Lilly King Growing Up as She Reaches Conclusion of Her NCAA Career

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In four years of coaching Lilly King at Indiana, Ray Looze can remember two occasions when King cried. The first came a few months after King won Olympic gold in the 100 breast, when the post-Games letdown and the prospect of establishing a new normal in life became too much for the then-19-year-old.

The other time Looze saw King reduced to tears was at this year’s Big Ten Championships, when the Hoosiers defeated heavily-favored Michigan to win a conference title in their home pool in Bloomington.

“I had never won a team title in anything,” King said. “Not in high school swimming, not in age group swimming, never. The only team thing I would have won before would have been, like, a dual meet. I was really kind of overcome with emotion—after diving, once we realized we were going to win, once it was for sure, after three years of getting destroyed.”

King was teary-eyed on the last day of the meet as Indiana closed in on victory, only to break down completely when she saw diver Jessica Parratto, a sixth-year senior and the only other U.S. Olympian on the Indiana team, in tears herself. King called the title “probably one of my favorite moments of my career so far.”

For the first time this season, Looze saw King embrace a leadership role on the Indiana team, stepping out of her usual place as the point-scorer who modeled both excellence and self-confidence for her younger teammates but rarely vocalized anything. The coach’s voice flushed with pride as he spoke about King’s transformation.

“Lilly has been great at taking care of Lilly, and that’s what great athletes do—they take care of themselves,” Looze said. “But she really took care of her freshmen and her teammates. I’ve never seen her leadership any better.”

King still considers herself “a big goofball who likes to have fun,” but she has grown up. The crucible of the Olympics and what came after forced her to.

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King at the 2016 Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

When King thinks back on her experience almost three years ago in Rio, she realizes that “I had no clue what was going on.” She remembers eating McDonalds at nearly every meal during the Games, standing in line for a half-hour each time, and she spent each night exploring the Olympic Village in hopes of acquiring pins from non-U.S. athletes.

And yet, she won. Twice, actually, with golds in the 100 breast and as a member of the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay. “I had convinced myself that I was going to win, and I did,” King recalls now.

But the moment that forced her to grow up faster than she had ever planned came the night before her golden swim. After Russia’s Yulia Efimova won the first semi-final of the women’s 100 breast, NBC cameras captured King wagging her finger at a television screen in the ready room showing video of Efimova.

And after King posted a quicker time to win the second semi-final heat, she told a captive TV audience in a post-race interview that because of Efimova’s checkered history with banned substances, the Russian didn’t deserve to be competing in Rio.

“It was quite literally overnight that I became famous or whatever,” King said. “I remember before my semi-final of 100 breast, I went over to the pool and I had 5000 followers on Instagram. I came back, and I had 30,000 followers on Instagram. It was insane.”

And then when King returned from Brazil, she realized that seemingly everyone in her hometown of Evansville, Ind., knew exactly who she was. She found that going out to eat with her family was no longer a peaceful experience, and she began wearing a hat or sunglasses in public to hide her face.

“In Bloomington, it wasn’t really an issue—people would say hi, and that was it,” King said. “But when I would go home to Evansville, people would lose their minds. They would stop and say, ‘I don’t mean to bug you.’ ‘Okay, but you’re bugging me.’”

Shortly after the Olympics, King attended an age group swim meet to visit with her old club coach and old teammates. Instead of a relaxing reunion, she found herself pinned up against the wall signing autographs and taking pictures.

“At the time, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m old enough to handle this,’ which I was, but thinking about the kids on our team who are 19 going through that, like our freshman, it’s kind of crazy.”

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Now a senior at Indiana, King will head to this month’s NCAA championships with a chance at another slice of history—becoming the first woman to sweep both breaststroke events in four consecutive seasons. Previously, Stanford’s Tara Kirk won four straight titles in the 100 breast and three in the 200 breast, while USC’s Rebecca Soni won a pair of 100 breast titles to go along with her four 200 breast national championships.

“I’ve never thought about the glory of winning eight titles, but it just happened,” King said. “I won my freshman year, and I wanted to keep winning. It’ll be cool, and thinking that I’ll be the first one to do it is also pretty cool. Knowing what I put into those swims and knowing what happened behind the scenes is pretty important to me.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

When she won as a freshman, King became the first swimmer to ever crack 57 in the 100-yard breast with her 56.85. With improvement always on her mind, King expected that she would soon break into 55-second territory. When she didn’t break 56 at her sophomore year NCAA championships, King said of her race, “it sucked.” One year later, after touching in 56.25 for a new American record, King said, “I kind of expected more from myself.”

That left her senior year, and King decided midway through the season that she wanted to break 56 for the first time in Bloomington at the Big Ten Championships. So she did, touching the wall in 55.88—a whopping 1.41 seconds quicker than the 57.23 that had been the American record when King began her collegiate career.

