UK Athlete Riley Gaines Looking Ahead

By LARRY VAUGHTWhat could Riley Gaines do for an encore?

During her junior season she won the 200-meter freestyle at the Southeastern Conference championship and was also part of the winning 4×200 relay team that won the SEC title to help the Kentucky women win its first SEC championship.“There was some pressure at the beginning of the year just knowing where I came from finishing up last season,” said Gaines. “At first, it was kind of scary. Then I had to shift my perspective to where it was not scary but more of an opportunity. So far, it has been great. I have stepped up in practice and have been doing things I did not do last year. I have a lot of confidence going into the last few weeks of training.”The SEC Championships will be Feb. 15-19 in Knoxville and the UK women have found some extra inspiration to repeat as champion because they feel disrespected.“There are a ton of articles saying other schools did not perform as well last year due to COVID and we were just the healthy team at the right time,” Gaines said. “It’s kind of good to read because we had our own problems (with COVID) last year and this year. It’s kind of exciting to read that stuff and it’s going to be cool to go back and show what we can do.”Gaines has done plenty again this season.  She’s ranked nationally in the 200 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 200 butterfly. She has school records in the 100 free, 200 free, 200 medley relay, 400 free relay and 800 free relay.Gaines is undefeated in the 100 freestyle this season and has 15 wins overall in her individual events. That’s why she feels like she’s in a “good place” getting ready for the season’s biggest meets.“We have competed against great teams like Tennessee and Auburn already and gotten a little taste of what their swimmers can do,” Gaines said. “Last year I was more nervous going into SEC because I had not won and our team had not won before. Now I know what it is like and what it takes to be a little more confident. I have been there and should feel less pressure this year.“I know I am the person being chased and targeted this season. That keeps me going knowing others are thinking about beating Riley. Knowing other coaches think our team got lucky last year also fuels our team. A lot of teams get content when they win a championship. Our team is different. We are not complacent and satisfied.”Gaines has been concentrating on consistent practices, staying focused on key details and taking advantage of every opportunity given to her.“I want to get my team going. I want to be excited and hyped and let our team build on that,” Gaines said.Her collegiate career will end in mid-March at the NCAA Championships, which she admits is also a scary thought since she has been swimming competitively for 15 years.“It’s sad but I have been around some great girls the last four years and it will be exciting to start the next chapter of my life in dental school,” Gaines, a Tennessee native, said. “Hopefully I will be staying in or around Lexington because I have such great relationships with everyone at UK.“I imagine the hard part will be finding a daily routine. As an athlete, a routine is a big part of my day every day. So I know I will have to find something to do and keep me busy.”