RIO DE JANEIRO -- With an emphatic victory that she turned into a statement for clean competition, Lilly King led a podium parade by U.S. women’s swimmers at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Barra Olympic Park.
King highlighted Monday evening’s competition with an Olympic record, winning the women’s 100-meter breaststroke gold medal in 1:04.93, ahead of Russia’s Yulia Efimova. King’s U.S. teammate Katie Meili finished third in 1:05.69.
Kathleen Baker won a silver medal in the women’s 100-meter backstroke in 58.75, a finish she said she also hoped made a statement. Baker was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, when she was 13.
“I love swimming more than anything in the world,” said Baker, now 19. “To be able to swim in the Olympics and overcome such a big obstacle in my life is an incredible feeling. I hope I really inspired a lot of kids and people today.”
King and Meili combined to become the first American duo on the podium in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke at the Olympic Games.
“Winning a gold medal and knowing I did it clean and all my work paid off is an incredible moment,” King said. “I’ve worked my whole life for this.”
Efimova raced under a cloud of controversy because she previously had been banned for doping.
All three U.S. athletes were making their Olympic debuts.
Separated by only one lane, King and Meili immediately embraced following the race.
“It’s really special being a part of Team USA, it’s an incredible honor,” Meili said. “It was really amazing to see two flags raised and to see all the flags in the stands and all the support is really special.”
King turned first at the halfway mark, with Meili only 0.21 seconds behind in second place. King swam stroke-for-stroke in the final meters to the wall with Efimova, who finished in 1:05.50, 0.57 behind King.
King foresaw the finish.
“We walked into the ready room and I looked at (Meili) and said, ‘Katie, in 15 minutes our lives are going to change. We can both medal,’” King said.
King’s is the first gold medalist for the U.S. in the women’s 100 breaststroke in 16 years, the last being Megan Quann in the Sydney 2000 Games. She will also compete in the 200 breaststroke, with prelims on Wednesday.
In the 100 backstroke Monday, Baker reached the wall in 58.75 seconds, behind Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu. Years of doctors appointments and health concerns made her silver-medal finish more precious.
“I’ve definitely been through my fair share of adversity,” Baker said. “I think it really helps me appreciate the sport even more, knowing that it can be taken away from you.”
Baker showed the same exuberance she did Monday when she qualified for the Olympic team on June 28 at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming in Omaha, Nebraska.
“I think my reaction at trials and here is just pure joy,” Baker said. “I am loving every single minute of this and I’m actually sort of shocked that I got a medal.”
Baker out-touched Canada’s Kylie Masse and China’s Fu Yuanhui, who tied for third, by only 0.01 seconds. Her original seed time would have placed her eighth.
“Going into this I wasn’t really seeded in the medal range and to have the best meet of my life right now is an awesome feeling and it couldn’t be more perfect timing,” she said.
Nicole Chrzanowski is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.