Nicole Hahn
Director of Secretariat for Communications
February 20, 2024 // Diocese

Riley Gaines Speaks ‘Biblical Truth’ About Men Competing Against Women

Nicole Hahn
Director of Secretariat for Communications

Photos by Nicole Hahn
Former collegiate swimmer Riley Gaines speaks on the dangers of gender ideology in South Bend on Friday, February 16.

It was standing room only at the event center in South Bend located near the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College on Friday, February 16. The crowd was gathered to hear from Riley Gaines, 12-time All-American swimmer and Director of the Riley Gaines Center at the Leadership Institute. Gaines travels to college and university campuses across the country as part of the Speak Louder Campus Tour sponsored by the Leadership Institute.

A championship swimmer from the University of Kentucky, Gaines first gained national attention when she spoke out after being forced to compete against a man, William Thomas, a transgender athlete going by the name Lia Thomas, at the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships. Gaines said she waited for someone to stand up for her and her teammates against this injustice. When that didn’t happen, she said she had to speak out. Gaines, now 23, said she believes there is a sense of urgency to spread the truth to people of her generation, that they are desperate to hear the truth, and she wants to “inspire them and equip them with the tools and the resources they need to be able to stand firm and help spread that truth.”

In an interview before her speech, Gaines told Today’s Catholic: “I’m standing for objective truth – more importantly, I’m standing for biblical truth. God created men and women perfectly in His image, and He does not make mistakes. It’s really as simple as that. There are only two sexes. Men are men and women are women.” She also said that it was not by chance that she was speaking in South Bend. “I am strategically here because of what happened at Saint Mary’s College. I know how hard it is to be faced with a situation like this.”

Gaines was referencing the email that went out to the student body at Saint Mary’s College on November 21, 2023, from college president Katie Conboy advising students and staff that there would be a change in the admissions policy and that applicants who identified as transgender would be considered for admission in 2024. The Board of Trustees had approved the change in June of 2023 to open undergraduate admission to “applicants whose sex is female or who consistently live and identify as a woman.”

Following considerable public backlash, students saying they would not return, donors saying they would pull funding, and a published statement from Bishop Rhoades against the decision, the Board of Trustees of Saint Mary’s College announced in December that the school would return to its “previous admission policy,” which limited enrollment to women.

Gaines told Today’s Catholic: “I am incredibly grateful for the leadership of Bishop Rhoades. I have seen his support and his great leadership in response to this issue. I was so excited when I saw his willingness to speak the truth.” She also thanked Bishop Rhoades as part of her speech to those in attendance at the Friday night event, a statement that was met with a large round of applause.

Madelyn Stout, President of the student organization Network of Enlightened Women at Notre Dame, was asked to introduce Gaines. “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 began her speech by thanking everyone for the overwhelming amount of support she felt in coming to South Bend. She said it was “certainly more support than she felt a few months back in San Francisco.” Gaines said she was in a classroom on the campus of San Francisco State University speaking like she was at this event about her views opposing transgender athletes in women’s sports. It was toward the conclusion of her speech when she said, “I was ambushed. I was attacked. Protesters from the outside rushed into the room, turned the lights off, and stormed to the front. I was being punched and jostled and hit. They ended up holding me for ransom through the night demanding that if I wanted to make it home safely to see my family again, that I had to pay them money.” The San Francisco Police Department eventually sent officers to break up the crowd and free Gaines, but no arrests were made.

Gaines talked about how she has things thrown at her, is called every bad name you can think of, is threatened, has people show up at her house, has drones flying over her house, and more. When asked in the interview with Today’s Catholic about how she keeps going through all the violence, she said simply: “Well, truthfully, my faith. I don’t know how people do anything without their faith. It’s what keeps me grounded. It’s what keeps me going.”

Gaines went on to talk about her swimming career, how she began swimming at age 4 and dedicated 18 years of her life to the sport, about the time and dedication, and the sacrifices that athletes make to compete and be successful at the highest level. “You don’t get to go to prom. You don’t get to have sleepovers on Friday nights with your friends because you have to be up at 6 a.m. for practices. You don’t get to go on vacation with your family.”

Though she always thought she would be a Florida Gator, she said when she visited the University of Kentucky, she fell in love with the team, the coach, the campus, the resources, the academics, and the stewardship in the community.

“I thought I worked hard before,” Gaines said. “This was a different kind of working hard.” She explained how they were practicing six hours a day some days. “So, you practice from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., you go to class, you come back and practice again from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. You eat dinner at old people time of 4:45 p.m. because you are starving. Then you ice your shoulders, you do your homework, you go to bed, you wake up, and you do it all again the next day.”

Gaines moved forward to her junior year. The University of Kentucky won its first ever Southeastern Conference title in the history of the program. She won her first individual SEC title and ended the season placing seventh in the nation.

Her goal for her senior year, Gaines said, was winning the national title, which would mean becoming the fastest woman in the country in her event. “I’m right on pace to achieve this goal. About midway through my senior season, I was ranked third in the nation behind one amazing female swimmer, trailing her by a few 100ths of a second. The girl in second I knew very well because like in most sports, your top-tier athletes know each other regardless of where you compete in the country because you’ve grown up competing against each other.”

Gaines went on to say that the swimmer who was leading the nation “by body lengths” was a swimmer that no one had ever heard of before. “That is the first time that I became aware of a swimmer named Lia Thomas.” She said all they knew was that a senior from the University of Pennsylvania, which is not a school that historically produces fast swimmers, was leading the nation by body lengths in events ranging from the 100 freestyle, which is a sprint, and all of the freestyle events in between, through the mile, which is long distance.

