Swimming World Present – Lilly King: Ever The Competitor

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By David Rieder

Five years after her public introduction to the world at the Rio Olympics, little has changed about Lilly King. She will still speak her mind, tell you how she really feels, and she’s still a winner, a dominant force in sprint breaststroke.

Lilly King has put together a remarkable swimming career in the years since, and she could continue dominating for years to come, but she knows she may never escape the memory of the Rio Olympics—and specifically, the women’s 100 breast semifinals on Aug. 7, 2016, and the final the next day.

Almost five years later, King’s name is synonymous with that particular race.

King was 19 and competing in her first international meet, and she told the world that she didn’t think Russia’s Yulia Efimova, her chief competitor for the gold medal, should be competing at the Olympics because of her doping history. During the semifinals, Efimova raised her finger as she recorded the top time in the first semifinal, and as King watched in the ready room, cameras captured her waving her finger back at Efimova.

A rivalry instantly materialized.

“Especially now that it’s five years later, it’s insane to me. I think about how young I was. Who let me go to the Olympics?” King said. “I was blissfully ignorant the whole time. I was so new to it that I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t understand what I had done. I didn’t understand the scale of what I had said. I didn’t understand the scale that it would grow to.”

That night, King returned to the Olympic Village, thinking nothing of her words. That’s when she realized her story had exploded and she had gained 40,000 Instagram followers in the span of a couple hours.

“It was nuts,” King said. “It was a very early public introduction for me. ‘I’m going to create the biggest spectacle I can, on the largest scale. I’m going to make this the hardest race anyone could ever win, and I’m going to go out there and win.’”

Thankfully for King, everything worked out in the pool the following night. She won the final in 1:04.93, topping Efimova by more than a half-second and setting an Olympic record. The exuberant teenager splashed the water in celebration and barely acknowledged Efimova.

In the aftermath, many accused King of poor sportsmanship because she publicly criticized Efimova. She was labeled a bully. Even years later, King will have none of it. She sees a double standard in public expectations for male professional athletes versus females. King believes that if a prominent male athlete were to take a stand on an issue he felt passionate about, he would have been celebrated for his confidence and bravery, rather than chastised for being cocky and obnoxious.

King has seen improvement in recent years in the way female athletes are viewed when they speak their minds on important issues. She thinks the U.S. women’s soccer team paved the way for that change when they won the 2019 FIFA World Cup while in a dispute with their own national federation.

“That was a big, pivotal moment for women in sports, in my opinion, because you see this whole group of super strong females, and they’re speaking their mind, and they’re fighting for equal pay,” King said.

Others, including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and Olympic gold medalist swimmer Simone Manuel, have become more outspoken about issues they are passionate about, notably racial justice, and King sees that as positive progress, that strong female athletes are using their voices to impact change.

As for King and Efimova, that relationship has thawed significantly in the years since Rio. One year later at the FINA World Championships, the two congratulated each other after King again took gold in the 100 breast, breaking her first world record in the process. And year after year, King still looks forward to the opportunities to race Efimova because she knows their clashes will bring out her best.
“We’re not besties, obviously, but I do love to race her,” King said. “That’s one thing that will never change. I love racing her.”


To read more about fierce competitor Lilly King,
Click here to download the April 2021 issue of Swimming World now!

[PHOTO CREDIT: MINE KASAPOGLU/ISL]

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022 EVER THE COMPETITOR
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Five years after her public introduction to the world at the Rio Olympics, little has changed about Lilly King. She will still speak her mind, tell you how she really feels, and she’s still a winner, a dominant force in sprint breaststroke.

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038 SWIMMING TECHNIQUE CONCEPTS: APPLYING MECHANICAL PRINCIPLES TO IMPROVE SWIMMING TECHNIQUE
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037 DRYSIDE TRAINING: PUSHING POWER
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040 GOLDMINDS: LEARN HOW TO BE A RACER
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047 UP & COMERS: DANIEL DIEHL
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046 DADS ON DECK: BRENT BILQUIST

048 GUTTERTALK

049 PARTING SHOT

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