Riley Gaines says spiritual awakening is helping her in fight to ban men in women sports

Riley Gaines Barker speaks about her recent spiritual awakening during an event at Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg, Virginia on July 9, 2023. | YouTube/Cornerstone Chapel

Swimmer-turned-activist Riley Gaines Barker said she recently experienced a spiritual awakening that has strengthened her faith and encouraged her in what she calls "the fight" to ban men from competing in women's sports. 

The former competitive collegiate swimmer, who graduated from the University of Kentucky last year, spoke with Pastor Gary Hamrick of Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg, Virginia, on July 9. 

Speaking in front of Hamrick's congregation, the 23-year-old NCAA All-American detailed how she was catapulted into the public eye for taking a stand against laws that allow men who identify as female to compete in women's sports.

"I've always been spiritual. But this past year, I really have been spiritually awakened. I've seen so evidently how God moves through people, how He has His hand on me in this situation, in this fight," Barker said. 

"But that being said, I've also seen so evidently how His opposition works and moves through people in not the same way. … It's plaguing this country. And I think we can all agree this is a spiritual battle. It's no longer right versus wrong, good versus bad. This is moral versus evil."  

During her college years, Barker remembers having no choice but to compete against a 6'4" male — Will Thomas, who changed his name to Lia Thomas and swam three years on the men's team at the University of Pennsylvania before switching to the women's team during his senior year. 

Thomas tied Barker for fifth place in a freestyle race at the NCAA Championships in March 2022.

Barker shared how, while finding out that she would have to compete against a man, she also learned that she and her teammates and other female competitors would have to undress in the locker room in front of Thomas and see him naked too. 

"We knew we'd be competing against Thomas, who is a 6'4," 22-year-old male. But we didn't know we would be changing in a locker room [together] until we were actually changing in the locker room. And again, let me repeat, this is a 6'4," 22-year-old male who was fully exposing male parts in our locker room where we were simultaneously undressing. So that's what that looked like," Barker recalled.

"But in regard to the competition, … we went the exact same time down to the 100th of a second. And so, we go behind the awards podium where the NCAA official looks at both Thomas and me and says, 'Great job. But you guys tied, and we only have one trophy. So we're going to give this trophy to Lia. Lia has to have it for pictures. Sorry Riley, you can pose with this other trophy, but you have to give yours back. You go home empty-handed; Lia takes the trophy home. End of story,'" she continued. 

"And so, that is what thrust me into this position of no longer being willing to lie because that's what they were asking us to do when they're asking us to smile and happily step aside and allow these men onto our podiums, taking our scholarships and our opportunities and our titles. That was asking us to lie and asking us to not feel uncomfortable by having this man undressing inches away from us where we were undressing."  

Barker said she remembers waiting for someone such as a coach or official to stick up for her and the other female athletes to protect them. But that never happened. 

"When I realized we weren't seeing that, it slapped me across the face. This realization of 'if we as women weren't willing to stick up for ourselves, how can we expect someone else to stick up for us?'" Barker recounted.  

During her guest appearance at the church, a clip was played on a screen showing Barker giving her testimony before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on June 21, telling Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., how, when women athletes try to stick up for themselves by stating that it's unfair to force them to compete against men who identify as trans, the women often get called harmful names. 

"That is continually happening. And if we do speak up, we're immediately labeled as some name. They will call you everything under the sun, whether it's 'transphobic, homophobic, racist, white supremacist, domestic terrorists.' They will throw them all at you and hope to deter you and hope to silence you," Barker told Hawley. 

"Lia Thomas' teammates were forced every single week to go to mandatory LGBT education meetings to learn about how just by being 'cisgender,' they were oppressing Lia Thomas. They were told that they're not allowed to take a stance because their school has already taken their stance for them. They were told they would never get a job. 'You will never get into grad school. You will lose your friends. You will lose your scholarship and playing time if you speak out,'" she added.  

"They told these girls that, 'If you do speak out and any harm whatsoever comes toward Thomas' way — whether that's through social media, whether that's physical, mental, emotional harm — then you are solely responsible and you could be responsible for a potential death.'" 

As her appearance at Cornerstone Church ended, Barker told the congregation that one Bible verse that has continually encouraged her throughout "the fight" has been Romans 8:18

"My favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:18. … 'For our present sufferings aren't worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.' And to be honest, this has always been my favorite Bible verse and it was my favorite when I was younger because I really related it to swimming. … And so, the suffering was the practices. But when you won, it made it all feel worth it," Barker detailed. 

"And of course, it applies to my spiritual life as well. But now, I noticed that same verse, just how applicable it is in what I'm fighting for now. The suffering, which is, of course, the backlash, the emotional toll. I mean, there's a lot of suffering in what I do now," she continued. 

"But it is so worth it when you understand what's at stake and when you understand what you're fighting for, which is, of course, this next generation. The people who came before me who fought for Title Nine (Title IX), the present female athletes who are effectively silenced and just standing for the truth."

Nicole Alcindor is a reporter for The Christian Post. 

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