Lilly King's improbable journey to the finger-wagging frontline of swimming's Cold War

Pat Forde
Lilly King had the fastest semifinal time in the 100 breaststroke. (Getty Images)
Lilly King had the fastest semifinal time in the 100 breaststroke. (Getty Images)

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With a one-second wag of an index finger, Lilly King’s time as a rank-and-file Olympian – if there is such a thing – was over. Her Mutombo Moment went viral.

Suddenly she was a Cold War revivalist, an American telling controversial Russian breaststroke rival Yulia Efimova not to bring that positive-drug-test stuff around here. She was an international clean-sport hero, calling out a competitor who many believe has no place in these Olympic Games. She was a pot-stirring smack talker in a sport that hews more toward bland politeness.

But really, now: Was that just a TV snapshot that doesn’t tell a true story?
Does a freckle-faced teen from the American heartland honestly have that kind of sass and vinegar in her?

Uh, yes. She sure does.

Lilly King is one live wire. Friendly but fiery, with no filter and no apologies. If you deserve a finger wag, she’ll give it to you.

Go back a few years, to a practice with her club team in suburban Evansville, Ind. Lilly was 12 years old. The Newburgh Sea Creatures were finishing up a practice with a full-squad relay – all ages and both genders mixed. Just for fun.

On the final leg, Lilly’s team was in the lead and the race was in the bag. An older girl was swimming against a young boy and had a comfortable lead.

Then the girl slowed down and let the boy win. This display of sportsmanship did not sit well with one Sea Creature.

“Lilly absolutely lost it,” recalled Mike Chapman, King’s age-group coach. “She was yelling, ‘You never let anybody win! You always do your best!’ ”

Ask her parents, Mark and Ginny, about that episode and they nod and smile. Yes, that’s their girl.

“She’s ultra-competitive,” Mark said. “Her mindset is, if you want to win, you’ve got to earn it.”

So you can see where King’s sticking point would be with Efimova, whose two failed drug tests leave considerable doubt about her willingness to earn it the hard way. Efimova has served a 16-month doping suspension, and earlier this year she failed a test for the banned substance meldonium, though that result subsequently was overturned.

After originally being prohibited from competing in the Rio Games, Efimova was one of several Russian swimmers who were late entries to the meet after mounting challenges to their bans.

That hasn’t been a popular development here. Efimova was booed Sunday before and after her preliminary and semifinal swims in the 100-meter breaststroke – not the kind of reception you normally hear at an Olympic swim meet. Or any swim meet.

But widespread unpopularity hasn’t kept Efimova from performing well – she qualified second for the final, winning her heat. And it was the image of Efimova sticking an index finger in the air, which King watched on a TV monitor in the ready room, which provoked King’s finger wag in response.

Then she doubled down in a post-race interview with NBC, saying, “You’re shaking your finger ‘No. 1,’ and you’ve been caught for drug cheating,” King said. “I’m not a fan.”

So the 100 breaststroke final Monday night has suddenly taken on a tinge of Rocky vs. Drago. It will be compelling television and should be a heck of a race. King came in .04 seconds ahead of Efimova in qualifying.

But one of the things that’s lost in the heat of the moment is the remarkable fact that Lilly King is an Olympian and likely medalist. Because it’s hard to get from Evansville to here. She has defied the geographic and demographic odds.

Aaron Opell is sweating on the pool deck at Castle High School, where the Newburgh Sea Creatures train most of the year. Next to him is a giant green flip-flop covered in signatures.

It’s one of several flip-flops signifying the Brazil Olympics that have been signed by kids from around this city of 120,000. Evansville folds between bends of the Ohio River – hence its nickname, the “Pocket City” – and it has produced some great athletes. Bob Griese grew up here, and Don Mattingly, too.

Aaron Opell poses next to a flip-flop at the pool in Lily King's hometown. (Yahoo Sports)
Aaron Opell poses next to a flip-flop at the pool in Lilly King’s hometown. (Yahoo Sports)

But there have been just two Olympians until now: baseball pitcher Andy Benes in 1988 and 2004 backstroker Bryce Hunt. Lilly is the latest and perhaps greatest, a source of outsized community pride.

They didn’t need Lilly to wag a finger on national TV to fall in love with her in Evansville. They already had.

More than $14,000 was raised locally in 30 hours recently to help fund the Kings’ trip to Brazil. There will be a free public viewing party at the Victory Theater Monday when she competes in the 100 breast and another one when she swims the 200.

“Greatness can come from anywhere,” Opell said, standing next to that flip-flop and repeating an aphorism he’s using often this summer to inspire his club in pursuit of their own stardom. “I told her she can be the greatest ever.”

Greatness can even come from Lloyd Pool.

This is not the kind of place you go looking for future Olympians. It’s an old, dim, drab facility that serves as the only training water for six Evansville high schools. And since Indiana High School Athletic Association rules require swimmers to train with their school teams for three months a year and not their club teams – not the way it works most places – Lloyd is where Lilly King spent her winters growing up.

Most afternoons, the Reitz High swim team shared pool space with several other schools. The lanes were crowded with swimmers of widely varying ability – and none of them were on Lilly King’s level. This was less than ideal.

To help compensate, she added several morning practices a week with the local masters team. Opell would write her a workout and she would do it herself, in company with has-beens and never-weres.

The daughter of a former college swimmer and a track athlete, King always had a natural athleticism buttressed by that insatiable competitive nature. She and younger brother Alex – a late-blooming swimmer who will walk on at Michigan this fall – were raised in a sports-centric household.

“Everything was a race,” Ginny King said.

And racing was fun. Lilly embraced every aspect of her swimming life. Including being the team mascot.

The Newburgh Sea Creatures needed a mascot. Lilly King, of all people, applied for the job.

The best swimmer in the history of the program dressed up in green spandex and netting and fins and a mask and generally made a goofball of herself for the good of her club team. Not only that, but she and her mom constructed the mascot costume themselves.

Lilly King's competitiveness was evident at a young age. (Getty Images)
Lilly King’s competitiveness was evident at a young age. (Getty Images)

This is what you get with King. She will dress like a sea creature for laughs. She will pull Snickers bars out of the pocket of her parka on deck and offer them to competitors before a race. In a sport where nerves can waylay the best swimmers, she never will project a hint of stress.

Here in Rio, she happily played to the crowd before her first races – waving and smiling and blowing kisses, not a hint of Olympic nerves to be found.

King possesses a silly normalcy that defies her sudden status as the best breaststroker in America. It has logical roots. This is a teenager who was nowhere on the American swimming map in 2012, and who was little more than a regional standout until 2½ years ago. It wasn’t until the end of her high school career and during a breakout freshman year at Indiana that her international profile changed.

King was no golden child from a powerhouse club whose Olympic berth was prophesied from pre-puberty. She came from out of figurative nowhere, shooting up like the corn stalks that grow tall and thick in southwest Indiana.

That doesn’t mean she’s anyone’s pushover, though. As Yulia Efimova found out. Lilly King will bring her “A” game and index finger to the pool Monday night in search of gold. And she won’t be scared.