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Unfiltered and Unafraid, Lilly King Is Ready to Make Waves in Tokyo

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The first time Mark and Ginny King met was on a baseball diamond in Charlestown, Ind. The year was 1975, and they were 9 years old. Ginny was playing for the Jay C Food Store team, Mark for A1 Tax Service.

Mark was summoned from first base to pitch. Ginny was digging into the batter’s box. Mark walked his future wife on four pitches.

The affectionate trash talk between the two has reverberated ever since. Mark attributes the walk to being a lousy pitcher who was making the only appearance of his career on the rubber. Ginny attributes it to something else, an affliction she says ran throughout the league. “They wouldn’t pitch to me,” she recalls. “Everyone was afraid I’d get a hit.”

Nobody wanted to be the guy who couldn’t get the first girl in the history of the Charlestown Little League out. (Or, as Mark jokingly put it, “This girl that intruded on my manly space.”) When Ginny’s father went to sign her up for baseball, he was told girls couldn’t play. His response: “No, she’s playing.” And so she did.

Does it surprise anyone that this woman is the mother of Lilly King?

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Lilly is the two-time U.S. Olympian, two-time 2016 gold medalist, current 100-meter breaststroke world-record holder—and the international swimming leader in speaking her mind. She makes waves, athletically and rhetorically. She is unfiltered and unafraid, able to back up spicy comments with a cat burglar’s confidence in the water.

And she does indeed come by that naturally.

“My mom likes to joke around that I am the fourth generation of very strong females,” Lilly says. “So I think it stems from my family and how we act, and that we don’t really care what other people think about us, and we’re going to do what we set our minds to. That’s just kind of who I am.”

Then, a little sarcasm to drive the point home: “It’s shocking; I enjoy being myself.”

Four generations of strong women? It checks out. Ginny King, the small-town baseball barrier breaker who became a shop teacher, is the daughter of Bettye Ferguson, who managed a meat-packing plant and taught school. And Ginny is the granddaughter of Christine Ferguson, who moved from Paducah, Ky., to Louisville to work in a cigar factory and wound up becoming a bookkeeper. Both Betty and Christine Ferguson grew up in rural Kentucky playing basketball as far back as the 1920s, when girls didn’t do much of that sort of thing.

The lineage of determined women who resisted being put in a box has become a source of familial pride, as each generation adds to the legacy. Lilly is simply the latest and most famous.

“I think our family is very strong-willed in general,” Ginny says. “We were never told, ‘You can’t do that because you’re a girl.’ Just work for it. That mindset, to grow up and be what you want to be, is very liberating.

“Honesty was always prized more than conformity, and I think you can see that in Lilly. It doesn’t matter what other people think. A lot of people say that, but sometimes it’s hard for a young girl to ride that line. As long as you don’t treat people badly, it’s O.K. to stand on your own."

Lilly King grew up in Evansville, Ind., as the daughter of a college swimmer (Ginny) and track athlete (Mark), imbued with an insatiable competitive desire. She wanted to be great and achieved it, despite coming from a small age-group club far removed from the traditional swimming hotbeds. From the Newburgh Sea Creatures to the most consistently untouchable female swimmer this side of Katie Ledecky in her specialty, it’s been a blazing ride for the redheaded rocket. 

The United States, and much of the rest of the world, got its first full introduction to King five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, when she used a wave of a finger to create a rivalry and damn near revive the Cold War. Russian Yulia Efimova was a controversial late addition to the 2016 Olympic competition after failing a drug test—the second of her career, the first of which resulted in a 16-month doping suspension.

The second result ultimately was overturned, allowing her to compete in Rio. When Efimova won her semifinal and stuck a No. 1 index finger in the air, King took exception while watching on TV in the ready room before her semi. She waved a no-no Dikembe Mutombo finger back at the screen.

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After winning the second semifinal, King was asked about the finger wave and said she was “not a fan” of Efimova’s being allowed to compete as a busted drug cheat. That put the bull's-eye on then-19-year-old King for the final showdown the next night, and she delivered brilliantly, winning the gold medal by more than half a second.

“She just had to perform well,” Mark says of the pressure Lilly put on herself in Rio, “and after that deal with a whole bunch of angry Russians.”

Afterward King remained unapologetically critical of any drug cheats still being allowed to compete on an international stage, creating an awkward tension during the post-race press conference. (Perhaps sensing the animosity on the podium, Rio’s media coordinators at the swimming venue placed bronze medalist Katie Meili in between King and Efimova.) Some cringed at King’s bluntness, but many others cheered.

A star—and a lightning rod—was born.

If anyone has a question about doping in swimming, King is the go-to quote. Last month at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, she served it up yet again when asked about the specter of lax drug testing internationally during the pandemic.

“Definitely concerning, as always, but especially with COVID,” she said. “I would definitely say some of the countries that have not been as trusted are probably taking advantage of the time that they had without testing. Personally, I know I have been tested over 20 times in the past year, so I know the Americans are being well taken care of, and myself especially. But I think, unfortunately, the Americans can control what they can control, but the rest of the world, I'm not so sure.”

