In the past few months life has changed for sophomore swimmer Lilly King. From being a little-known student-athlete, to a star in Rio and campus celebrity, King’s life is far from normal. However, one thing remains constant: wins.
Since the U.S. Olympic trials this past summer, where she became the first person since 2004 to win both the 100 and 200-meter breaststroke, King’s success has thrust her into the national and global spotlight.
She won gold in the 100-meter breaststroke and 4x100-meter medley relay at the Rio Olympics and rekindled for a moment the Cold War-era fervor of Russian and American competition.
“It’s been a wild ride,” IU Coach Ray Looze said. “When we had our first goal talk she goes, ‘I want to make the Olympic team and I want to win a gold medal.’ A lot of people do that though and you’re just like, ‘OK, yeah, yeah, yeah, right,’ but she did it.”
King came to Bloomington as the No. 9 high school recruit according to Swim Swam’s 2015 rankings. As a freshman she captured the 100 and 200-yard breaststroke titles at the 2015-16 NCAA Championships, earning her the CSCAA Swimmer of the Year and Big Ten Swimmer of the Year nods before heading off to Rio to compete with Team USA.
“It’s been awesome just to have that success on both sides, short course and long course, between collegiate and professional swimming,” King said. “I think it’s definitely setting me up well for the future. I’m excited to see what it holds.”
King accredits her success to a new level of training and competition, day-in and day-out, that she’s devoted herself to since arriving in Bloomington. King said she knew she would get faster over the course of her freshman year because college swimming allows swimmers to battle in practice against high-caliber teammates and provides them with better weight-training than their high schools did.
King has won all but one breaststroke event since returning from Rio, including wins against collegiate competition and those swimming for Team USA at the USA College Challenge this past weekend. Her presence, though, is seen more than just in her individual results.
“To us she’s like what Michael Phelps is to the Olympic Team,” Looze said. “He was suspended last summer so he wasn’t at world championships, and we were kind of pedestrian as a country. And with Lilly we went from 10th to seventh in the rankings without Jessica Parratto and Brooklynn [Snodgrass]. So, you would’ve thought we would’ve not done any better, we would’ve dropped off last year. But with her we took a step forward.”
King is also in the unique position of being a leader in and out of the pool for the Hoosiers, despite only being a sophomore. Her confidence, Looze said, radiates throughout the locker room.
“That helps people,” Looze said. “They get to hang out with that. You are the people that you hang out with in life.”
Still, with the newfound role and fame, her daily routine and practices in Bloomington have provided King with some comfort.
“When you’ve been away from your home pool and your team, and all of your coaches for a couple months, it gets kind of difficult, just being out of your normal routine,” King said. “But now I’m back and practice-wise everything is going great.”
Her focus is on hitting her personal time goals and guiding her team to a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships, a mark set by the team prior to this season.
Of course, she’s not unaware of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“I don’t want anyone to doubt that I’m the best,” said King. “So I think just becoming the greatest of all-time is, I guess, my goal between now and Tokyo.”