In the Biggest Moment, Lilly King Emphatically Delivers

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

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By David Rieder.

Yulia Efimova was out for revenge, looking to turn the tables on Lilly King after King beat her for gold in the 100 breast final at the Olympic Games. But it was more than just what happened in the pool that had Efimova irked. King had called out Efimova for her checkered history with banned substances, and King had wagged her finger.

The rivalry, created out of nowhere the day before the 100 breast final, fueled King. It fried Efimova, who was caught on camera breaking down in tears in the days after the 100 breast final.

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

“The Olympics was the worst thing ever,” Efimova said.

But this year, as the two finally met again at the World Championships in Budapest, Efimova looked to have the upper hand. She came into the meet with the world’s top time of 1:04.84, faster than King swam on her way to Olympic gold.

And then, in the 100 breast semi-finals, she almost broke the world record. She touched in 1:04.36, one hundredth slower than the global standard Ruta Meilutyte set in 2013.

The gauntlet was laid. King appeared confident after her semi-final race—she qualified second for the final in a lifetime-best time of 1:04.53—but when she arrived at the Duna Arena for the final, the pressure hit. The time Efimova had put up in the semi-finals had King sweating.

“I was actually really freaking out when I got to the pool,” King said. “That race, it’s always going to be a showdown, and it’s always going to be an exciting one—especially after the time Yulia put up yesterday, which was very, very impressive. It was going to be a dogfight.”

That it would be. By the time she walked out behind lane five, she was composed, good to go. A pumped-up, highly-competitive race always brings out the best in King.

“That’s what I love about swimming,” King said. “I love having pressure and I love being competitive. That’s why I’m in the sport. I thrive off that. My favorite thing about swimming is walking out of the ready room to a crowd of screaming people.”

As she walked out to a packed house at the Duna Arena for the 100 breast final, King was ready to step up.

Meanwhile, for Efimova, things went off the rails immediately. Efimova got off to a terrible start and was instantly a half-bodylength behind Meilutyte on one side of her and King on the other.

The typically slow-starting Efimova was left scrambling to catch up. By the halfway mark, she was in second place, just a half-second behind King. But there wasn’t anything left in the tank, and King was pulling away.

King touched in 1:04.13. She had not just beaten Meilutyte’s record—she had demolished it. In a scene all too familiar to those who watched the 100 breast final one year earlier in Rio, King smashed the water before paddling away from a thoroughly-beaten Efimova to embrace her exuberant American teammate, Katie Meili.

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

With all the pressure on, King had again come through and delivered the best swim of her career, an effort she “absolutely” knew that she was capable of.

“I push 33-mids, 33-lows in practice, so I at least had a 34-low on the way home, so I knew that was in the tank,” she said.

Don’t be mistaken—this was the most pressure she has ever been under. No, a World Champs final is not an Olympic final, but before she swam in Rio, King was a rookie, the one chasing reigning World Champion Efimova. This time, the target was on her back.

No, she wasn’t the fastest seed or the fastest split, but she was the defending Olympic gold medalist. That won’t change for another four years, and certainly the favorite status doesn’t disappear after less than 12 months. And still, she delivered.

“It’s amazing,” Meili said. “1:04.1 speaks for itself, and it’s just an honor to share the pool with her. She’s an incredible breaststroker, and it’s amazing to see her get in and go faster every time she races.”

“You all know what Lilly’s capable of doing,” Katie Ledecky said. “Her confidence is so impressive, and it’s infectious for the whole team. She always delivers. We knew she could pull that out.”

While King had put up the swim of her life, Efimova had cracked. The pressure was on her, too, perhaps more than ever before. And she faded down the stretch, her second 50 split of 34.71 more than a second slower than she had swum in the semi-finals. And that allowed Meili to sneak in and steal the silver.

King was pumped for her world record and gold medal, but her grin widened when she saw who had finished second. Meili had posted a time of 1:05.03, making her the sixth-fastest woman in history. Among those she passed on the all-time list: 2008 Olympic gold medalist and Australian legend Leisel Jones.

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

“I knew it was going to be an intense race, a showdown,” Meili said. “I was just hoping to stay in my own lane, do the best I could. I told myself no matter the outcome, I was going to be proud of myself when I touched the wall, and I was just a little extra happy that I got a silver medal.”

Meili is 26, six years older than King, and the two are nearly opposite personalities—King brash and out-spoken, Meili quiet and, according to King, “literally the nicest person I’ve ever met.” While King has built up a rivalry with Efimova with her words as much as her swimming, Meili prefers to keep to herself, out of the spotlight.

But Meili has watched her younger teammate show poise in the biggest moments and has picked up a thing or two herself.

“What I don’t have in dramatic flair and showmanship, I learn from her,” Meili said. “I might not be the most confident, and certainly, though she’s almost seven years younger than me, I’m learning from her every time I race her.”

In some ways, Meili’s performance may be just as notable or perhaps more impressive than King’s. She’s headed to law school at Georgetown this fall, and while she insists she is not retiring, her future in the sport is murky.

At an age when so few swimmers, particularly females, keep improving, Meili has bucked the odds, and if she doesn’t swim at another World Championships or Olympics, that’s not a bad way to go out.

But King insured that the spotlight would focus on her and Efimova on night three in Budapest. Really, that was guaranteed as soon as the drama of the Rio Olympic final had concluded.

“I love it. We get a lot of rivalries in other sports—football, basketball and sports like that. Swimming we see a lot of really nice people,” King said. “That’s great and all, but that’s not my personality.”

Even Efimova, at this point, has come to accept and embrace that rivalry—even if she would prefer that King speak to her before the two race each other.

“Why not? It’s exactly what I need,” she said. “It’s so much more pressure, but it makes it fun and interesting to watch.”

But at this point, it seems like a stretch to call King vs. Efimova a “rivalry.” To fit that bill, each of the two parties has to win, at least occasionally, and Efimova has never beaten King in the 100 breast in a major championship meet.

Time after time, King has delivered in the biggest moments, but never quite like she did in Budapest.

18 comments

  1. Vicki Marsh

    Kickin ass!!!! You are awesome lily!!! Love it!!!

    • Sandy Drake

      You should have seen her stare her down when they were standing at the blocks. You could feel the dislike.

  2. Adrian Hyland

    Justice for clean athletes everywhere! Efimova & all the other drug cheats can be beaten!!!

    • Brett Davies

      Totally agree with you. There is no place for cheaters in this sport and it makes me very happy to see that not only Lilly beat her but Mieli as well.

    • Rich Davis

      This is what happens when these kind of athletes are not in drugs. They lose. Unfortunately she did get a Bronze, cheating the rest of the field behind her.

  3. Darrell Reed

    Well done Lilly! Nice to see you have the class not to wag your finger anymore! Go team USA ??

  4. avatar

    Grinning Ear to Ear…..nuff said….oh yeah……I forgot….WOW….

  5. Tony Schorr

    Congratulations Lily!! I think her competitors have learned it’s not good to fire her up, she will rise to the occasion and pressure!!!

  6. Hannah Davies

    Congratulations Lily. Great to show that clean can win