OMAHA, Neb. — Coming into the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming, few outside the swimming world had heard of Lilly King.
|Lilly King competes in the women's 200-meter breaststroke final at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming at CenturyLink Center on July 1, 2016 in Omaha, Neb.|
After winning the 200-meter breaststroke on Friday night, the brash 19-year-old looks to change that. She will swim three events in Rio — the 100 and 200 breaststrokes, and the 4x100 medley as well.
“I felt pretty good the whole way except the last 25, that kind of hurt a little bit,” King said of the 200 final on Friday night in Omaha’s CenturyLink Center. “As long as there was no surprise out of the outside lanes, I was pretty sure I had it.”
So sure that she wasn’t even concerned as Molly Hannis surged in the final 50 and passed 2015 world championship silver medalist Micah Lawrence and finished second. King knew that she was going to win. She looked around as she swam down the home stretch only because she was curious about who would finish second — Hannis or Lawrence.
Even her parents, Mark and Ginny King, were confident. They booked travel to Rio before the Olympic Team Trials even began.
It’s confidence that King has had since she was young.
She wasn’t a very talented swimmer when she started at age 7, joining her mom in a rec league in their hometown of Evansville, Indiana.
Ginny swam for Eastern Kentucky University, then Illinois State after EKU discontinued its swimming program. But she was not a breaststroker.
“It's the running gag with all of her old swimming friends because that’s the one stroke she can’t do,” said Mark.
For this reason, Ginny thinks her daughter is able to swim the stroke.
“I had so many people desperately trying to teach me breaststroke that I was able to show her how to do it the right way,” said Ginny. “That’s my theory.”
But the Kings had no inkling that their daughter would be an Olympian. She seemed to struggle in the pool, finishing last in the 50-yard breaststroke at the state meet when she was 11.
Then when she was 12, she again qualified for the state meet and boldly stated that she would win the 50 breaststroke.
“All day she was going around saying I’m going to win,” said Ginny. “I was like, ‘OK honey, just do your best.’”
When Lilly won, it dawned on Ginny and Mark that their daughter might be better than they thought. Perhaps she could swim collegiately. But she wasn’t training like a future NCAA champion.
Evansville only has one indoor pool, and six local high schools share four lanes for both boys and girls, explained Ginny.
“That was 35 kids in four lanes, so you do the math,” said Lilly after she won the 100 breaststroke at trials. “It’s not a lot of room to swim.”
Lilly also didn’t have many peers in the pool for morning sessions. In order to make it to school on time in the mornings, she swam with masters swimmers.
Her sophomore year in high school, Lilly joined the Newburgh Sea Creatures in nearby Newburgh, Indiana. The head coach, Aaron Opell, was Big Ten champion in the 200 breaststroke for Indiana University and had trained under IU coach Ray Looze.
“He really helped elevate her in ways, not just with technique but from a mental prep standpoint to get her from where she was to really prepare her for transition to IU breaststroke,” said Mark. “It was really kind of a seamless transition to go from swimming with Aaron at the Sea Creatures to going to Ray at IU.”
Perhaps more important, at IU, Lilly started to really train.
“I hadn’t trained hard at all in high school,” she admitted after winning the 100 breaststroke on Tuesday night. “I started lifting weights and doing everything that I was supposed to be doing before, so I think that definitely helped this year.”
At the AT&T Winter National Championships in December, she won the 200 breaststroke and finished second in the 100, 0.26 behind reigning world champion Yulia Efimova from Russia.
“That was the first time that it popped into my head that I could swim the 200 (at Olympic Trials),” she said.
Then at 2016 NCAAs, she won the 100- and 200-yard breaststrokes and set American records in both. Her confidence soared — to an obnoxious level, she admitted.
“I realized no one that I’d been racing even long course had done that when they were in college so that was a real confidence booster for me,” she said.
At 2016 Olympic Trials, Lilly set the fastest time in the world this year in the 100 breaststroke (beating Efimova’s time by a half second).
When asked if she is a medal contender in the 100 in Rio, she does not hesitate: “For sure.”
In the 200, her time of 2:24.08 will need work before Rio, and she knows it. Rebecca Soni won the 200 in London in 2:19.59.
For now, King was happy to qualify for Rio in the 200.
“It’s still pretty special because it’s my ‘off’ event,” she said. “It’s pretty cool to represent Team USA in not just one but two events, and probably relays too. So three events. It’s pretty crazy for my first Olympics.”
In other finals at Olympic Trials tonight, Ryan Murphy, 19, won the men’s 200 backstroke in 1:53.95, the second-fastest time in the world this year, and qualified for his second event in Rio.
His Cal-Berkeley teammate Jacob Pebley out-reached 2012 Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary to finish second. Pebley will likely be named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team going to Rio at the end of the trials. Both Murphy and Pebley are first-time Olympians.
The men’s 200 IM was a duel between legends Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. It’s the fourth straight time that they have competed against each other in the 200 IM at Olympic Trials. Phelps won the first three, with Lochte second each time. But in 2012, he came within 0.09 seconds of his rival.
On Friday night, it was neck-and-neck in the butterfly, then Phelps pulled slightly ahead in the backstroke and gained in the breaststroke — where Lochte has been hampered by a groin injury this week. Lochte surged back in the freestyle. But Phelps dug deep and beat his rival 1:55.91 to 1:56.22.
Both men are already on the 2016 Olympic team. But the 200 IM will be the only individual event for Lochte in Rio.
In the women’s 100 free, Abbey Weitzeil won the two-lap dash to make her first Olympic team. The 19-year-old sprint specialist beat Stanford’s Simone Manuel, 53.28 to 53.52. Manuel is also a first-time Olympian.
Olympic veteran Amanda Weir and Manuel’s Stanford teammate, Lia Neal, finished third and fourth and will round out the 4x100 freestyle team. Weir is a two-time Olympian who won two silver medals in relays at the 2004 Olympic Games, along with bronze from the 4x100 freestyle relay at the 2012 London Games.
Katie Ledecky finished seventh in 53.99.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.