Before the Beep: How Olympic Champion Lilly King Prepares For a Big Race


From the June issue of Swimming World Magazine, Lilly King discusses some of her pre-meet routines, including how she handles herself in the ready room.

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Lilly King, world-record holder in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke, is not one for subtleties. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, her first Olympic appearance as a 19-year-old, King was projected into the mainstream media when a “finger wag” directed at Russian rival Yuliya Efimova was filmed and went viral. King’s “wag”—after watching Efimova’s winning prelims swim in the 100 breaststroke—wasn’t merely for show. King went on to secure gold for Team USA in the 100 breaststroke in Olympic-record time (1:04.93).

That brazen confidence may rub some competitors the wrong way, but it hasn’t let King down. Over the course of her collegiate career representing the Indiana Hoosiers, King went 8-for-8 at NCAAs in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke. Only one other person in history has accomplished that historic feat—six-time Olympic medalist and former world record holder/University of Texas alum Brendan Hansen. King’s incredible performances in the pool were key factors in the Hoosiers winning the B1G Team Title in 2019, one of King’s proudest accomplishments.

At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, King admits to having both the best—and possibly worst—swims of her life over the course of the meet. King was favored to win gold in the 100 breaststroke, but brought home bronze with a 1:05.54. The gold medal went to fellow USA teammate Lydia Jacoby (1:04.95). Despite swimming slower than her personal best in the 100 breaststroke, King approached the 200 breaststroke with her trademark confidence, and it paid off with a silver medal and personal best swim of 2:19.92.

“(My philosophy on mental preparation) hasn’t really evolved much, which in some sense is very cool. For example, after preparing for my best event and swimming—quite possibly—my worst in the 100 breaststroke in Tokyo, my philosophy didn’t change,” said King. “I continued to mentally prepare for my best in the 200 breaststroke, and it paid off in one of the best swims of my career.”

After graduating from college in 2019, King went on to represent the Cali Condors and compete in the International Swimming League (ISL). She continues to be one of the strongest competitors in the pool in the breaststroke events.

Outside of her busy schedule, King took the time to share some wisdom with Swimming World about preparing mentally and physically for the “big race.”


While some swimmers have rituals that include the same dinner, bedtime, stretching routine and visualization time the night before a big race, King finds that the only “ritual” she has is making sure she is around friends.

“I need to be around friends if it is before a really serious race,” she says. “Friends are the best distractors!”

Additionally, King doesn’t set aside a specific time to prepare mentally for a race, instead finding that the best use of her time is to continually think positively about the outcome of her big race.

“It’s a little weird because I am always preparing for the race. I am constantly thinking about the outcome I want to achieve. I also only think about the best-case scenario, which I find not a lot of others do. I really try to only think about the positives.”


The morning of the race, expect to find King shaking things out at the pool. “I am a wake-up swim person. I don’t do wake-up swims before prelims, but if I only have a finals session or an ISL session at night, catch me at the pool in the morning.”

King’s morning swim routine consists of approximately 1,000 to 1,500 of easy stretch-out swimming followed by something explosive, but not tiring. A typical wake-up swim could be 5 x 300s swim-kick-pull-swim followed by a dive or two with a long glide. Then it’s back to the hotel for a nap.

King returns to the pool for her big race hours before she’s set to swim. A self-proclaimed early bird, King takes advantage of the time to socialize with everyone on deck.

“I will stall until the very last minute talking to people on deck,” says King. “There are times when I will get to the pool two-and-a-half to three hours before I race and not touch the water until an hour before I go off. I just like to have time to be social, but also stretch and get into the ‘feel’ of the meet.”

As time edges closer to her actual race, King hops into the warm-up pool, still full of positive energy.

“My favorite feeling in warmup is the classic, ‘Lilly, there’s no way I’m going to lose this race.’ It’s only happened a few times in my career, but there is no better feeling!”


King’s ready room ritual is as fluid as her breaststroke. Not having a ritual makes it easy for King to feel out the energy of the room and use it to her advantage.

“At a Pro Swim meet, I’m probably going to be chatting and messing around with my friends until the race. At Olympic Trials, I might be pretty serious and try to intimidate people before we hit the water,” says King. “I am game for either of the extremes. I am very comfortable in a light, chatty ready room or a very tense, quiet ready room where I feel like I am in complete control of the room. I just don’t love the in-betweens.”


King practices hard day-in and day-out so that when she’s stepping up to the blocks, her mind is clear. Looking around at her competitors, King slaps her body and jumps around. King also adopted a ritual just before she steps up for her race from the one and only Michael Phelps.

“I will always get on the blocks last, and I will wait for people to get up before me. Then, I slap my leg a couple times just so everyone knows I’m there. I always loved how Michael Phelps would do the arm slap before his races, and I wanted to adopt something similar for myself.”

Once King is in the pool, the last thing she does is stick to her race. Instead, King studies her competitors to know how they will swim their races. She then adjusts her race plan to fit whatever will win the race that day.

“I have found that swimmers are creatures of habit, which greatly inhibits their racing skills,” says King. “Switching up the race plan is fun to do because it keeps me entertained, and my competitors never know how I’m going to swim my race.”

* * *

King has had a wildly successful career, and isn’t planning on slowing down anytime soon. This fits with her personal philosophy of always preparing for the best and never thinking about bad things that could happen. When asked what advice she would give to young swimmers, the world record holder doesn’t hesitate to offer the following:

“Don’t doubt yourself, and be open to the possibilities a strong mindset can bring. It might sound crazy, but I have talked myself into winning several races where I knew I was not the best swimmer. Your mind is a powerful tool that should be utilized to its fullest!”

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