In Weathering Disappointment, Lilly King Leads by Example for Team USA

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Lydia Jacoby (USA), Tatjana Schoenmaker (RSA) and Lilly King (USA) react after finishing first, second and third in the women's 100m breaststroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Lilly King, right, with Lydia Jacoby Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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In Weathering Disappointment, Lilly King Leads by Example for Team USA

Lilly King wasn’t happy when it came time to accept the medals for the women’s 100 breaststroke at the Tokyo Olympics.

The reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder slid to the bronze-medal position in the race, behind 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby and South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker. After not losing a race in the 100 for five years, King found herself on the third step of the podium at the pinnacle of racing.

What King, whose style of brash vocal leadership has brought her in for criticism from time to time, did next is exactly what you’d want from a veteran leader.

King suppressed her personal disappointment, not letting it overshadow her teammate. She then bounced back to garner silver in the 200 breast, plus a silver from prelims in the women’s 400 medley relay. She leaves Tokyo with three medals, one more than Rio, though the 2016 result was double gold. And on a young women’s team with a blindingly bright future, King’s leadership is magnified.

King’s reaction to the 100 breast was perfect for her and perfect for the moment. Of course she wasn’t happy with bronze in that situation; you wouldn’t want someone of King’s pedigree to be satisfied in that instance. That competitive fire not to settle is why King is such a tenacious competitor.

How she handled it, though, was beyond gracious.

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Lydia Jacoby (USA) and Lilly King (USA) show off their medals during the medals ceremony for the women's 100m breaststroke during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Lydia Jacoby, left, and Lilly King with their medals from the women’s 100 breast; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

“Obviously I was very excited for Lydia for that 100 but very disappointed for myself, but didn’t want to show her that because she needed to be able to celebrate that moment and have her moment,” King said after the 200. “I was kind of stuck after that 100 almost in shock, and at one point I was like, I just want to make the semifinal of the 2-breast.”

King also managed, with a microphone in front of her, to make news. After her silver in the 200 breast, with training partner and friend Annie Lazor in bronze, King opined on the value of medals of the non-gold variety. Her soundbite required reaction from swimmers and athletes across Tokyo.

“That we don’t celebrate silver and bronze is (BS),” King said. “What is that about? You have to bring a medal for your country. Maybe we have extremely high standards. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we haven’t been celebrating silver and bronze as much as gold. But I might be more happy with this medal that with any of my previous medals, including the two golds in Rio.

“We really should celebrate those medals, because it is one of the best moments in an athlete’s career. Why would we not celebrate that?”

In a Games where athlete empowerment is central, King’s point strikes to the heart of it. It’s about control of the narrative, about getting to choose the verb “earning” or “winning” instead of “settling” for a medal. It’s an acknowledgement of the nuances of a nine-day meet after a five-year wait, that King could be thrilled about silver in the 200, an event in which she isn’t a dominant force, and be bummed about bronze in the 100.

King’s comments got plenty of support from teammates. It played into discussions over Katie Ledecky’s meet, the distance star scoffing at the notion that silver in a phenomenal duel with Ariarne Titmus in the 400 free was a downer. With the withdrawal of Simone Biles from gymnastics competition, and the realization of how heavily the gold-or-bust pressure weighed on her, King’s perspective is even more valuable. The prospect of gold and gold alone mattering sets an unrealistic standard to meet. (Through the lens of swimming, where both American qualifiers are generally medal threats, gold or bust automatically makes one a failure. Who would sign up for that?)

“I think gold is always the goal,” said a teary Abbey Weitzeil after silver in the 400 free relay and eighth in the 50 free on a busy final day. “We have high standards on Team USA and for ourselves. It hits you at the wall when you don’t see the gold next to your team. But even now, a few minutes after, taking the perspective of, like Lydia said, we’re racing the best in the world and we’re so close to getting gold.

“We’re just so proud of ourselves. You’ve got to walk away proud.”

U.S. women’s head coach Greg Meehan seemed to both support King’s assertion while hitting back at her premise.

“We celebrate any medal that’s earned,” he said. “There is no disappointment and no shame with walking away from any event as an Olympic bronze medalist or an Olympic silver medalist. Of course you want to finish with a gold medal, but this meet is hard enough. And I think if the expectation is ‘gold or disappointment,’ that’s no way to go. You go in, you attack each race as best you can and those performances got us to 30 medals, and that’s pretty darn good.”

Perhaps that gold-or-bust mentality is overstated. Perhaps it just took Lilly King speaking up to put the notion out there and dispel it once and for all.

But for King, who already leads by example plenty, to step into the line of fire and express what she was feeling, something that many other athletes also likely felt, and bring it into the light is the epitome of her leadership.