BUDAPEST, Hungary – Lilly King has settled the question of who’s No. 1 in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke.
King smashed the world record at the FINA World Championships on Tuesday night with a time of 1 minute, 4.13 seconds, while teammate Katie Meili was the silver medalist in 1:05.03. They went 1-3 in the same event at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
King vanquished her arch-rival, Yuliya Efimova of Russia, who staked a claim on No. 1 in the semifinals. A night later, Efimova got a bad start and was forced to settle for the bronze in 1:05.05 while Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania, the previous world record holder and one of King’s heroes, was fourth in 1:05.65. Meilutyte’s world mark of 1:04.35 was set at the 2013 world championships.
“That race is always going to be a showdown,” King said, “always an exciting one, especially after the time Yuliya was able to put up yesterday, which was very, very impressive."
“It was going to be a dogfight and I was just hoping I was going to come out on top.”
After she touched the wall in the final, she smacked the water in celebration, then hugged Meili tightly. With her swim, Meili became the sixth fastest performer of all time.
Team USA took home hardware in all five finals Tuesday night. Katie Ledecky brought home another gold, this time in the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle. Matt Grevers won the silver and Ryan Murphy the bronze in the men’s 100 backstroke, Townley Haas grabbed the silver in the men’s 200 freestyle and Kathleen Baker claimed the silver in the women’s 100 backstroke.
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But the women’s breaststroke carried the most drama at the Danube Arena as King faced off with Efimova, the Olympic silver medalist and defending world champ.
In Rio, they traded finger wags, King denouncing Efimova’s two doping accusations and Efimova crying in despair, on Tuesday calling the Rio experience “the worst thing ever.”
After Efimova won the first semifinal Monday night with a time of 1:04.37 – only .02 off the world record -- she held up a finger signifying “No. 1.” It was subtle, but she got her point across.
“I’m always looking at results from the heat before,” said King, who was waiting in the ready room to swim the next semifinal, “and I saw the little wag. I saw it!”
She laughed. “It’s just motivating me more, so that’s OK.”
King swam a personal best of 1:04.53 in the semifinal, knocking almost half a second off her previous best.
Efimova had no regrets about the finger wag. She laughed. “It’s more for fun and media and pressure, just like fireworks.”
But she gave King more motivation. “I know, but why not?” Efimova said. “It’s exactly what I need. It was so exciting, and so much pressure, but it made it more interesting to watch and its interesting to us to make our competition faster and better.”
King waited to shave until the final, so she expected her time to drop. However, she admitted to being nervous before the race. “I was actually really freaking out when I got to the pool,” she said.
Her warmup calmed her down. “I was feeling really confident going into the race,” King said.
Efimova said King didn’t look at her before the race began.
“We get a lot of rivalries like this in other sports, like football, basketball,” King said. “In swimming, we see a lot of really nice people and being really nice, that’s great and all, but that’s not my personality.
“I’m spunky, I’m confident, I’m not going to not be myself before a race, so that’s just how it works.”
Ledecky, an old hand at breaking world records, said she knew King had it in her. “Just her confidence is so impressive and I think it’s infectious for the whole team,” Ledecky said. “Just to see how she goes about her races, she always delivers. We knew she always could pull that out.”
Meili was also in awe of her teammate. “It’s just an honor to share the pool with her,” she said. “She’s an incredible breaststroker. It’s amazing to see her get in and go faster literally every time she races. It’s quite impressive.”
For her own part, Meili steered clear of the drama. “I try to stay a little bit more uninvolved, if you haven’t noticed,” she said. “and just kind of stay in my own lane. I try and stay out of the spotlight; it’s not really where I’m comfortable.”
But it’s where King thrives.
“I love having pressure and I love being competitive,” King said. “That’s why I’m in the sport. My very favorite thing about swimming is walking out of the ready room to a pool of screaming people. I think that’s why I do so well under pressure.”
She said after winning the gold in Rio, the world record was the next step.
“I kind of had a feeling the world record was coming,” King said.
But she said she was just as excited to see that Meili was second. “That was a pretty special moment,” King said. “I had no idea it was going to happen and she had no idea it was going to happen. I’m very, very excited for her and it was just a great moment for Team USA.”
King and Efimova are expected to go head-to-head in the 50 and 200-meter breaststrokes later this week, so expect more fireworks.
“Any time the two of us are going to swim together it’s going to be fast,” King said. “The rivalry was definitely there and I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. I’m always glad to have her there to push me.”
And she said they were definitely getting along better after the finish “than we have in the past, to put it lightly.” They congratulated each other and shared the podium and a victory lap around the pool.
“It’s obviously very awkward between the two of us. We don’t like each other very much. I wouldn’t like anyone who said things about me.”
But Efimova sees room for détente. She wouldn’t mind being friends. “Not close friends,” she said, “but I’m free to talk and smile and everything.”