Riley Gaines and 15 female athletes sue NCAA for letting biological men like Lia Thomas compete against them and use female locker rooms in college sports.
Lia Thomas at the 2022 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships standing next to Riley Gaines, who is one of sixteen plaintiffs in the class-action suit. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

EXCLUSIVE: Female Athletes Sue NCAA Over Transgender Competitors in Sports

‘I was racing Olympic gold medalists and I was changing in a storage closet. My privacy and safety were being violated in the locker room.’

Over a dozen female athletes are suing the National Collegiate Athletics Association for letting transgender athletes compete against them and use female locker rooms in college sports.

At the center of the class-action lawsuit is Lia Thomas, the trans athlete who dominated the 2022 NCAA Swimming Championships while a student at the University of Pennsylvania. The suit states that both the NCAA and Georgia Tech, which hosted the event, knowingly violated Title IX, the federal statute that guarantees equal opportunity for men and women in college education and sports.

The lawsuit, the first federal action of its kind, seeks to change the rules, rendering any biological males ineligible to compete against female athletes. It demands the NCAA revoke all awards given to trans athletes in women’s competitions and “reassign” them to their female contenders. It also asks for “damages for pain and suffering, mental and emotional distress, suffering and anxiety, expense costs and other damages due to defendants’ wrongful conduct.” 

In 2022, Thomas clinched the 500-yard freestyle title at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships and was named All-American in all three events Thomas participated in. Thomas first competed for the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s swim team as a male from 2017 to 2020 but never reached the NCAA championships during that time. After two years on hormone therapy, Thomas switched to the women’s team, trouncing female competitors in both sprint and endurance races. 

Thomas’s switch to the team also meant a switch in the locker room. The lawsuit accuses the NCAA of “destroying female safe spaces in women’s locker rooms,” in a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. It claims the association allows “naked men possessing full male genitalia to disrobe in front of non-consenting college women” and creates “situations in which unwilling female college athletes unwittingly or reluctantly exposed their unclad bodies to males, subjecting women to a loss of their constitutional right to bodily privacy.” 

The Free Press sits down with plaintiffs Riley Gaines and Réka György:

Kylee Alons, a plaintiff in the suit who swam for North Carolina State, told The Free Press she was so uncomfortable knowing Thomas was using the women’s locker room at the championships that Alons started changing in a “dimly lit storage and utility closet” she found under the bleachers. 

“I was literally racing U.S. and Olympic gold medalists and I was changing in a storage closet at this elite-level meet,” Alons said. “I just felt that my privacy and safety were being violated in the locker room.”

Riley Gaines and Kaitlynn Wheeler, two more plaintiffs who both swam for the University of Kentucky, said they first discovered that Thomas, who is more than six feet tall, had access to the women’s locker room when Thomas walked past them as they changed into their racing suits. The suits are so tight they “require 15–20 minutes to put on,” the lawsuit states.

“While you’re doing this, you’re exposed,” Wheeler said. “You can’t stand there and hold a towel around you while putting the suit on at the same time.” 

“Never in my 18-year career had I seen a man changing in the locker rooms. I immediately felt the need to cover myself,” added Wheeler, who said she was exposed from the waist up at the time. “I could feel the discomfort of the other girls in there.” 

Another athlete, a plaintiff named in the suit as “Swimmer A,” took to changing into her suit in a bathroom stall because she “was shocked to see a naked Thomas 10 feet in front of her and a full frontal view of Thomas’s genitalia” when she first entered the locker room, the suit states. 

Along with Riley Gaines, the college swimmers who have joined the lawsuit as named plaintiffs include (from top, left to right): Kylee Alons, Katie Blankenship, Réka György, and Julianna Morrow; and (from bottom, left to right): Lily Mullens, Kate Pearson, Carter Satterfield, and Kaitlynn Wheeler. (Photos via NC State Swimming, Roanoke College Women’s Swimming, VA Tech Swimming and Diving, Kaitlyn Wheeler, University of KY Swimming and Diving)

The suit, organized by the Independent Council on Women’s Sports, also states that the NCAA’s decision to let Thomas compete against women is based on the “illegal premise” that “testosterone suppression and personal choice alone can make a male eligible to compete on a women’s sports team.” It says the association’s rules allow “men to compete on women’s teams with a testosterone level that is five times higher than the highest recorded testosterone level for elite female athletes.”


