‘The problem is not Lia.’ UK swimmer speaks out against NCAA transgender policy

Former Kentucky Wildcats swimmer Riley Gaines poses for a portrait on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, at the Lancaster Aquatic Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Sarah Michels

When UK swimmer Riley Gaines tied for fifth with UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas in the 200-yard freestyle at NCAAs, it made national headlines. Thomas, a transgender woman who previously swam for two years on UPenn’s mens team, quickly became a controversial figure within and beyond the swimming world.

So when Thomas was given the single fifth place trophy to hold during the podium presentation instead of Gaines, she took the opportunity to speak out against the NCAA.

Gaines recounted her experience with the meet officials, who instructed her to hold the sixth place trophy instead because they wanted to give it to Thomas, to the Daily Wire. The officials told her that her trophy would come later in the mail.

“I left the pool with no trophy,” Gaines told the outlet. “Not a big deal, but it was the goal that I had set all year.”

Gaines felt miffed by the experience. As she reflected on it, she became more frustrated.

“[The NCAA] completely put me and my hard work and everything I had done on the backburner just to kind of save face a little bit in terms of not wanting to receive that backlash,” Gaines told the Kernel.

Thomas’ dominance at the national meet — she placed eighth in the 100-yard freestyle, fifth in the 200-yard freestyle and first in the 500-yard freestyle — should have never been allowed to happen, Gaines said. It’s not about any resentment against or lack of support for Thomas, she emphasized, but rather frustration with NCAA’s rules, which allowed Thomas to compete at the national meet in the first place without being in compliance with certain standards.

“It is hard because you don’t want to say something to where people call you transphobic or anything like that, because that’s not what the problem is,” Gaines said. “Lia and her transition and her swimming career is not the issue that is making so many of us NCAA swimmers upset. It’s the rules put in place. So there’s such a fine line when you’re talking about it.”

Until about a month before NCAAs, nobody was sure whether Thomas would be allowed to compete. She emerged as a dominant swimmer on the scene in November 2021, when she swam a time among the fastest in the nation. She went on to record the fastest 200- and 500- yard freestyle times in the nation in December.

“It kind of took everyone by surprise, like, whoa, who is this girl? And that’s when news started to come out,” Gaines said.

Thomas competed on UPenn’s men’s team from 2017 to 2020. She began her transition in 2019, while still sometimes competing on the men’s squad. After a year of hormone therapy, under 2010 NCAA rules regarding transgender women, Thomas was ruled eligible to compete on UPenn’s women’s team in summer 2020, but she waited another year before beginning competition during the 2021-22 academic year.

However, as Thomas began swimming faster times, USA Swimming, FINA and the NCAA – swimming’s governing bodies – were working behind the scenes to update their policies regarding participation of transgender athletes. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had just released their “Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations” in November, which called on national and international sporting bodies to update their policies based on the IOC’s 10 principles.

The Kernel reached out multiple times to the UK LGBTQ* Resources center for comment but did not receive a response.

In January, the NCAA voted to adopt a sport-by-sport approach to transgender participation policies: each sport would defer to its national or international sporting body for guidance on how to best balance competitive fairness and inclusion within the confines of particular sports. For swimming and diving, that national body is USA Swimming.

Less than a month before NCAAs, USA Swimming announced its updated policy. To compete on a women’s team, transgender athletes would have to prove that they had not exceeded a testosterone threshold of 5 nmol/L for three continuous years (the previous threshold had been 10 nmol/L for one year). Those who wished to compete at national meets would have to submit lab results affirming this within four weeks of the competition.

However, since the rule change came so close to the national championship, the NCAA chose to overrule it for the time being and adopt it the following academic year. This meant Thomas was allowed to compete, despite the new rules that would have ruled her ineligible if instated, since she began her hormone treatment in May 2019, not quite three years ago.

When Gaines heard the news and realized that she would be competing against Thomas at NCAAs, it felt like a punch in the gut, she said.

“It’s definitely a bit of a disheartening feeling, because you are at such a physiological disadvantage,” she said. “You feel pretty defeated before you’ve even swam.”

Gaines said she thinks the NCAA needs to acknowledge that the rules they put in place for the 2021-22 season were unfair and made out of a fear of backlash from a minority of people rather than the interests of the majority of the female swimmers at the meet.

“If Lia didn’t get the trophy, you would have so many people saying, ‘Oh, Lia didn’t get the trophy because she’s being treated as a male and this is unfair to her,’” Gaines said. “But when I didn’t get the trophy, to me, it’s just like all the work they’ve done with Title IX, all the females they backed in the past, all this talk about equality and fairness and sports just kind of got thrown out of the window.”

Gaines said she doesn’t think there is a clear-cut answer that would make everyone happy, but that depending on the sport, there could be paths for transgender athletes to compete. For swimming, she suggested making a separate category for transgender athletes.

“The transgender athletes will still get to participate in the sport they love doing, biological females and males will be protected, and the whole integrity of sports can be protected,” she said. “I think that’s a happy medium that everyone can get behind.”

Gaines never thought she’d be the first one to speak up about this issue, but she’s glad she was presented the opportunity.

“There’s been so many girls who are afraid to talk about it because it’s so easy to just get labeled as transphobic or canceled,” she said. “But I feel like if you can be respectful and be mature, you’re fine because the problem is not Lia, and I think that’s where it can get pretty political.”

Her coaches, teammates and athletic director at UK have backed her, Gaines said, alongside several Olympians and athletes who have sent her supportive messages. While she has also received backlash, she said it doesn’t bother her, because she knows it isn’t true.

“Anyone who calls me transphobic or anything like that, it just doesn’t even get to my head, because I know I’m not and that’s not the point I’m communicating,” Gaines said. “To me, it just means they’re misinterpreting what I’m saying and what I think the main problem is.”