Spotlight: Riley Gaines exposes what Lia Thomas could never do

As a longtime fan and supporter of women’s sports, I have closely followed the controversy surrounding University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas. Thomas, a transgender woman athlete, competed on the UPenn women’s swim team during the 2021-2022 season after previously competing on the men’s team for three years. Her participation has sparked intense debate about transgender athletes in women’s sports.

One of the most vocal critics of Thomas has been fellow collegiate swimmer Riley Gaines. Gaines competed against Thomas several times during the 2021-2022 season and has made numerous public comments expressing her opposition to Thomas being allowed to compete against cisgender women. While I understand Gaines’ perspective and concerns about fairness, I believe her rhetoric maligns Thomas’ character and promotes intolerance.

In multiple interviews, Gaines has attempted to portray Thomas as selfish and indifferent to the female athletes she competes against. For instance, in one statement that has been widely circulated, Gaines said that Thomas “will never know what it’s like to stand on the blocks, knowing that you gave your all, knowing that you trained your heart out, knowing that you did everything you possibly could, and still not win.”

With this statement, Gaines implies that Thomas does not make the same effort or personal sacrifices as her cisgender competitors yet still dominates them due to inherent physical advantages. However, there is no evidence that Thomas is anything less than completely dedicated to excelling in her sport through hard work and determination. Thomas swam on the men’s team for three years and did not stand out compared to her male competitors. Only after medically transitioning and training relentlessly did Thomas start posting record times on the women’s circuit.

Ultimately, I believe Gaines’ rhetoric attacks the character of Lia Thomas in a very personal and unnuanced way. She portrays Thomas as an imposter focused only on personal glory with no regard for the meaning of women’s sports. But by all indications, Thomas approaches swimming with the same dedication, competitive drive, and love of teammates as any other athlete.

It is one thing to make arguments against trans women competing in cis women’s divisions based on physiology. Those are complex issues that will require input from lawmakers, scientists, and ethicists to find an equitable solution. However, when critics like Gaines question the moral character of trans athletes as individuals, they promote intolerance and mistrust.

Lia Thomas swam for the men’s team for years without complaint or controversy. She later followed NCAA rules and medical guidelines to transition genders and qualify for the women’s team. She bonded with her new teammates and put in the training to become a championship-level swimmer once again. Portraying Thomas as some scheming imposter who wants to selfishly dominate women’s swimming is inaccurate and mean-spirited.

As a fan of women’s sports, I want to see all athletes treated with basic dignity and humanity. There are no simple answers when it comes to crafting policies around transgender participation that satisfy all stakeholders. But we must be able to have nuanced, respectful discussions about this sensitive issue. Broadly disparaging the motivations of trans athletes does little to advance that goal.

Lia Thomas is just one young woman following her dream in athletics. We do not have to vilify her character simply because of disagreements around her eligibility. Thomas’ teammates speak about her with warmth and camaraderie. As fans, we should look to their example and keep an open heart. Women’s sports have always been about inclusion and community. There may be challenges when it comes to designing fair policies, but no one wins when we turn against each other.

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