LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — After four years of tearing up the lanes on the University of Kentucky swim team, senior Riley Gaines has wrapped up her swimming career. She's been the SEC champion in several events, qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials, and was named the 2022 SEC Female Scholar-Athlete of the year.
"It feels good to have those past four years pay off," Gaines said. "I'm extremely appreciative of all my teammates and the coaching staff and really everyone within UK Athletics, who's helped me."
Her career culminated in the NCAA Swimming Championships in March. In one of her events, the 200-yard freestyle, she tied for fifth with Lia Thomas, who's been in the spotlight as a prominent athlete. She won the national title in a separate event. She's also transgender. Gaines said she felt she wasn't on a level playing field and already felt defeated going into the championships.
"I just tried to go into it wanting to do my best, wanting to compete for that top spot, but it is a bit kind of like a defeating feeling for sure going into a meet where you're kind of automatically put at a disadvantage," Gaines said. "I definitely think this past week, having a transgender swimmer win a national title for a female position, being a biological male, really just opens a whole new door to a whole different realm."
Gaines is referring to the idea that Thomas might have an inherent athletic advantage over other women. Studies have produced mixed results on whether or not trans women retain any athletic advantage over other women after undergoing hormone replacement therapy. The NCAA requires transgender student-athletes to have one year of testosterone suppression treatment and to maintain testosterone levels below a specific threshold.
"This is what the NCAA has determined. It is certainly what other sports entities have determined as well, and we believe that those decisions are best made by the professionals in each sport and medical professionals to create both a playing field that is fair and inclusive," said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, based in Louisville.
The Fairness Campaign supports the inclusion of transgender athletes in school sports of all ages.
Another organization, Athlete Ally, released a letter, cosigned by more than 300 swimmers supporting Thomas' eligibility to compete in the women's championships.
Gaines said she's gotten a lot of messages from other swimmers who share her frustrations but are afraid to speak out. She said she was happy to use her voice.
"I think it needs to be addressed. I think the NCAA needs to make changes. I know with each sport, it looks different in regards to rules and policies and stuff. I think maybe an open category would suffice. I don't think there is a clear-cut answer, but I do think something needs to happen and I think the NCAA needs to recognize and acknowledge that," she said.
Ultimately, Gaines says, her concern is not with transgender athletes but with the NCAA.
"It's not Lia who is the issue, it's really just the rules set in place by the NCAA and their failure to acknowledge how this affects so many in a bad way," Gaines said.