized that her stance might attract criticism.

“Yes, yes,” she said. “So now the barnstormer people are going to flood my timeline and be a distraction to me on one of the biggest days of our game, and I’m OK with that. I really am.”

NAIA largely bans transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports
Female athletes sue NCAA over transgender policy

The future of athletics

A majority of Americans say transgender athletes should not be allowed to play in women’s sports. Last year, a Gallup survey of about 1,000 adults found that 69% of Americans believed that people should play on a team that matches their sex at birth.

“Likewise, fewer endorse transgender athletes being able to play on teams that match their current gender identity, 26%, down from 34%,” per the survey.

The Deseret News previously reported that the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics recently adopted a policy that prohibits transgender participation in female-only sports:

“The NAIA supports fair and safe competition opportunities for all student-athletes. Title IX ensures there are separate and equal opportunities for female athletes. As a result, the NAIA offers separate categories of competition in all sports except for competitive cheer and competitive dance, which are both co-ed.”

More than a dozen female athletes, including Gaines, filed a lawsuit in March against the NCAA for violating Title IX. The lawsuit describes the shock Gaines and other swimmers felt when they learned they would have to share a locker room with Thomas during the championships at Georgia Tech.

“It demands the NCAA revoke all awards given to trans athletes in women’s competitions and ‘reassign’ them to their female contenders,” per The Free Press. “It also asks for ‘damages for pain and suffering, mental and emotional distress, suffering and anxiety, expense costs and other damages due to defendants’ wrongful conduct.’”

Gaines told the Deseret News that after her experience, she looked more into what the law says about women’s sports. “I’ve grown to understand Title IX more and really just understand the legal side of things more. I mean, they did violate this law. And so I thought to myself, for so long, someone has to do something.”

Swimmer turned activist Riley Gaines speaks at the Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City about women's rights on Friday, April 5, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News