• Riley Gaines Comes To Connecticut

    A group of 16 young woman, including Gaines, filed a lawsuit against the NCAA to protect women's sports and to keep locker rooms safe

    Riley Gaines speaking with CT State Rep Gale Mastrofrancesco

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    More than a hundred guests of all ages, and from both sides of the political spectrum, turned out for an incredibly inspiring evening in New Canaan on June 5th, courtesy of ICONS, the Independent Council on Women's Sports.

    The fundraiser featured a panel discussion with Division 1 swimmers Riley Gaines, Reva Gyorgy, Kylee Alons and Kaitlynn Wheeler, along with Kim Jones, a former Division 1 athlete herself, mother of four collegiate swimmers and co-founder of ICONS.

    Jones started off the evening with an incredibly rousing and powerful speech that got to the heart of the issues facing women today in sports.

    "Women have had their teeth knocked out by men in field hockey," said Jones who went detail other shocking instances of women getting physically injured by men in contact sports.

    Not just injured by men, but men are taking women's positions on athletic teams, men are taking women's athletic scholarships, and men are taking women's athletic awards. It's utterly demoralizing for women.

    "There are men who have won World Olympic and national championship titles. There are men who hold women's world records. Men who have taken All-American status. And so many boys who have won State medals that we can't keep track of them. This has all just been happening since 2015, and the problem is rapidly growing each year," said Jones.

    Jones was introduced to men playing in women's sports when her own daughter had to face off against Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer from UPenn who swam on the men's team for the first three years of his career before switching to the women's team in his senior year.

    "I had a front row seat to the tears and struggle, and as strong confident, women became frightened, quiet and stopped believing that they could depend upon their coaches parents and leaders to do the right thing. The women were silenced, told to ignore their instinctive reactions to injustice, fear and discomfort," said Jones. "They were emotionally blackmailed and they were told that the feelings and well-being of a man were more important than their own. Telling women that they are responsible for carrying the emotional and mental health burdens of another is wrong."

    Riley Gaines knows exactly how it feels.

    Gaines is a 12-time NCAA All-American and 5-time SEC champion who had been swimming for 18 years, and training 5-6 hours a day as a college athlete before she encountered Thomas in her senior year (2021-2022).

    "Midway through our senior season, my senior season, this name pops up. This name is leading the nation by body lengths and multiple events ranging from the hundred freestyle, which is a sprint and all the freestyle events in between, and through the mile which is, of course, long distance," said Gaines.

    Of course this kind of dominance in so many swimming categories is incredibly rare.

    But considering that Thomas placed first in the 500 free, 1000 free, and 1650 free, and was the sixth best among UPenn men's team members in the 200 free in the 2019-2020 season, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Thomas dominated when he switched to the women's team for the 2021–2022 season, after undergoing hormone therapy starting in 2019.

    Screenshot, PennAthletics.com

    Thomas also changed in the women's locker room, creating a host of issues for women who should have never been forced to change in front of a man.

    Do you know how hard it is to put on a competition swimsuit? It can take up to 15-20 minutes to get stuffed into one of those suits. Can you imagine women being forced to do that 18 per times week in front of man for swim practice? Or multiple times over the course of a single meet? How does that kind of experience impact an athlete's mindset before a race?

    Yet that's exactly what women had to do, per Paula Scanlan, who swam on the UPenn team alongside Thomas. The coaches did not protect these women from the extreme level of discomfort they felt in the locker room. The women no longer had a safe space to change, and they weren't even warned before it happened the first time. They literally had no support, and were left to defend themselves.

    Paula Scanlan with her mother.

    "What we are seeing happen across this country, the eroding of women's rights, this is not progress. Is regressive, it's deeply misogynistic. It's taking us back in time at least 50 years," said Gaines. "I can't believe 50 years later, here we are essentially fighting the same [Title IX] fight."

    Gaines went on to describe an utterly surreal moment when she tied Thomas, right down to a hundredth of a second, in the freestyle. The NCAA official indicated there was only one trophy, and despite the fact that Gaines and Thomas tied, the official decided to give the trophy to Thomas.

    "My heart rate was so high having just competed. Of course, my adrenaline was still pumping and so the first thing I thought was... isn't this everything that Title IX was passed to prevent from happening? What do you mean? You're gonna give the trophy to the man in the women's category?" said Gaines.

    The NCAA coach said, "we have been advised as an organization that when photos are being taken, it's crucial that the trophy is in Leah's hands. You can pose with this one, but you have to give your trophy back. Leah takes the trophy home. You go home empty-handed. End of story."

