Whether it’s on the starting blocks before a race, or addressing wider issues within her sport, the 100m breaststroke Olympic champion relishes the opportunity to confront adversaries head on.
“I joke that I act like a guy, speaking my mind on something, calling out something I don’t like, being intimidating on the [starting] blocks,” she told the LA Times.
“It’s been a challenge acting like I normally do but being criticised for that. You’re seen as being cocky or arrogant, while a guy doing that is seen as being a leader.”
A lack of female role models
King’s forthright persona likely stems from her parents, Mark and Ginny, who encouraged their daughter to speak her mind from a young age.
Her early mentor in the sport was four-time Olympic champion Janet Evans, who instilled in King the mantra that the hardest working swimmer will always beat the most talented.
"That has stuck with me since I was eight years old," the Indiana native told Digital Journal. "Stay true to yourself and put the time in the pool. Talk to your coaches, trust the process and stick to your guns."
These lessons were to form the foundations of her disdain for doping cheats later on in her career.
But while Evans encouraged King to quietly outwork her opponents, the young prodigy still felt that her sport lacked female role models who wanted to openly stand up to injustice.
“I knew I was taking a difficult path by being myself. Swimmers are typically more on the quiet side. They don’t feel the need to upset anyone.” - Lilly King
“They want us to be nice and be humble, and in reality the great athletes aren’t always like that all the time. We’re fierce and competitive and we’re angry when we do poorly. To hide that is a disservice to women in sports.”
Lilly King’s clash with Yulia Efimova
King decided she wouldn’t conform to type.
Her Instagram bio reads 'Master of Disguise’, but there was nothing under cover at the Rio 2016 Olympics when she lashed out against Yulia Efimova, who had previously served a 16-month doping ban prior to another failed test just before the Games.
As the Russian celebrated winning her 100m breaststroke semi-final, the cameras panned onto King who was watching the race backstage on TV, wagging her finger at the screen in disapproval.
When later asked about her reaction towards Efimova, she simply replied: “You’ve been caught for drug-cheating. I’m not a fan.”
Before their hotly-anticipated showdown in the final, King was seen glaring at her rival in the call room and on the blocks, before pipping her rival to the gold medal in an Olympic-record time. King's celebratory slap of the water in Efimova’s lane spoke a thousand words.
Some critics felt King was simply anti-Russian, but she quickly put those insinuations to bed. When quizzed over whether Justin Gatlin, the sprinter who has also failed two drugs tests should also be sent home, her response was bullish and consistent.
“Should people who have been caught for doping issues be on the team? No they shouldn’t,” she said. “There shouldn’t be any bouncing back and forth.”
King’s comments were mirrored by 23-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps, who said that the sport had reached breaking point.
“You’re probably going to see a lot of people speaking up more,” the most decorated Olympian of all time said. “I think something needs to be done. It’s sad that today in sports in general, there are people who are testing positive who are allowed back in the sport — and multiple times. It breaks my heart and I wish somebody would do something about it.”
A change in the sporting landscape
Phelps was right. Fast forward to 2019, and King had started to notice a change in the sporting landscape where speaking out was becoming more prevalent.
When the USA women lifted the last year's football World Cup, she felt synergy with the message some of her compatriots were conveying.
“I never really had that person who I could watch on TV who was like me,” she said. “Goofy. Didn’t always say the right thing. Stood up for the right thing. Last summer, I saw a glimmer of hope in that area.” - Lilly King on USA's football World Cup win.
USA co-captain Megan Rapinoe revealed that she wouldn’t be ‘going to the … White House.’
“That was something I really connected with. Their whole confidence and swag as a team. They way they carry themselves and have fun. … They’re kind of like me.”
Fearless in the water
Although committed to standing up for what she feels is right outside the pool, the two-time breaststroke world record holder has never lost focus from her main goal: winning.
Since becoming Olympic champ in Brazil, King has won back-to-back 50m breaststroke, 100m breaststroke, and 4x100m medley relay world titles, while she was the only swimmer to go undefeated across multiple races (16) in the inaugural International Swimming League in 2019. She has even let relations with Efimova thaw to a point where she was willing to acknowledge her on the world’s podium in Gwangju.
She was so focussed on her swimming in fact, that even during the COVID-19 lockdown King ensured she didn’t lose her edge by training in a local pond!
Tokyo 2020 and beyond
At 23-years-old and in the prime of her career, King took a philosophical approach to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics postponement.
"I was not ever planning on retiring after 2020, so obviously I was going to keep swimming,” she said. “This year’s postponement hasn’t been too big of an issue.”
The US Olympic Team Trials - which every swimmer must qualify through - have already been rescheduled for June 2021.
“I’ve been competing in meets, probably one a month, since I was eight years old," King continued. "It’s definitely strange, but I am kind of getting used to the break. Hope that everything is going to be okay, because in the end, everything is going to be fine. We’re going to go back to normal, and you’ll get back in the pool eventually, so it will be alright.”