Lilly King still remembers the first time she won a race before it started.
“This story's actually kinda ridiculous,” she says, and then launches in.
She was 12, or thereabouts, on an outdoor pool deck in Vincennes, Indiana, preparing for a famous local swim meet, the “Big Bang at the Beach.” A longtime age-group peer approached from a neighboring lane, and wished Lilly good luck, as innocently and kindly as could be.
Lilly, though, had a unique interpretation.
She dashed through the pool, touched the wall first, then explained to her mom: “That girl conceded to me.”
“Whadya mean?” Ginny King asked her daughter.
“She told me good luck,” Lilly said, matter-of-factly. “I knew I was gonna win before I got in the water.”
In retrospect, of course, King realizes: “She was just being a nice, normal person. But in my head, I was like, ‘Oh, you're done.’ ” And she, that poor little 12-year-old girl, would be the first of many.
Nowadays, King is an Olympic gold medalist, a seven-time world champ, and a favorite for more acclaim in Tokyo. She’s all of that in part because, ever since that 12-year-old’s “concession,” King began to grasp just how mental swimming can be. She embraced the power of confidence and intimidation. She mastered the dark arts, the pre-race stares, the awkward questions, anything to entice an opponent’s fragile mind off-kilter.
“I’m so nasty” she admits.
At 2017 worlds, a year after her famous finger wag and upset of Russia’s Yuliya Efimova in Rio, King lurked directly over Efimova’s shoulder in the ready room. She stood there, slapping her leg, for a good five minutes. She walked backward out to the pool deck for the 100-meter breaststroke final, drilling into the eyes of her rival. She stared some more as Efimova stripped down behind the blocks. She mischievously grinned.
Then King dove in and broke a world record. Efimova swam 0.69 seconds slower than she had in her semifinal.
King enjoyed both developments, and points to them as evidence that the dark arts work.
“I really enjoy watching people crumble under pressure,” she says. “I know that's, like, really evil of me. But it's kinda fun when you're in it.”
Lilly King flips the switch
Lilly King, to those who know her, is a fun-loving 24-year-old who, away from pools, is anything but the “high-level assassin” fans will see on TV. She’s a “goofy, kind of nerdy” phys-ed major who's been known to text about amusing animal videos, Dean the Basset, and Harambe. Her mom, Ginny, calls her “laid back” and “a free spirit.” Lilly herself would like to think she’s “light-hearted.”
“But,” she says, “when it's race time, I'm literally the complete opposite person. And I'm so nasty. When I feel like I need to be that nasty person, and that evil competitor, it's almost like just a flip of the switch, and something comes over me, and I'll do literally anything to win the race.”
“In the pool,” says her college coach, Ray Looze, “she is ruthless.”
In a way, that competitor is who Lilly has always been. She grew up alongside a younger brother, Alex, and their parents say everything was a contest. “I mean, they played piano, and my mom said it was like combat piano practice, ’cause they would just pound on the piano to see who could get done practicing the fastest,” Ginny recalls. “They would race to get their shoes on, or to pick up their toys,” even to see “who can get their seatbelt on the fastest.”
Lilly King’s pre-race antics are an extension of that competitiveness — a natural one, King says. But they’re often conscious, even calculated, intentional. They aren’t meticulously pre-planned, but she “manipulates a ready room viciously,” Looze says. She shakes her limbs. Smacks her thighs. Asks opponents what they had for lunch. “Anything super random to distract people,” she explains. Out on the pool deck, she’ll eyeball them, always waiting for the rest to step up to the blocks before she does.
“And sometimes, I can control it,” King says of her mind games. “Sometimes I can't.” She looks back on the 2017 stare down of Efimova, and thinks, “How and why did I do that?”
“Like, it’s so bizarre,” King says. “Normal me would never do that.”
But there’s a reason she does. Even if she can’t get into a rival’s head, the possibility that she might — the belief that she will — gets into her own head, and boosts her own confidence to levels elsewhere unseen.
“I like being feared. It’s empowering,” she once said. “There’s nothing better before a race [than] to feel empowered.”
Talking herself into winning
King has always been confident, too. “Borderline arrogant,” her dad, Mark, lovingly says. “To a point where it's cockiness, where it's brash,” Looze adds. “She believes. Even if it's delusional belief.” She believes in who she is and how she does things, whether the thing she’s doing is cooking, or assembling furniture, or building a snowman, or swimming.
And as she grew as a swimmer, confidence became a tool. “It sounds so cheesy, but when I was 12, I basically talked myself into winning my first state title,” King says. Her coach at the time, Mike Chapman, remembers Lilly, despite being seeded seventh, telling anybody who’d listen throughout the week: “I'm gonna win, I'm gonna win, I'm gonna win.”
Sure enough, from an outside lane, she did.
“We were like, ‘Whoa, sh—,’” Chapman remembers.
“That was such a milestone for me,” King says. “Talking myself into winning that race, and then winning that race, was kinda the first step in my career. Like, ‘Oh, I can be really good at this.’ I can really kinda take advantage of the mental side of things.”
The confidence became self-fulfilling. “It's her most important characteristic,” Looze says. Before races, King projects it, outwardly, the theory being that her self-belief will drain opponents of theirs. It meshes with competitiveness and becomes cockiness, shamelessness, qualities required to buck swimming’s politeness and swindle opponents for real estate in their brains.
Letting Lilly be herself
There are times, coaches and parents confess, when King’s swagger and assertiveness and entire persona become a bit much. “Growing up, she wasn't everybody's cup of tea,” Ginny says with a laught. “She's not for everybody,” Mark adds with a chuckle. “She's a lot.” As a father, he’d “sometimes spill energy trying to show a kid how to do stuff.” Lilly’s response, often, was “I can do it myself,” and at times, the parents would think, “This behavior's really annoying right now.”
But they also had the foresight to realize, “it's gonna come in handy later,” Mark says. “So we let her be herself ... knowing that at some point, you don't want to squash that confidence in a kid.”
Looze has taken a similar approach. He loves 99% of who King is. He sees neither her words nor her actions as “unsportsmanlike.” Occasionally, Looze says, she’ll get beat and “kinda throw a tantrum,” or “make some excuse.” He says “she’s a terrible loser,” and sometimes has wished he could correct that.
“But,” Looze says, “I would've felt like I was suppressing something really good.”
Most people throughout the sport have learned not to. King recently declared that she thought U.S. women swimmers, “if we have the meet we can have, can win every single individual gold” in Tokyo. The comment caught Australian attention, and stoked the rivalry. And the prophecy, frankly, seems a bit far-fetched.
But other Americans, when asked about it, haven’t tried to walk it back on King’s behalf.
“What I love about what Lilly said is, that is who she is,” U.S. head coach Greg Meehan said. “That is her personality. She is competitive. She is someone who we want on Team USA.”
Even her Rio finger-wagging, while celebrated by many, drew some negative reviews. Traditionalists, in media and throughout the sport, have bristled at her bold opinions and antics. King, for her part, knows she was “a shock to the swimming world. They weren't really prepared for me.”
But she’s glad to see brashness becoming more acceptable. “I think a lot of athletes and our staff have gotten used to how I am,” she says.
“They're just like, ‘Let's let Lilly do Lilly, and everything will be fine.’”
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