    "We knew it was wrong all season. We knew the unfair competition, we knew the locker room, we knew the silencing that we faced. We knew all of this was wrong. Of course we did," lamented Gaines. "This official reduced everything that we had worked our entire lives for down to a photo op to validate the feelings and the identity of a man at the expense of our own. That's when I realized I could no longer be quiet."

    From L to R: Kim Jones, Riley Gaines, Kaitlyn Wheeler, RekaGyorgy, and Kylee Alons.
    Photo Credit: Gillian Nadel Gaughan

    Gyorgy, Alons and Wheeler experienced similar issues.

    Reka Gyorgy competed in the Olympics for her country, Hungary, in 2015, before heading to college at Virginia Tech where she competed on the swim team.

    Gyorgy, an All-American athlete, was competing in the 500 freestyle where she just swam her second best time ever. She was hoping to make it to finals with the top 16 swimmers.

    Unfortunately, she got beat by Thomas and came in 17th place, missing the opportunity to race in the finals by just one position.

    "It was a shocking moment because going into the championship season, we knew that Thomas was going to swim against us," said Gyorgy. "But when Thomas touched the wall and I saw the results on the screen and I saw my name at the 17th place, I didn't know what else to do, other than cry."

    Gyorgy also described the overwhelming fear she and the other girls had to experience in the locker room, but no one was there to protect them or their privacy.

    Worse, after Gyorgy complained to the NCAA about the situation with Thomas, she and her family started to receive threats. She was attacked on social media. She got so many angry, hateful phone calls that she had to turn her phone off. She even felt unsafe walking down the street, all for complaining about a man who was in a space that should have been restricted to women only.

    Kylee Alons, a 31-time All American, 2-time NCAA champion and 5-time ACC champion, shared a similar experience having to compete against Thomas and share a locker room with a 6-foot tall man who was openly exposing himself to women in the locker room.

    "I don't want to keep having this feeling of uncomfortableness every single time in the locker room, it's throwing off my preparation for my race, I'm feeling stressed. I'm feeling uncomfortable. I'm already stressed about the fact that I'm having to race a man, I don't want to be in the same locker room as him," said Alons who was forced to change either in the janitor's closet or in the corner of the locker room while hiding under towels to hide from Thomas.

    "This is how we are reducing the very best women in the world. We're reducing them to this level to feeling excited about finding janitor's closets. What are we doing to our young girls?" wondered Alons.

    Kaitlynn Wheeler echoed the concerns about the locker room, and further detailed her thoughts in a powerful op ed in the Washington Examiner.

    "The moment I realized Thomas would be sharing our most private space, I was engulfed by a whirlwind of emotions — shock, disbelief, horror. The sanctity of our locker room, a space that should have been ours and ours alone, was shattered without warning. The presence of male genitalia in a space that was supposed to be safe, where we were vulnerable and exposed, was not just uncomfortable; it was a visceral invasion of our privacy and dignity. This was not about inclusivity — this was a fundamental disregard for our feelings and our safety," said Wheeler.

    These brave, courageous and inspiring young women knew something had to be done to protect women's sports, so they personally took up the challenge.

    The lawsuit aims to protect women's sports and women's locker rooms as female-only spaces.

    Gaines, Gyorgy, Alons and Wheeler are part of a group of 16 female athletes who filed a lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) in March 2024.

    “This lawsuit against the NCAA isn’t just about competition; it’s a fight for the very essence of women’s sports,” said ICONS Co-Founder Marshi Smith, a collegiate All-American and NCAA national champion swimmer. “We’re standing up for justice and the rights of female athletes to compete on a level playing field. It’s about preserving the legacy of Title IX and ensuring that the future of women’s sports is as bright as its past.” 

    The lawsuit aims to compel the NCAA to protect the women's category for real women, to rectify the results of the 2022 Women's NCAA Swim and Dive Championships, and to ensure that women's locker rooms remain female-only spaces, segregated by sex to protect the rights of women and girls.

    The case was filed in Georgia in the 11th Circuit, though it wouldn't be a surprise to see this case quickly progress to the Supreme Court. A court win on Title IX would likely influence U.S. sports policy at all levels, and even potentially impact legislation in medicine, prisons and education, all areas where Title IX is referenced.

    Proceeds from last week's fundraiser will be used to help fund the lawsuit.

    You can learn more about the lawsuit and make a donation at www.takeonthencaa.com.

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