Former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines speaks at the Jefferson County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)
LOUISVILLE — Riley Gaines — a former University of Kentucky swimmer and high-profile opponent of including transgender women in women’s sports — told a crowd of Louisville Republicans that she drove from Milwaukee where she could have attended the first 2024 Republican presidential debate to address them Wednesday night.
The 23-year-old was a special guest speaker at the Jefferson County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner alongside U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is seeking to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. She also received the county party’s monthly “Indispensable Award.”
Gaines first received widespread media attention in 2022 after tying with former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, a transwoman athlete, for fifth place in the NCAA Championships 200-yard freestyle event.
Nowadays, Gaines is in demand to speak in right-wing spaces about her experience. She makes frequent appearances on conservative news networks and has launched The Riley Gaines Center at the Leadership Institute, a conservative advocacy training organization.
Cameron’s running mate, state Sen. Robby Mills, introduced Gaines to the crowd. He said he first made her acquaintance when he sponsored a bill that banned transgender girls in grades 6-12 from playing in girls’ sports and transgender women from playing on women’s teams in college. Beshear vetoed it but the General Assembly overrode it, making it law in Kentucky.
Mills called Gaines “a courageous young female athlete that was actually willing to stand up and talk about men competing in women’s sports.”
You can't make me get that vaccine, and that was the first time I learned to say 'no' for myself to authority figures like that.
– Riley Gaines, to applause at the Jefferson County GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner
Gaines said that speaking at the dinner was a “full-circle moment” for her. She voiced support of Mills’ bill and said she recently re-watched her remarks.
“There has been so much growth this past year in terms of my confidence, and really my security in stating the truth,” she said. “I was so apologetic in what I wrote. I adhered to the pronoun nonsense and when I went back and read that I couldn’t believe that I did.”
At the end of her college career, Gaines was one of UK’s most decorated swimmers. She said her time as a student athlete was “interesting to say the least.” During her sophomore year of college, NCAA championships were canceled in March 2020 in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
She spent the summer focusing on training for her junior year. When she returned, she was told to get the COVID-19 vaccine by administrators, teachers and athletic department officials.
“You can’t make me get that vaccine, and that was the first time I learned to say ‘no’ for myself to authority figures like that,” Gaines said to applause in the room.
Gaines then talked about preparation for the 2022 championships, where she faced Thomas in the 200-yard freestyle event. Gaines said an NCAA official gave Thomas the trophy since they did not have two trophies on hand in the event of a tie (a new policy was later adopted for trophy distribution in the event of ties) and about sharing a locker room with Thomas before the competition began.
Gaines said this is about a “fight for truth” that goes beyond women’s sports.
“What they’re asking us to do, deny man and woman, is the essence of humanity. Not to be grim, but that should be really chilling,” she said. “They want to control how we think. They want to control what we say. They want to control how we feel. And what that is, open any textbook … that’s Marxism.”
During the Republican primary election earlier this year, Gaines campaigned with former gubernatorial candidate and United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft. Over the past year, Gaines has endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2024 presidential election and appeared in a campaign ad for Paul.
As for The Riley Gaines Center, which was announced earlier this month, Gaines said it will include a training program for school board members, community leaders and national leaders as well as focus on bringing conservative speakers to college campuses.
Cameron highlighted Gaines briefly in his comments and critiqued his opponent, Beshear, for vetoing Mills’ legislation.
“This governor vetoed that legislation because, again, he doesn’t understand what it means to value and respect women’s sports and protect the family unit,” Cameron said.
The attorney general repeated much of the criticisms he voices against Beshear on the campaign trail, including closing churches and schools during the coronavirus pandemic. Cameron also touted his recent endorsement from the Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police, a union that represents more than 10,000 law enforcement officials from across the state. Overall, he emphasized that his plans are about making Kentucky “a place where your kids, your grandkids will want to live in as they get older.”
In his remarks, Paul called Cameron a “hero” for taking Beshear to court over coronavirus mandates, such as joining a lawsuit to overturn the governor’s ban on faith-based gatherings. The senator also criticized Beshear for not calling the legislature into a special session during the pandemic, saying he “ruled by edict.”
“It takes people to stand up and fight,” Paul said. “And we are lucky that our nominee has taken that fight to Beshear, that our nominee has stood up for constitutional principle, that our nominee is not afraid to stand up for all of us.”
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