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A follow-up question: “Do you believe there will be cheaters competing at the Olympics in Tokyo?” Her crisp answer: “As always.”

Is there a double standard at play? Would King’s personality be more prized if she were a man than a woman? She believes so. Regardless, the only thing outweighing her shoot-from-the-hip reputation is her ability to perform in her signature event.

Since 2016, King has been a big-race lock in the 100 breast. She won the short-course version of that all four years at NCAA championships swimming for Indiana University. She’s won it in the most important national long-course meet every year from 2016–21—Olympic trials twice, and U.S. Nationals twice. And she’s won it in the most important international meet during that time frame as well: the ’16 Olympics, the ’17 and ’19 World Championships and the ’18 Pan-Pacific Championships.

“The greater the stakes, the more the pressure, the happier she is,” says her Indiana coach, Ray Looze.

Thus King has put herself in position to make history in Tokyo. There has never been a repeat Olympic gold medalist in the women’s 100 breaststroke, a statistical oddity that is strongly favored to change when that competition starts Sunday night in Japan. (The final will be Tuesday morning.)

“Obviously, I would love to do that,” King says. “I’m not saying I have let my guard down, but I’m in a fortunate situation. I don’t have too many young kids coming for me. Maybe one—one little Italian girl.”

The “little Italian girl” would be 16-year-old Benedetta Pilato, the only female swimmer on the planet who can take out the first half of a 100 breast as fast as King. But she hasn’t been able to bring it home like King. The defending champ is well ahead of the rest of the world, which is why she can afford to sound borderline cocky when discussing the event.

King’s confidence extends beyond herself to the rest of Team USA, a fact she broadcast from the trials in Omaha in June. She volunteered some bulletin board material for the rest of the world there. “I think the women, if we have the meet we can have, can win every single individual gold,” King said. “That would be pretty cool, right? But really, just looking at it, I think that is a genuine possibility.”

It didn’t take long for that statement to travel around the globe. Within days, several Australian women posted scorching times in their country’s trials and staking themselves as the favorites in Tokyo for multiple races. But that’s what USA Swimming has come to expect from King.

“I think Lilly’s answer says a lot about Lilly and how just passionate she is about Team USA and the success of our team—not just our women's team, but just really our whole Olympic team,” says U.S. women’s coach Greg Meehan. “I love that about Lilly, and that's why she's such an awesome person and athlete to have on the team.”

Part of the U.S. winning every women's medal race would also entail capturing the 200 breaststroke, King’s other individual event. She’s joined in that by her Indiana swim club teammate Annie Lazor, who has become both a close friend and a fierce rival.

The fact that King welcomed Lazor to Bloomington to train with her said a lot about both her confidence and her desire to take on the best competition every day. Make no mistake, Looze would have given his star swimmer veto power if she wanted it. Instead, they have combined forces and made each other better.

Lazor became an Olympic-caliber breaststroker, winning the 200 at Olympic trials. And King got better at the 200, finishing second in Omaha and taking greater confidence to Tokyo after failing to make the semifinals in that event in Rio. (“That’s not happening again,” she says.) But it was the interaction between the two of them in Omaha that showed a different side of Lilly King.

Reputation: The freckled assassin eats nails for breakfast and steps on the necks of all competitors. The facts aren’t radically different; though King has improved her infamous junk-food diet, she is perfectly willing to stare down opponents in the ready room. But with Lazor, and with that particular race, things were different.

Lazor’s father had died in late April, a tragic development in the middle of crunch-time training for Olympic trials. King traveled to Michigan to support the family, along with other Indiana teammates, and made a promise to Lazor’s mom to do everything she could in practice to pull Lazor through that dark period.

“It wasn’t all sunshine and happiness in practice, believe me,” Ginny King says of Lilly’s relationship with Lazor. “They went at each other. But they do have a friendship and care about each other.”

In Omaha, King won the 100 breast early in the meet and Lazor was an agonizing third, as Alaskan teenager Lydia Jacoby made the Olympic team by finishing second. That upped the pressure for the 200. Behind the starting blocks, King turned to Lazor and said, “I love you. We’ve got this.”

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And then they did. Lazor took command in the second half of the race, and the sprinty King hung tough for second. When they touched the wall in that order, King’s joy for Lazor eclipsed her happiness for herself. She wrapped her arms around Lazor and held her arm in the air in triumph. “That was an honest, genuine response by her, of total elation for Annie,” Looze says.

“I just couldn’t have done it without this girl,” Lazor said at the time.

“I like to think of it as we do want to beat the crap out of each other, but we don’t want anyone else to beat either of us,” King says. “We want to be 1–2, not anyone else.”

They’ll try to finish that way next week in the 200, where Lazor comes in with the third-fastest time in the world in 2021 and King the sixth-fastest. By then, King very likely will be the first repeat gold medalist in the 100 breaststroke in Olympic history—but she will certainly want more.

“Lilly’s got a great heart. She truly cares about her teammates,” Looze says. “But in Tokyo she’s going to want to beat Annie. All bets are off.”

Three generations of strong women who preceded Lilly King would expect nothing less.

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