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How Riley Gaines turned a fifth-place tie into becoming the face of the anti-trans-athlete movement

Based on Gaines’ rhetoric, you might think she lost a championship to Lia Thomas. She didn’t.

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House Oversight Committee Holds Hearing Examining Female Athletics And Title IX
Riley Gaines is sworn in prior to testifying to Congress about proposed changes to Title IX.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Since swimming against Lia Thomas at the 2022 NCAA Championships, Riley Gaines has made herself into one of the most prominent names in the movement to ban trans women from competing in women’s sports.

In addition to showing up at anti-trans demonstrations whenever there’s a TV camera nearby, Gaines regularly advocates against transgender women on Fox News, hosts an anti-trans-athlete podcast on Outkick, and spreads her message of exclusion at colleges as varied as Harvard, Notre Dame, Grand Canyon University and UC-Berkeley.

Gaines’ national profile took off after her race with Thomas, so naturally you’d expect that this meet must have resulted in some kind of traumatic loss that caused her to turn heel against the transgender community.

Incredibly, though, nothing like that took place. When Gaines competed that day in the NCAA 200-meter freestyle final, she finished tied with Thomas for fifth place.

That doesn’t seem like the kind of result that would haunt Gaines and eventually galvanize her into the anti-trans pundit she’s become. Indeed, if Gaines had somehow retroactively gotten what she currently advocates for, and Thomas was banned from competition, she still would’ve finished fifth.

As if to underscore this, immediately after the race, Gaines’ criticism of Thomas was muted. Even when The Daily Wire gave her a platform a few days later, her biggest complaint was that the NCAA only had one fifth place trophy and they decided to give it to Thomas while promising to mail her another.

NCAA SWIMMING: MAR 18 Women’s Swimming & Diving Championships
Riley Gaines waves and carries a placeholder award while Lia Thomas holds the infamous fifth place trophy.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Speaking of Thomas in that story, Gaines even added, “I am in full support of her and full support of her transition and her swimming career and everything like that because there’s no doubt that she works hard too, but she’s just abiding by the rules that the NCAA put in place, and that’s the issue.”

While she was still speaking out against Thomas’ participation in the event, Gaines’ rhetoric was remarkably toned down from what we’ve come to expect. There are even surprising hints of her acknowledging Thomas’ humanity — and if Gaines wanted to go scorched earth on trans athletes at this point, The Daily Wire would have gladly printed all of it.

To get a sense of how much things have changed, almost a year to the day later, Gaines tweeted, “Lia Thomas is not a brave, courageous woman who EARNED a national title. He is an arrogant, cheat who STOLE a national title from a hardworking, deserving woman. The NCAA is responsible.”

Well, that sure took a turn.

While Gaines’ criticism of the NCAA was consistent, everything else about her message went full-on hard right into misgendering and outright transphobia.

What happened in that year that would cause this? Could a fifth-place trophy have been that important? Considering Gaines repeated the trophy story in testimony before the Congress and the Ohio Statehouse and still obsessed over it at recent rallies, the answer appeared to be yes.

In actuality, by that point, Gaines had become a regular guest on right-wing media as an outspoken critic of Thomas and the NCAA. And as she expanded the scope and volume of her outrage, she was rewarded with more and more airtime.

According to a June 2023 story by Media Matters For America correspondent Alyssa Tirrell, “Gaines has appeared on Fox News 29 times for a total time of more than 2 hours and 38 minutes between April 2022 and the end of May 2023. Over 50% of these appearances took place in the last two months.”

As Gaines leaned into her Thomas is “an arrogant cheat who STOLE a national title” persona, her bookings on Fox increased exponentially. Her anti-trans hot takes clearly resonated in a right-wing-media ecosystem built on stoking the perpetual outrage machine.

What’s more, she took advantage of the right’s campaign against trans rights to expand her profile beyond sports. Tirrell further noted, “Gaines named Thomas in only 34% of her interviews and not at all in the last month, demonstrating a general thematic expansion beyond the event that initially provided her with a platform.”

2023 FOX Nation Patriot Awards - Arrivals
Gaines, right, appears at the Fox Nation Patriot Awards with Tomi Lahren and Clay Travis.
Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Her growing celebrity in the anti-trans movement eventually led to further gigs. Summer 2023 was momentous for her as she launched her Outkick podcast that July. Then in August, conservative advocacy organization The Leadership Institute announced the founding of The Riley Gaines Center to oversee her speaking events.

The Leadership Institute was founded by millionaire conservative activist Morton Blackwell and is funded in part by the Charles Koch Foundation.

With all of this influential right wing backing and money behind her, what does Gaines’ rhetoric sound like now?

During an October fundraiser for Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Gaines told the audience that in regards to transgender rights, “As a Christian myself, I entirely see this as spiritual warfare. It’s no longer about right versus wrong or good versus bad. This really is about moral versus evil.”

That’s unhinged. As her national profile has risen, it’s clear that Gaines’ vitriol about trans people turned increasingly dangerous. It’s also proven to be quite lucrative.

It’s unclear how she enters “tied for fifth place that one time” under the career field on her taxes, but there’s no doubt it’s been a very profitable industry for her.

Maybe someday she can use her money to buy a trophy and leave the transgender community in peace.