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Swimmer Riley Gaines, 'Take Back Title IX' tour make stop in Whitefish

Take Back Title IX bus tour
Posted at 7:07 PM, Jun 11, 2024

WHITEFISH — As women's sports continue to grow in both participation and viewership, issues for athletes fall into the spotlight with higher frequency.

Former NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines is among the female athletes and coaches traveling the country for a Take Back Title IX tour.

"How many opportunities have to be lost?," asked Gaines in a speech during a tour stop Monday in Whitefish. "How many girls have to be exploited in their locker rooms? How many girls have to be injured in their sports?"

Gaines and other Take Back Title IX members spoke to a crowd of over 100 people at the Montana Longhorn Company about their efforts to protect Title IX from changes proposed by the Biden Administration. The new rules would, in essence, require schools to allow biological males who identify as female to compete in women’s sports.

Gaines, a former swimmer at the University of Kentucky and an All-SEC performer, tied for fifth place with Penn swimmer Lia Thomas in the 200-yard freestyle at the 2022 NCAA championships. Thomas, an openly transgender athlete, won the 500-yard freestyle title at the same meet, stirring controversy.

Nationwide, a 2023 poll from Gallup shows 69% who say transgender athletes should only be allowed to play on sports teams that match their birth gender.

It's a sentiment shared by female athletes at Monday’s event, including Montana State-bound track star Hailey Ells.

"Being a track athlete, it's really prevalent to see just the differences in times. It's so obvious and it's so easy to understand the differences of males and females," said Ells. "So to see these women come together it's just really encouraging.”

One of those women was Tulsi Gabbard, a former United States Representative from Hawaii and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and an original sponsor of the Protect Women's Sports Act.

"Our work is cut out for us," Gabbard told the Whitefish crowd. "We need men and women and boys and girls across the country to have that courage to speak the truth; to encourage others and empower others to do the same."

According to data from the Movement Advancement Project, a progressive think tank, at least 20 states currently ban transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.

Ells said the work of Take Back Title IX gives her hope.

"You feel like you're just from a small town in Montana; you don't have much of a voice," said Ells. "So going into the D-I career, it's just super broad and a big intimidating area. So I think having these young women and women all around the country speaking for us, it's just super encouraging."

For Gaines and others, it’s the growing encouragement from female athletes like Ells that propels them to continue their efforts.

“To be here, to see so many young girls, young athletes, that's what it's about. So this type of thing, it's very revitalizing," said Gaines. "So much of what we see, so many stories are negative and they take an emotional toll, but it's this that reminds us why we're fighting and it makes it worth it.”

Other speakers at Monday's event included:

Paula Scanlan, a former Penn swimmer and Independent Women’s Forum ambassador; Kim Russell, former head women’s lacrosse coach at Oberlin College and Independent Women’s Forum ambassador; Selina Soule,a four-time national qualifier sprinter and an Alliance Defending Freedom client; Adriana McLamb, spokeswoman for Independent Women’s Forum and a former Division I volleyball player, coach and recruiter to aspiring collegiate female volleyball players; and Barbara Ehardt, who had a 15-year career as a Division I women’s basketball coach and is a member of the Idaho House of Representatives from the 33rd district.

In April, the NAIA — made up of mostly smaller colleges and universities across the country, including the Frontier Conference — voted to largely ban trans women from competing in women's sports. Eyes are now on the NCAA as hundreds of civil rights groups and elite athletes have called for the group to provide extra protections for transgender athletes.

Three-time NCAA champion basketball coach Dawn Staley of South Carolina has joined the discussion, telling reporters,"If you consider yourself a woman and you want to play sports, or vice versa, you should be able to play."

As for what Gaines and the Take Back Title IX team hope to inspire through their tour?

“Regardless of any identity factor, my call to action for every single person is to be bold. It sounds cliche, but speak the truth," said Gaines. "Have the conversation, don't feel like you have to walk on eggshells or be scared to ruffle feathers or step on toes, because that's ultimately what got us to where we are now."

Gaines and the Take Back Title IX team will continue touring the country following its stop in Montana.