Former NCAA swimmer speaks about transgenderism, sports, and St. Mary’s

Former University of Kentucky swimmer and women’s sports activist Riley Gaines visited South Bend to give a talk for Notre Dame and St. Mary’s students on February 16. Gaines, a 12-time All-American swimmer, spoke about the parallels between her story and the recent St. Mary’s transgender admission policy decision, which has since been repealedGaines said that the initial statement released by St. Mary’s was “nothing short of an abomination … a total remission to what their mission statement is.”

Gaines rose to prominence after sharing her story of competing against transgender athlete William “Lia” Thomas in NCAA women’s swimming. Gaines has since founded The Riley Gaines Center at the Leadership Institute, which focuses on combating “the dangerous gender ideology that’s spreading rampant and unchecked throughout society.”

During Gaines’ senior year in 2022, Thomas, a female-identifying transgender swimmer from the University of Pennsylvania, entered the NCAA women’s swimming division. Thomas later won the national championship in one event, sparking widespread controversy. Thomas also tied with Gaines for fifth place in another event at the championship. Afterwards, Thomas posed for a photo-op with the trophy, while Gaines was told to hold the sixth-place trophy for the photo.  

The event, originally intended to be held on Notre Dame’s campus by The Network of enlightened Women (NeW), was disallowed by Student Activities Office (SAO) due to unforeseen circumstances after multiple conversations with campus and national partners. The event was later moved to an off-campus event space closer to the St. Mary’s campus. 

Senior Madelyn Stout, president of NeW, shared with the Rover, “While we were unable to host Riley on campus, I’m grateful that our tri-campus community was still able to welcome her. The work she is doing to protect women’s spaces is incredibly important—especially in light of the cultural erasure of what it means to be a woman.” [Editor’s note: Madelyn serves as Layout Manager of the Rover.]

Stout introduced Gaines at the talk, saying, “Riley Gaines is a leader in defending women’s single-sex spaces, advocating for equality and fairness, and standing up for women’s safety, privacy, and equal opportunities.” 

Gaines advocates maintaining single-gender sports and has toured various colleges around the nation in the course of her advocacy.

One freshman from Notre Dame said, “As someone who was involved with the sport of swimming during the time Riley Gaines was competing, I was able to see firsthand the issues she had to face. While I understood that there seemed to be a lack of support for Riley and the other females competing at the 2022 NCAA Championships, hearing her talk about the events she had to go through shows the complete failure by the NCAA.” 

Senior Janey Olohan commented, “You could see the raw emotion in her as she told her story about literally having her hard-fought title stolen from her by Lia Thomas. As someone who swam for ten years, I was deeply moved by Riley’s story and by her courage to take action to stand up for women in sports everywhere who give their all to the sports they love and who deserve to be recognized.” 

Although her advocacy began as a response to the encroachment of a female-identifying swimmer in her own competition, Gaines has since expanded her message to draw attention to the broader issue: Accepting men in arenas designed for women is harmful to and unsafe for women. 

Recounting her experience sharing a locker room with Thomas, Gaines expressed, “I think the best way to describe this experience was an utter violation of our right to privacy. It felt like betrayal. It was traumatizing, and not just because of what we were forced to see or how we were forcibly exploited: It was traumatic for me to know just how easy it was for those people who created these policies to totally dismiss our rights without even a second thought, without a forewarning.”

Another freshman from Notre Dame observed, “It was heartbreaking, but not surprising, to hear that [the NCAA] put how they wanted to be perceived in the media over the women competing.”

Gaines also spoke about the recent controversy over the St. Mary’s transgender admission policy, which ensued after the school announced in November that it would begin to admit people who are not female but “​​who consistently live and identify as women.”  

After concerns were expressed and the policy became national news, St. Mary’s subsequently repealed this decision

President Conboy’s announcement of the reversal in an email to the student body stated the original decision was meant to be “inclusive.”

In response to this sentiment, Gaines emphatically stated, “If it was inclusive, it wouldn’t be a women’s college: [The college] was explicitly meant to be exclusive.”

Gaines touched on what she thinks led to the reversal: “Whether it’s corporate America or academia, or whatever realm, they don’t follow red or blue, they follow green, they follow your dollars. And once these dollars started to dwindle, they changed their policy back, but not because they really believe it.” 

Amidst this unfortunate reality, Gaines also shared, “I am incredibly grateful for the leadership of Bishop Rhoades. I have seen his support and his leadership on this issue, and I think that’s something that certainly needs to be applauded.” 

Returning to the broader issue, Gaines emphasized how the work she and many other women around the country and on our own campuses are doing is not meant to be divisive. She highlighted the importance of being “pro-woman” rather than “anti-trans,” demonstrating the centrality of protecting and supporting women, saying, “How in the world could we as women, as female athletes, expect someone to stand up for us if we weren’t even willing to stand up for ourselves?” 

Throughout the evening, biblical truth was centered as an important part of the discussion of transgenderism. In telling her story, Gaines exhorted the audience to listen to the call of God in their own lives. 

In her closing remarks, Gaines sought to inspire audience members to continue working to uplift femininity and womanhood, imploring them, “Do not forget about it, do not become complacent, do not put your head down and think, ‘Oh, well, we did our job.’ No, that’s the first mistake, is when you start to do that.” 

After hearing Gaines’ story and perspective, a male Notre Dame freshman remarked, “Riley’s message was inspiring to hear and it reminded me that all of us, men or women, play a part in keeping women’s athletics safe.” 

Bridgette Rodgers is a sophomore studying political science and theology. She evidently isn’t capable of writing her own byline, so please send ideas to

Photo Credit: The Irish Rover

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