Males who have gone through puberty—even after undergoing hormone suppression treatment—retain a biological advantage over women “which no woman can achieve without doping,” says the suit, which was filed by 16 plaintiffs—including twelve swimmers, two track athletes, one tennis player, and one volleyball player. 

Riley Gaines, who famously tied with Thomas in the 200-yard freestyle final at the 2022 Championships, told The Free Press that by allowing biological males to compete against women, the NCCA “undermines everything that Title IX was created to protect.” 

“The NCAA’s most basic job is to protect the fairness and safety of competition,” she said, “but instead the NCAA has been and continues to openly discriminate against women.” 

She said it was a “betrayal” that the 2022 championships took place on the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX. “The NCAA was passing around shirts that said ‘50 years of Title IX’ and ‘50 years of creating opportunities for women,’ but these were the same people who were actively taking our opportunities away and telling us we weren’t worthy to be called champions, and instead this man, who merely says he is a woman, is.” 

“The irony, the hypocrisy would almost be comical,” Gaines added, “but there were real consequences to it that not only just affected me, but my teammates, my coaches, families, and future female athletes.” 

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Georgia where the 2022 championships took place, could impact eligibility rules at all 1,100 colleges and universities represented by the NCAA, making it such that all athletes born as males would be barred from competing in women’s sports.

To win an All-American title at the championships, swimmers must post one of the 16 fastest times out of 30 competitors in the preliminary races or “heats” for their respective events. In 2022, Réka György placed 17th in the 500-yard freestyle race. Thomas went on to win the final of that event by a second and a half, beating three other women who were Olympic medalists.

“I was shocked,” said György, recounting the moment she sat on the bleachers and watched as Thomas touched the wall in the last heat, officially knocking her out of the final. “I stopped hearing voices and everything just went blank. One of my coaches told me he was sorry, and that’s when I started crying. I just broke down.” 

On the last day of the championships, György wrote a letter to an NCAA official that stated: “I’d like to point out that I respect and fully stand with Lia Thomas; I am convinced that she is no different than me or any other D1 swimmer who [w]as woken up at 5am her entire life for morning practice. She has sacrificed family vacations and holidays for a competition. She has pushed herself to the limit to be the best athlete she could be. She is doing what she is passionate about and deserves that right. On the other hand, I would like to critique the NCAA rules that allow her to compete against us, who are biologically women.”

György continued: “It feels like that final spot was taken away from [me] because of the NCAA’s decision to let someone who is not a biological female compete. . . . Every event that transgender athlete competed in was one spot taken away from biological females throughout the meet.” 

Lia Thomas after the preliminaries of the women’s 500-yard freestyle at the 2022 NCAA championships. (Photo by Mike Comer/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The letter was later released publicly and quickly went viral. György told The Free Press she was hit with a barrage of messages, including death threats, as a result. But she never heard back from any NCAA official regarding her letter. 

That’s why György has also joined the suit. “It has been two years and nothing happened,” she said. “When will we change things if it’s not now?” 

The suit says NCAA’s eligibility requirements are “dramatically out of step” with international standards. It claims the association’s rules on “Transgender Eligibility in Sport” rely on an “an outdated, non-peer reviewed, two-and-a-half-page statement issued by the participants in an International Olympic Committee (IOC) organized meeting in 2015,” which has since been replaced. Furthermore, it says the NCAA does not comply with the rules set by World Aquatics, the international governing body for swimming and diving, which bars any athlete who has experienced male puberty from competing in womens’ sports. 

Thomas is currently appealing to an international sport governing body in a bid to compete at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Thomas argues that the World Aquatics’ rules, adopted in June 2022 after the 2022 NCAA Championships, which prohibit Thomas from participating, “are invalid and unlawful as they discriminate against her.” 

Some of the athletes expressed empathy for Thomas. “As an athlete, you know how much work you have to put in to swim fast or run fast or beat somebody in another race. And I respect that because Thomas did the same thing that we did. But when it comes to racing it’s just not the place that a male should be,” György said.

But most expressed frustration at Thomas’s participation in women’s sport. 

“I don’t know how he can be proud of himself for standing on top of the podium,” said Gaines, who does not use female pronouns for Thomas. 

Ultimately, Gaines concluded, “he was following the rules, which is why we’re challenging the rules. Because it is the rules that are the problem. Not Lia Thomas.” 

Francesca Block is a reporter for The Free Press. Read her investigation, “Stanford’s War Against Its Own Students,” and follow her on Twitter (now X) @FrancescaABlock

Read our profile of Lia Thomas: “Watching Lia Thomas Win.”

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