“It was just that feeling of, ‘Finally, I did it.’ Obviously, 55 is fast, but it doesn’t feel as fast as it should because in my head, I’ve been going 55 for so long. That’s all I’ve been thinking about, going 55,” King said. “It took a couple months of me telling myself that this was the week that I was going to break 55. It was so in my head that there was no way I wasn’t going to do it.”

At the NCAA championships, there should be little drama in the 100 breast, with King seeded first by 1.86 seconds. Texas A&M Aggies Anna Belousova and Sydney Pickrem could make the 200 breast a bit more competitive, but King’s American record of 2:02.60 is more than two seconds faster than the lifetime best of anyone else in the heat.

After that, King will become a professional swimmer and turn her attention full-time to long course. Looze expects that once King gets through the transition to the professional lifestyle, which can be tricky, that she will be the “perfect pro.”

“It’s a really cool time to be just turning pro,” King said. “We have so many new opportunities to swim, between the FINA (champions) series and ISL. We have all these new things that are happening, so I’m kind of excited about that, getting to race more and travel more. I’m excited I finally don’t have to talk to compliance when I need money. It’s kind of a new adventure for me.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

King admitted that she’s still irritated about a relatively disappointing summer of 2018, when she failed to top Efimova for the top time in the world in the 100 breast and finished second behind fellow American Micah Sumrall in the 200 breast at the Pan Pacific Championships. King’s attitude and focus soured with the knowledge that there was no showdown with Efimova waiting for her at the end of the summer.

How does she know that slippage won’t happen again when the stakes are bigger? Because King won’t allow it. That’s how she operates. When fully committed to a goal, like swimming the first 55-second 100-yard breast at the Big Ten Championships, she locks in.

“When it comes down to it, I’m going to swim fast when I need to swim fast,” King said. “I think with the circumstances of the meet this summer, I swam as well as I could. When it comes down to crunch time, I’ll be ready.”

But even with all this high-level swimming on the horizon—and the next Olympics just 16 months away—there’s another piece to King’s life right now, a four-hour chunk of her day where that killer instinct is absolutely useless. It’s a chunk of time when no one cares that she is the best breaststroker in the world.

The last bit of her undergraduate experience no longer includes going to class but rather teaching. King is a student-teacher, working with middle schoolers in physical education. King adores the group she works with, calling these teenagers and pre-teenagers “so much better than adults.”

This is the time when King can be her pure “goofball” self with no worries about public presentation or someone’s doping history.

“I love that when I go to school, it’s four hours every day where I don’t have to be Lilly King. I’m Ms. King. I’m their teacher. They don’t care that I’ve won this or that. They love that I’m verified on Instagram. I think that’s hilarious. It’s time to focus on other people and not myself,” King said. “It’s four hours where I don’t have to think about swimming.”

This real-world experience has provided some perspective—and even a dose of humility. Before the world again encounters Lilly King as a key Olympic actor in Tokyo, she’s embracing this chance to grow up.

11 comments

  1. avatar

    Makes me sad that Lilly King thinks her fans are bugging her. When she is no longer relevant to her fan base, then she will no longer be relevant to advertisers, which is what turning pro is all about! I remember Missy Franklin telling me she was counseled by an Olympic teammate to “enjoy every fan, every bit of excitement, for soon they will no longer know your name”

  2. Brent Lichty

    What a great article. Congrats Lilly on a great career so far with more to come.

  3. Andrea McHugh

    “OK, but your bugging me.” 🤦‍♀️ ~ wow

    • Denise Zimmerman Wood Ai

      Andrea McHugh I’ve seen people surround these athletes to a point where they are pinned in and have to have security make a way out. I totally understand her comment. Don’t judge unless you’ve been there.

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      I agree.Shes had a wonderful career and I hope she appreciates her fans now that she’s”grown up” rather than seeing them as an annoyance

    • Jason Titzer

      Andrea McHugh – the general public has no respect for privacy and personal space. When someone is out with their family, do they not deserve that privacy and space?

    • Andrea McHugh

      Jason Titzer I never ever said that! If she felt she was being “bugged” as I’m sure other athletes have as well at some point, there’s no need to say that, even in an interview. Personally, I know she’s not the most humble person and likes to put on a show in the pool. Many can attest to that. She’s amazingly talented in the pool….but shows poor sportsmanship and isn’t the most humble. Her saying she was being bugged….🤦‍♀️🙌🏻

  4. avatar
    Maureen

    I agree.Shes had a wonderful career and I hope she appreciates her fans now that she’s”grown up” rather than seeing them as an annoyance

  5. avatar

    not the best ambassador for our sport.

  6. avatar
    Redonto

    Why do I get this feeling that as a gym teacher, Lilly King is going to be like the gym teacher Balbricker in the Porky’s movie?

  7. avatar

    David — great article; especially liked the insights from Looze.

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