Junior Riley Gaines expects UK to contend for title in unique SEC Championships

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Junior Riley Gaines expects UK to contend for title in unique SEC Championships

Larry Vaught


It was one of those performances to remember — or at least it seems like it should have been even if University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines has a different approach.

In her last meet against Louisville, she set a new personal record in the 50-meter freestyle, broke her own school record in the 100 freestyle with the nation’s ninth best time this year, won the 200 freestyle with the nation’s third best time and anchored the 200 medley relay team to a victory.

“Honestly we don’t dwell on Louisville much. We addressed it and moved on. It did surprise me a little bit how I did but that’s over,” said Gaines.

Now it’s on to the Southeastern Conference Championship in Athens, Ga., Feb. 17-20 where the UK women expect to contend for the top spot with Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.

This year’s meet will be different since the men will compete Feb. 24-27.  Normally the men and women compete at the same location at the same time and that creates a unique atmosphere, especially for the event finals.

“It’s been the same with dual meets this year so as an upperclassman and captain I just have to help bring the hype to push the freshmen, who won’t know what a normal SEC Championship is like any way,” Gaines said. “I think we can bring plenty of excitement because we know we can win

“It’s going to come down to depth. If your team gets COVID, you are done. We have been super healthy all year and have not had nearly as many cases as other schools. You just try to minimize contact with anyone. You have still got to live a little but just being cautious like we have been.”

Gaines scored 44 points at last year’s SEC Championships but her best individual finish was 10th. She wants to make an A final (top eight). She is seeded No. 1 in the 200 freestyle. She will also be part of four relays.

Success is nothing new for Gaines. She was a seven-time Tennessee state champion and grew up in Gallatin, Tenn., as a Vanderbilt fan — her father and uncle played football at Vanderbilt and another uncle played football at Tennessee.

Gaines ended up at Kentucky because of the recruiting efforts of UK associate coach Allison Reed Leather.

“I was unsure where I would go. I did not have that many close friends on club teams, but she (Leather) convinced me and everything about Kentucky has lived up to what she told me or surpassed it,” Gaines said.

Gaines started summer swim at age 4 or 5 in Gallatin just learning how to do the various strokes. She became a year-round swimmer at age 9 and credits much of her success to her coach.

“She was from Romania and was  super stern but had the biggest heart,” Gaines said. “It’s rare in swimming to have the same coach your entire left, but every time I would go up to the next age group she came along. She was like a second mom and knew how to push me to get the best out of me.”

Gallatin is not a swimming mecca and Gaines normally swam with boys. That took some adjustment at UK.

“I had never really had the whole team aspect before. I was not used to having girls push me in practice. I did not like it at first that I was threatened by so many fast girls but it sure has helped me,” Gaines said.

She had other athletic options. Her mother, Telisha, was an all-conference softball player at Austin Peay. Her dad, Brad, played in the NFL and a great uncle won a Super Bowl.

Gaines played second base and pitched on her youth softball team. She said her speed was her best offensive attribute. Her travel team, though, won the Little League World Series twice.

“I don’t think about that much now. I get as I get older and start to reminisce more, it will be something I think is pretty neat, “ the UK junior swimmer said “I am still close to a lot of girls on that team but it really is not something I think about a lot.

“I always guessed I would play softball in college before swimming. Once I got to high school I realized I needed to pick one sport and stick with that. The long-term benefits of swimming seemed better. It’s not really a great reason why I picked swimming but it has worked out okay.”

No surprise her thinking is sound. She was a scholastic All-American in high school and has taken the same path at UK. Like former teammate Asia Seidt — the 2020 NCAA Woman of the Year — she has made an A in every class at UK.

“I aspire to be Asia Seidt,” Gaines laughed and said. “I am a pretty good student, too. Most swimmers are generally dedicated to what they do and if we do something, we do it all the way. The same thing applies in school.”

She is a human health science major with a minor in health law and hopes to go to dentistry school.

“I was a chemistry major but changed that because I did not want to be stuck being a chemist,” Gaines said.

And what about health law?

“I needed a couple of classes over the summer and was out of classes to take but I do not want to be a lawyer,” she said.

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