Lilly King has always been one to speak her mind.
If it rubs people the wrong way, so be it.
“That’s just who she is,” said her dad, Mark King. “It’s not a show for the media. It’s not a show for television. It’s authentic.”
The 20-year-old made quite an impression at last year’s Rio Olympics, calling out Russian star Yulia Efimova for a history of doping violations, and she has no intention of holding her tongue heading into another summer of big meets.
The U.S. nationals begin Tuesday in Indianapolis, leading up to next month’s world championships at Budapest, Hungary.
In the staid world of swimming, where the idea of staying in your lane usually extends beyond the pool, King is one of the most outspoken exceptions.
“It’s a very P.C., country club kind of sport,” King said, rolling her eyes. “I’m not very P.C. or country club myself.”
Even before she won an Olympic gold medal, King’s college coach knew she wasn’t the average swimmer — in or out of the water.
“That’s what I was afraid of when I first met her,” Ray Looze of Indiana University said bluntly. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a handful.’ She was fairly outspoken. She has a real good sense of right and wrong. She can’t stand cheaters and dopers. They just rub her the wrong way.”
King made that clear to the entire world last summer when she faced Efimova, the reigning world champion and a symbol of Russia’s massive doping operation, a swimmer who had already served a 16-month suspension and was allowed to compete despite another positive test.
The young American glared at her rival, wagged a finger, treated her with complete disdain. She flatly stated that Efimova — and those like her — had no business at the Olympics. Then, King went out and beat her .
It had the feel of an MMA fight, not a swimming race.
For King, it was merely the right thing to do. If she faces Efimova again in Budapest, there won’t be any backing down.
“It’s sad someone has to say it,” King grumbled. “We shouldn’t have to say, ‘Hey, don’t cheat.’ That’s kind of idiotic to me that I even have to be the person to do that. But I’m fine with it. It’s really not that hard of a job. Just reciting facts.”
Also, having a rival such as Efimova tends to bring out the best in King. Growing up in Evansville, Indiana, one of her favorite athletes was renowned NBA trash talker Reggie Miller, who starred for the home-state Pacers.
She still gushes when she talks about getting a chance to befriend Miller after the Olympics.
“I’m an Indiana girl, and he’s like the trash-talk idol,” King said, breaking into a huge smile. “We actually got to hang out a little bit. He’s my buddy now. We’ve got each other’s back.”
Sometimes, King goes a bit too far.
At the NCAA championships, Looze cringed when he heard King explain her success by flatly declaring that she trains harder than anyone else.
The coach pulled her aside afterward for a little chat.
“Lilly, that may be true,” Looze told her. “But please think about how that comes out. You’ve already got a target on your back, trust me.”
King pondered the advice ever so briefly, then came back with a retort that epitomized her feisty nature.
“Yeah, but I swim better that way,” she insisted.
Looze couldn’t really argue with that.
He also knows that King has plenty to say about issues beyond swimming.
“That political election last year, man, I knew not to bring that up,” Looze said, chuckling. “Let’s just put it this way: She was bitterly disappointed with the election.”
King’s father points to a very specific time when Lilly’s confidence merged with her burgeoning swimming career. She was 12 years old, just coming off a bit of a growth spurt, when she headed to the state age-group championships seeded in the top 10 in the 100 breast.
“I’m gonna win, I’m gonna win,” the youngster kept saying over and over between sessions.
Lilly’s parents chuckled at her bravado.
“You want your child to be confident,” Mark King said. “We’re like, ‘OK, hun. Just do your best. Whatever happens, happens.’ Well, she went out and won. I think that’s kind of the point when she connected positive thinking with positive performance. It never really left her after that.”
Like many Olympic athletes, King went through a letdown after Rio. At the short course world championships last December, she was upset by Jamaica’s Alia Atkinson in the 100 breast.
“She wasn’t in the best shape and she got beat,” Looze said. “I think it was the best thing for her.”
Like flipping a switch, King stepped up her training and quickly regained the form that brought her a gold medal. She’s got her sights on breaking the world record in the 100 breast, currently held by Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte with a time of 1 minute, 4.35 seconds, at the 2013 world championships. King’s winning time in Rio was more than a second slower.
She also wants to show major improvement in the 200 breast by the time the next Olympics roll around. King qualified for the longer event in Rio, but failed to even make it through to the final.
Looze can’t wait to see her performance in Budapest.
“Right now, she looks as good as she’s ever looked. She’s in a great place mentally, recharged, excited,” the coach said. “She’s really excited to go to Budapest. She wants to race Yulia again, and whoever else comes along.”
Rest assured, King will let everyone know what’s on her mind.
Wonder what she’ll say next?
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
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