By Mike Watkins // Contributor | Friday, September 22, 2017
Ever since the Olympics last summer, Lilly King has been nearly as famous for her feud with Yuliya Efimova as she has for her swimming.
Never one to back down from a challenge, personal conviction or perceived wrongdoing, the Indiana University sophomore – who has established herself as the best sprint breaststroker in the world over the past two years – sees her “disagreement” with her Russian rival as fuel for her own personal fire.
Not that she needs it.
“I’ve never been one to shy away from something I believe in or think is right or wrong,” said King, the 2016 Olympic champion in the 100 breaststroke in Rio. “We generally make it a point to stay away from one another at meets, but what I did in Rio, I still stand by today. It’s what I felt and what I still feel.”
Her dispute with Efimova – the 2015 World Champion – surfaced in Rio when the Russian, who had tested positive for a banned substance earlier in the year and had tested positive in the past as well, was allowed to compete just days before the start of the Games.
King took offense to this – labeling her as a cheater and infamously waving her finger at the TV monitor after one of Efimova’s races – never being silent about the blatant injustice she saw.
While some may have been intimidated or offended by this, for King, the controversy only stoked her desire to prove she was the best – no performance-enhancing drugs needed.
And when she passed Efimova and her posse on the pool deck during pre-meet training in Rio and overheard them laughing, possibly at her, King didn’t need much more to motivate her.
She’s been that way since she was little.
“I don’t need much to get me excited about something; I’ve always had my own internal push,” she said. “I’ve always had tremendous respect for my coaches, but my coaches have often told me I could have coached myself. That’s how motivated and devoted I’ve always been about my swimming. I’ve always done much better when there’s pressure involved.”
After defending her NCAA titles in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke events this spring, King took her National and international results to new, unprecedented heights this summer.
In winning the 50, 100 and 200 breast events at Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in Indianapolis in June/July, King competed in all three events at FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
She went on to win four gold medals at Worlds – the 50 and 100 breast and 400 medley and 200 mixed medley relays. On top of that, she returned to the states with four new world records – further establishing herself as one of the premier swim and sports names in the world.
Having accomplished so much already – she’s not even 21 yet – the question of what’s next or left for King to do in the pool that she hasn’t already done.
True to form, she already has her next set of goals in mind – and she’ll do whatever she needs to make them happen.
She’s hard-wired that way.
“I’ve made some steady progress and improvement in the 200 breast on an international level over the past year since the Olympics, but there’s still work to be done there,” she said. “I want that world record, too, so that’s my next goal. I feel like it’s definitely within reach.”
She’s already made great progress in the event – finishing fourth at this year’s Worlds and just missed earning a medal. That’s a vast improvement over the Olympics last year, where she missed making the finals altogether.
Still, as a World Championship team member, despite it only being her fourth international team (her first was at the 2015 World University Games, where she won silver in the 100 breast), King said she took on a new role as a mentor this year.
Possessing leadership skills since she was young, King said she relished the role of helping out the younger and new athletes.
As an aspiring future teacher and coach, it fits her nurturing, instructive personality.
“Last year, I felt like more of a rookie, but this time, I was a veteran on the team and I was excited to be in that role,” said King, who won four gold medals and one silver medal at Short Course World Championships last winter in Windsor, Ontario.
“Having been new to the team last year, I understand what they were experiencing, so it was great to answer their questions and help out where I can.”
King also said she’s spent time over the past year refining her technique – working on her turns and pull-outs to drop time and “clean up sloppy swims,” which she said she had last summer even during her gold medal swim at the Olympics.
She said she’s also worked on not trying so hard in the first 50 of her 100 breast race – not going out so hard and having to hold on at the event when fatigue takes over.
“I just feel more experienced how to handle my races now, and that’s because I’ve worked on these things a lot in practice,” she said. “I’m now being more strategic with my races, and that’s made me a smarter, faster racer.”
And as far as whether or not all the success she’s enjoyed the past couple of years has impacted or changed her, King said she’s still the same Lilly she’s always been.
“I live with a friend from high school, and she tells me I’m still the same, and I trust her,” King said. “If anything is different about me, it’s that, despite swimming being a very individual sport, I’ve really learned what it means to be a teammate.
“Don’t get me wrong – the individual medals and records are great – but when you get to experience that with teammates on a relay, there’s nothing quite like it. It’s definitely more special because it’s bigger than just you. It’s your school or your country – and that has a different, deeper meaning.”