Riley Gaines, a senior at the University of Kentucky, competed in the women’s 200 freestyle on Friday at the NCAA Division I Women’s Championships.
As she touched the wall at the end of the race, Gaines looked up and realized the board said that she had placed fifth — putting her in the top five collegiate female swimmers in the nation.
Then she realized she’d tied with transgender athlete Lia Thomas, a biological man who identifies as a woman.
In a phone interview Tuesday evening, Gaines told The Daily Wire that at that moment she was overcome by a flood of emotions. Happy for her competitors but bewildered, she went back behind the podium where NCAA officials were distributing the awards.
Then a man in an NCAA shirt handing out trophies 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.”
That took her aback. She had placed fifth, but they were asking her to give Thomas the moment?
As Thomas and other swimmers looked on, Gaines briefly argued with the official. Then she took her place on the podium, holding the sixth place trophy next to the transgender athlete whom she had tied with.
Now she is willing to speak out.
‘Running My Mouth’
Images of the dripping wet athletes holding their trophies after the race show Thomas, who stands at 6 feet 1 inch, towering over Gaines’ 5’5″ frame.
“Ok that’s fine, she worked hard, just like I worked hard, there’s no question there,” Gaines said she told the official as she argued with him. “But can I ask why she gets the fifth place trophy before I do? Especially last night, she just won the national title.”
The official told her that they gave out the awards in chronological order, perhaps referencing the lanes the athletes swam in. The NCAA has not addressed this point to The Daily Wire.
“I just want you to know that we respect you and admire your swim so much, but we just want Lia to hold the fifth place trophy,” he responded, according to Gaines, who laughed incredulously to The Daily Wire as she repeated his words.
At this point, Gaines said she was getting really frustrated. She was also still out of breath from her race.
“I was probably running my mouth a little more than I should,” she said. “I told the guy, ‘I don’t think that’s that’s right, and I don’t think that’s fair. There’s no dispute that only one of us can hold the trophy, but I think given the circumstances, you’re just trying to save face a little bit.'”
“It was a bit disheartening,” she said. “It really was. I left the pool with no trophy. Not a big deal, but it was the goal that I had set all year.”
The University of Kentucky swimmer said that she wasn’t the only one who was upset — her athletic director was pretty upset that she had to leave the pool without her trophy.
“The more I thought about it, the more it fired me up,” she said. “It’s almost like the NCAA is trying to save face by giving Lia the fifth place trophy.”
“Who are we trying to protect here,” she questioned, “and who are we trying to fight for here?”
‘She Had Tears In Her Eyes’
Thomas, who would go on to finish in 8th place Saturday evening in the 100 freestyle final, has drawn nationwide backlash for swimming and competing on a women’s team after racing with men for three years.
“It means the world to be here … I try to ignore it as much as I can,” Thomas told ESPN after winning the 500 freestyle. “I try to focus on my swimming, what I need to do to get ready for my races. And just try to block out everything else.”
Gaines believes the NCAA went into the championships being “overly sensitive about” Thomas, well aware of the criticism, and fearful of incurring any backlash about its treatment of the transgender swimmer.
“It’s almost like they’re trying to back [transgender athletes] more than…90 to 95 % of the rest of the swimmers who are kind of bummed by and affected by the rules that were in place for Lia to swim,” she said.
Virginia Tech swimmer Reka Gyorgy spoke out Sunday, after days of silence from most female athletes at the championships, releasing a letter she sent to the NCAA “in hopes that the NCAA will open their eyes and change these rules in the future.”
“It doesn’t promote our sport in a good way and I think it is disrespectful against the biologically female swimmers who are competing in the NCAA,” wrote Gyorgy.
The Virginia Tech swimmer swam the 500 free at the NCAA’s on Thursday where she placed 17th — meaning that she did not make it back to the finals and was a first alternate.
“I know you could say I had the opportunity to swim faster and make the top 16, but this situation makes it a bit different and I can’t help but be angry or sad,” wrote Gyorgy. “It hurts me, my team, and other women in the pool. One spot was taken away from the girl who got 9th in the 500 free and didn’t make it back to the A final preventing her from being an All-American. Every event that transgender athletes competed in was one spot taken away from biological females throughout the meet.”
Gaines told The Daily Wire that she and Gyorgy stood next to one another as they watched the final heat of the 500 freestyle on Thursday.
“When Lia touched the wall, and [Reka] realized that she got 17th, the first thing she said to me was, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I just got beat by someone who probably wasn’t even trying their hardest.'”
“It just broke my heart,” the University of Kentucky swimmer said. “She had tears in her eyes.”
Gaines repeatedly emphasized that she is in no way trying to bash Thomas, noting that Thomas is really “not the problem.”
“I am in full support of her and full support of her transition and her swimming career and everything like that,” insisted Gaines, “because there’s no doubt that she works hard too, but she’s just abiding by the rules that the NCAA put in place, and that’s the issue.”
The University of Kentucky swimmer is unsure whether any of the female athletes have broached the topic with Thomas. Gaines said she briefly chatted with Thomas about their race, both acknowledging how hard the competition was.
Lia Thomas In The Locker Room
Thomas not only competed in women’s races — Gaines said that the transgender swimmer also used the female athletes’ locker room, publicly changing in the corner.
Pressed how she felt about this, Gaines said it was “definitely not something” that she personally was “enthused about.”
“The first day I got there, I was in the locker room changing, and then she came in, and it just kind of got silent,” Gaines explained.
“Everyone in the locker room, I think, was kind of stunned,” she added, noting that “no one really looked or anything like that.”
“It is rightful for people to be a little stunned and not just because of her, because people are judging her, but because it was such a controversial topic. I mean, it’s something everyone was curious about. And so I think it kind of just took people by surprise,” added Gaines.
“It’s the first I had ever experienced something like this,” the swimmer added.
The NCAA has not responded to requests for comment on this point.
Gaines said she told herself going into the meet that she would not say anything. But she struggled with staying quiet.
“I like to stay true to what I believe in, and I’m not someone who’s just going to back down from anything or agree with something I don’t agree with,” she said. “If this was something other athletes weren’t going to step up and speak up about, I guess I could be that person.”
Gaines admitted that she thought other people would speak up before her.
“But throughout the meet you still weren’t really hearing anything from anyone who weren’t OK with it,” she said. “And there were so many girls who I knew were not OK with the things that have been happening and who were directly impacted.”
“And so it just blew my mind, honestly, that there could be so many girls there who were bothered or affected personally…by Lia but they still didn’t say anything. But I think there’s outside factors that go into that as well,” she added.
What does Gaines want the NCAA to do to rectify the situation? She says that the NCAA probably didn’t have a ton of time this year to come up with some “great clear-cut solution.”
“But what I’m not OK with is that they were able to just turn their backs on all of the biological females, not even just in swimming, but in all NCAA sports, just to kind of appease a small minority.”
“Title IX has been around for 50 years,” she added. “The NCAA was even passing around Title IX shirts and on the back of the shirts it said equity, fairness. And I just thought it was a bit ironic that you preach one thing but do another.”
Next time, before the NCAA bends their standards to appease one person, Gaines hopes the association will “take into consideration all the girls who worked so hard to become an all-American, score points for their team, have another chance of going their best time in finals.”
“We need to create fair boundaries that protect the integrity of women in sports,” the swimmer said firmly.