For those in the audience who don’t know swimming, Gaines compared this to an Olympic runner, that it was like saying that your best 200-meter runner was your best marathon runner. “It doesn’t happen. They are two totally different systems, and so, I’m scratching my head.”

It wasn’t until she read an article, Gaines said, that “briefly disclosed that Lia Thomas is formerly Will Thomas and swam three years on the men’s team at the University of Pennsylvania before deciding to switch to the women’s team. And then the article carried on as if we weren’t supposed to have just read that.” Gaines said it was her coach who sent her the link, because he knew her goals and how hard she worked every day. She said she read the article three times because she was so shocked, but then she felt a sense of relief because now it made some sense.

Gaines said she looked up Will Thomas to see if this was a lateral move, someone who went from ranking among the best of the men to now continuing to rank among the best of the women. “We saw this was a mediocre man at best, ranking 462nd in the nation the year prior when competing against men to now first in the women’s category, dominating the entire nation of women.”

Gaines continued: “But really, that’s why I say I felt relieved, because I thought that the NCAA would see it how I saw it, and how my teammates saw it, and how my family saw it, and how my coaches saw it, and how anyone with any amount of brain activity would see it. Nothing opinionated about it. Nothing hateful about it. The facts were on the paper in front of us.”

Gaines said it was three weeks before the national championships in March of 2022 when it was announced that Thomas’ participation in the women’s category was non-negotiable. She said the female athletes were all told there was nothing they could do about it, nothing they could say, and they had to accept the decision with a smile on their faces.

Gaines said that before the national championships, they had to go to training and practice answering interview questions at the university using she/her pronouns. If they didn’t answer correctly, they had to do it again and redo the training. She said they were told that if they spoke out, they would never get a job because future employers would look them up and see they were transphobic, or that they would never get into grad school, that they wouldn’t keep their friends, and they would lose their scholarships and playing time if they spoke out. Gaines said she was told specifically: “You signed a scholarship, and when you signed that scholarship, you gave away your rights to speak in your own personal capacity. You represent us. Remember whose name is across your chest and across your cap, because it’s not your own. It’s ours, and we have already taken your stance for you.”

Gaines then talked about the feelings of injustice and the effects on her, her teammates, and her female competitors. She talked about the tears from the moms in the stands watching as their daughters were being obliterated by a man in a sport they once loved. She talked about the tears from the girls who place ninth and 17th, missing out on being named All-American by one place that was taken by a man.

She talked about the extreme discomfort in the locker room as they were forced to dress and undress with a man without being forewarned that they would be sharing a changing space. There was no time to make other arrangements. “When you turn around, there’s a 6-foot-4, 22-year-old man who is fully intact with his male genitalia exposed just inches away from where you are simultaneously undressed.” She said that it was awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassing, and that every single girl tried to find some way to cover themselves. “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.”

Gaines said that she watched the 500 freestyle from the side of the pool on the first day of the national championships because that wasn’t her event. “Thomas swam to a national title, beating out Olympians, beating out American record holders. These are the most impressive females the world has ever seen, and he beat them all by body lengths.”

Day 2 was the 200 freestyle, where Gaines raced Thomas. She said they dove off the blocks, swam the eight laps, touched the wall, and “almost impossibly enough, I look at the scoreboard and we have tied, which is incredibly embarrassing for a 6-foot-4 man, might I add. But we had gone the exact same time down to the 100th of a second. You can’t tell me that’s not divine intervention.”

Gaines said she and Thomas got out of the water and went behind the awards podium. “The NCAA official looks at both Thomas and me – again, Thomas towering over me – and this official says, ‘Great job you two, but you tied, and we only have one trophy, so we are going to give the trophy to Lia. Sorry, Riley, you don’t get one.’”

Gaines said her heart rate was still high, and her adrenaline was still pumping, and she said the first thing that came to her mind. “Isn’t this everything that Title IX was passed to prevent from happening? What do you mean you are going to give the trophy to a man in the women’s 200 freestyle?” She said the official had no answer and finally gave Gaines what she called an honest answer. “His voice changed, and he looked at me and said, ‘Riley, we have been advised that when photos are being taken, it is crucial that the trophy is in Lia’s hands. You can pose with this one, but you have to give it back. Lia takes the trophy home. You go home empty-handed. End of story.’”

Gaines said that was the moment – when the official reduced everything these women worked their entire lives for to a photo op – that she was no longer willing to wait for someone else to stand up. “It’s like it hit me. 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.”

Gaines moved on to say that the issue is much bigger than just women’s sports. She reiterated what she told Today’s Catholic. “The premise of the issue and why it matters is that we are being asked to deny objective truth, and not just objective truth, biblical truth for that matter. Understand that there are no limits if we are willing to deny man and woman, the sheer essence of humanity.”

All hope is not lost though, said Gaines. “As of January of this year, 24 states have enacted some sort of fairness in women’s sports bill, which is huge considering that just three years ago, only one state had. A bill that I have helped implement and been working on in different states is called the ‘Women’s Bill of Rights,’ and I can’t even believe it’s necessary that we have to codify and define the word ‘woman’ in law, but here we are. So far, it has been passed in Kansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Iowa.”

Gaines added: “There is also lots of movement at the federal level to combat the illegal administrative rewrite of Title IX that the Biden administration is pursuing and lots of work being done in each specific sport governing body. I’ve involved myself in these conversations.”

Gaines finished her speech by telling people in the audience to trust God’s calling for them. “If each and every one of us waited until we were directly impacted to take a stand, it’s far too late. There is so much more value to being proactive rather than reactive. It’s never too late to find your voice and be bold.”

To learn more about the Riley Gaines Center at the Leadership Institute and how you can get involved, visit

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.