INDIANAPOLIS — It’s good to be King.
At the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships — part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast — swimmer Lilly King put a tough year behind her and won the 200-meter breaststroke title in 2:21.83. It’s her third straight 200 national crown and fourth overall. And her time — over two seconds faster than her personal best — ranks her second in the world this year.
“Finally, 2:21, breakthrough!” King said in relief. “After this morning [prelim], I’d been 2:24 six times since last December. So I was pretty ready for that breakthrough. Luckily it came tonight.”
Swimming in her home pool, King — a rising junior at Indiana University — stayed ahead of Rio bronze medalist Katie Meili for the first 150, then dropped her in the final 50. Coming to Indianapolis, Meili was ranked fifth in the world in the 200 breaststroke, with King down at 25th (until the prelim, when she lifted her ranking to 13th with a 2:24.68).
Bethany Galat chased King down in the final stretch and finished second in 2:22.24. Meili dropped to seventh.
“We have swam in this pool, that race, so many times,” said King, who first met Galat when they were in middle school. “We’re both from Indiana and basically grew up together. So it was so cool to be there with her in that moment. I’m just so happy for her.”
Galat, 21, who swims for Texas A&M, qualified for her first international team. At 2016 Olympic Trials, she finished third twice (in the 200 breaststroke and 400 IM).
“I definitely had a fire in my heart,” she said. “I was ready to race for sure. Being at my home pool from growing up in Indiana, it was a really special race. I felt very good in the water. I trusted my training, I was positive. Everything just fit together.”
For King, the 200 breaststroke also served as redemption of sorts. She went into an Olympic slump last fall and took time to rebound. The brash breaststroker — who famously wagged her finger at Yulia Efimova, the Russian once suspended for doping, before the finals of the 100-meter breaststroke in Rio — returned to Indiana University last fall. But life was different. Within the span of a few months, she had gone from being a strong local swimmer to everyone — even celebrities — contacting her.
Then, less than a month after her gold-medal-winning performance in Rio and the crush of media attention, she was back to the routine of school and training. Her grades plummeted, and she wasn’t psyched to swim in a “little rinky-dink dual meet,” she told the Indianapolis Star.
After short-course world championships in December, where she was beaten in the 100 breaststroke, her signature event, she began to turn her swimming around. She won two more titles at NCAAs in March, then won the 100 breaststroke at the Atlanta Pro Swim Series meet in early May.
Now she is heading to world championships as the top American breaststroker again. And top in the 200 — an event in which she failed to qualify for finals in Rio.
“It’s embarrassing not being able to represent your country in the final at the Olympics, especially when you’re an American,” said King, who never glosses over the truth. “We come to win medals, we come to be in the final and represent our country, and not being able to do that is really disappointing and some redemption.”
This summer, she is shooting for world records. Danish breaststroker Rikke Moeller Pedersen holds the world record for the 200 breaststroke at 2:19.11, set during 2013 world championships. King’s best time in that event is 2:24.03, set at U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming last June.
The 100-meter breaststroke world record is 1:04.35, set by Ruta Meilutyte from Lithuania at 2013 worlds. Meilutyte was the defending 100 breaststroke Olympic gold medalist going into Rio. King’s best time is 1:05.20, also set at Olympic trials.
“Those records are always looming over my head,” she said. “That’s the logical next step in my head. I’ll see if I can get it in the 100 [on Friday].”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.