Morning Splash by David Rieder.
The pressure was on like never before. Lilly King had watched one night earlier as her biggest rival, Yulia Efimova, had missed the world record in the 100 breast semi-finals at the FINA World Championships by just one hundredth of a second. Now, it was on her, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, to step up her game.
While Efimova froze on the blocks, King powered into the lead and was in control the entire race. She finished in 1:04.13, winning gold and setting the first world record of her career.
“That’s what I love about swimming,” King said afterwards. “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.”
Everyone inside the Danube Arena—and everyone following the meet around the world—could see the pattern developing. In the biggest moments, when she knew she had major competition, King would step up her game.
She had done just that at the Olympic Games in Rio one year earlier, and even at her first two NCAA championship meets, she had been at her best when she knew she would be threatened.
“That’s amazing,” said Ray Looze, the head coach at Indiana University and King’s coach for the past two years. “Every time her back is against the wall, the more you corner her, the better she is.”
The “clutch gene?” Probably not an actual thing—despite what plenty of sports commentators would have viewers believe—but King has certainly shown a habit of stepping up when she needs to. Looze has figured that out.
“I’m learning that you can dial up the pressure on her a little bit,” he explained.
King had not been considered a serious possibility to swim on the U.S. mixed 400 medley relay in Budapest, but her stunning performance in the 100 breast final forced the U.S. coaches to make a change for that relay, scheduled for the next day.
But there was still concern—King had been lackluster during her only other experience on a major relay (the women’s 400 medley relay in Rio). If she was off again, there was a good chance the American team could get buried with all other countries deploying men on the breaststroke leg.
So Looze, a member of the U.S. women’s coaching staff, came up with a plan to force King out of her comfort zone and—hopefully—get her to swim fast. He approached U.S. women’s head coach Greg Meehan.
“I go,’ You go up to Lilly, and you tell her exactly the time you want. Dial it up on her. You’ve got the green light from me. She won’t have a problem,’” Looze recalled. “So he went up to her and demanded, ‘I want a 1:04-flat.’”
King just missed that mark, splitting 1:04.15, but that was plenty quick enough to allow Caeleb Dressel to take control of the race for the Americans on the fly leg.
Growing into a Superstar
As impressive as were King’s efforts both in Rio and one year later in Budapest, the path from one peak to the other came with its share of hiccups.
She returned from the Olympics as much of a celebrity as any swimmer not named Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin or Katie Ledecky could be after wagging her finger and then calling Efimova for her checkered history with anti-doping violations.
All the attention King attracted was tough for her to take, and Looze saw that up close.
“The first part of the year was really hard,” Looze said. “She goes places, and 10 people will run up to her. She’s somewhat of a personality. I wouldn’t say she’s a superstar—most swimmers aren’t—but when people come up to here and they know who she is, they ask for autographs, pictures.”
So she grew up. She had no choice. And by the summer, it was obvious to all watching up close—the 19-year-old from Rio had become a 20-year-old.
Compare her words from after her semi-final races at the Olympics and then one year later at the World Championships.
2016: “I don’t mind if I’m stirring it up. That’s just my personality… It was the IOC’s decision [to allow Efimova to compete], and I’m going to respect that decision, even if it’s something I don’t agree with.”
2017: “I’m always looking at results from the heat before, and I saw the little finger wag. I saw it. Just motivating me more, so that’s okay. It’s going to be a really great race tomorrow, so I’m excited to see what happens.”
In Budapest, there was no more of the “Efimova should not be here” talk. In fact, King and Efimova were cordial after the race. The way Looze interpreted that, King was being polite and mature—but she still believes everything she said in Rio about swimmers who have tested positive.
“She thinks about what she’s going to say more,” Looze said. “She’ll still pull teammates and coaches aside and say what she really wants to say because she’s got a lot to say. If you ever got her unfiltered, it would be the best interview ever because she’s got really strong views on doping that are phenomenal.”
It’s unlikely that King will go off on those who have violated anti-doping rules anymore. Her coach, on the other hand, was less careful with his words.
“Because USA Swimming is so successful, we don’t have the motivation as a country to make a stand. USA Swimming is the best swimming country in the world, and I’d really like to see them make a stand,” Looze said.
“They didn’t want Lilly speaking up in Rio against doping, and I advised her not to, and she did. We all know what happened. I talked to (U.S. women’s Olympic team head coach) David Marsh, and we decided that we were going to support her because that’s what we believe, too.”
King and Looze are on the same page when it comes to doping, yes, but it’s clear by now that the connection they’ve built includes more than simply shared opinions.
In two years working together, King has rapidly become the dominant sprint breaststroker in the world, and she’s made massive improvements in the 200 breast, as well—she went from outside the final at the Olympic Games to fourth in the event at the World Championships.
At the NCAA level, King has never lost a breaststroke race and has clobbered the American records in both the 100 and 200-yard events.
Sure, she was a talent coming out of high school in Evansville, Ind., but who could have seen something like this coming two years ago?
A talented swimmer responding to good coaching? Yes, but probably more than just that. For King and Looze, it’s more of a partnership. And in the biggest moments of King’s career, it’s been obvious just how strong that partnership has grown.