Riley Gaines: Defending Female Athletes

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

This week marks the 51st anniversary of the enactment of Title IX, the historic federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at federally funded educational institutions. 

The passage of Title IX in 1972 significantly expanded opportunities for women in education and in competitive sports. As a result, participation in female sports greatly increased. During the 1971-1972 school year, just 294,015 girls participated in high school sports, compared to 3.67 million boys. By contrast, during the 2021-2022 school year, 3.2 million girls participated in high school athletics, compared to 4.4 million boys.

Similar increases occurred in women’s sports at the collegiate level. The number of female athletes at NCAA schools grew more than seven-fold from 1971 to 2020, with 215,486 women playing college sports in the 2020-2021 school year. 

Today, these advancements are under threat as the Biden administration works to expand Title IX by putting forward a new Department of Education regulation requiring that schools allow biological males who identify as females to compete in women’s athletics.

As Heritage Action describes, “Biden’s regulation creates an almost unclearable hurdle – for every women’s sport, every school will be forced to demonstrate the risk of a ‘sports related injury’ to females in order to prevent the participation of males.”

As these threats to opportunities for women in sports continue, Riley Gaines, a 12-time All-American swimmer with five SEC titles and a former athlete at the University of Kentucky, has emerged as a steadfast defender of female athletes. 

Gaines began her advocacy work after competing against transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, who swam for the University of Pennsylvania men’s team for three years before becoming the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming title in 2022. 

At the 2022 NCAA Women’s Swimming Championship, Riley and Lia tied for fifth place – within one-hundredth of a second – in the 200-meter event, and Lia became a swimming champion after beating University of Virginia’s Emma Weyant by more than a second in the 500-meter freestyle.

The biological advantages that Thomas had over the other female competitors sparked immense criticism. But despite so many female athletes being pressured to stay silent and accept the infiltration of women’s sports by biological men, Riley spoke out against the injustices being forced upon female athletes.

Shortly after the championships, Gaines said, “I have realized there are so many girls who feel the exact same way as I do but are told they can’t say anything… But what I’ve realized is if we want a change, you have to use your voice. We have to let people know as a group that a majority of female athletes — or females in general — are not okay with this.”

Gaines has continued to speak out, standing in solidarity with female athletes across America. She recently shared some of the messages she has received from young athletes on Twitter.

One young girl wrote to Gaines, “The same biological male who I raced in [cross country], I also raced in track. It all just feels unfair, I have absolutely no power to do anything.”

Another female athlete wrote to Gaines, “You’re a huge inspiration to me. Today, I found out that I didn’t qualify for [cross country] state because a transwoman took my spot. It’s my senior year in high school, and I’ll never get that chance again. Thank you for what you are doing.”

Gaines has not only used her voice and her platform to offer encouragement for young female athletes but also to call for political action. 

On June 21, Gaines testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee and recounted her experience competing in the 2022 NCAA Women’s Swimming Championship.

“I know that I don’t speak for every single person who competed against Lia Thomas but I know I speak for many because I saw the tears,” Gaines said in her opening statement. “I saw the tears from the ninth and 17th place finishers who missed out on being named an All-American by one place. I can attest to the extreme discomfort in the locker room from these 18–22-year-old girls when you turn around and there’s male eyes watching in that same room. And I can attest to the whispers and the grumbles of anger and frustration from these girls who just like myself worked their entire lives to get to this meet.”

As the Biden administration seeks to expand Title IX protections to biological men, the advocacy efforts of Riley Gaines to defend female athletes are a source of hope and inspiration for women striving to achieve their dreams.