By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Tuesday, May 9, 2017
In an Olympics where headline performances were dominated by the U.S. Olympic swim team, Lilly King carved out a niche of her own, winning individual gold in the 100 breaststroke and as part of a very special and incredible medley relay. In this first part of a two-part 20 Question Tuesday with the Indiana University standout, she unfolds the Rio experience, what Michael Phelps and Elizabeth Beisel were like as leaders, how valuable Dana Vollmer and Coach Ray Looze were, and the other incredible U.S. Olympic men’s and women’s teammates who had a huge effect on her.
1. How is swimming going and what is the focus?
Lilly: Swimming right now, we’re just getting right back into it, focusing on Worlds. I am trying to put more focus on my 200 (breaststroke).
2. What was your mindset at Olympic Trials -- first in the 100, but also the 200 breaststroke?
Lilly: The 100 for me was more of a “Don’t screw up” thing. I was pretty sure -- or actually completely positive -- that I would make the team unless I was disqualified. The 200 for me was, like usual, more of a crapshoot, but a very different mindset from the 100.
3. What did it mean to you to represent the United States of America?
Lilly: it was a dream come true, even months later, I can’t put it into words. I am all about talking and expressing myself, but for that, to this day, I still can’t find the words. It means so much.
4. Let’s dive into the Olympics -- Rio, top snapshot memory?
Lilly: Snapshot? Standing with (Stanford head coach and Olympic assistant coach) Greg (Meehan) when Maya (DiRado) won the 200 back -- he was crying his eyes out. We were all crying. I was so fortunate to be part of a very special moment with some wonderful, amazing people!
5. Your teammates, let’s run through a few of those -- what did you learn about Katie Ledecky?
Lilly: Katie is so professional about everything. I learned a bunch from her, especially with all of us being in the younger group. Katie was able to rest and able to stay calm preparing for eight days of swimming. I remember at one point I was like, “Katie, let’s go do something!” and she said, “I have to rest.” That was so impressive. What focus. What an understanding she has of how it all fits together. Even before her races, just seeing how she goes about everything -- she’s so on it. That’s so impressive.
6. A lot of people compare your all-guts race to that Maya DiRado backstroke you mentioned, what did you think of her race?
Lilly: It was awesome! I mean, for her it was silver, and then she gets gold. That last flip (turn) I just had a feeling. I have this sixth sense; sometimes, I just know. I have a feeling. And I had that feeling with Maya. Katinka (Hosszu) was up at the 100 but Maya was within a body length, and I knew Maya was going to win. I was jumping up and down. I just knew she was going to get her. And then she did. It was great because I wasn’t able to be in the stands for hardly anything, but that day I was in the stands for that and Simone’s 100 free -- the two best races of the Games.
7. What was Maya like as a person?
Lilly: Maya is one of the smartest people I have met in my life. No joke. She went to Stanford to go to school, not just swim. She is so interested in so many things. When we went to the White House, we were walking around, heading to the bus to leave, and I said to her, “It’d be nice to spend some more time in DC, and see some buildings like that one” and I pointed to one. Maya said, “That’s the Department of the Treasury” and knew everything about it. I was like, Dude. So impressive.
8. Simone Manuel was another who dug deep and found gold, what was your reaction to the history she made?
Lilly: That was the first race I cried for that week. It went downhill after in that I (laughs) started crying a lot. Just kind of like back story, in 2012 at Trials, I was crying at anything. When they’d play the NBC theme on television, I would cry. This was everything that meant something to me. This year I was like, “Okay, this time it’s different.” And it was, because I was there -- not just wanting to be there. Our team was so locked in for their swims. But Simone’s, to me, was the Olympic moment of the Games.
9. What was the mood like on the women’s team from start to finish?
Lilly: Oh my gosh we had so much fun. I was one of the few real newbies to the team. I made one National Team before, WUGs -- that was the first big-time National Team. I knew Molly (Hannis), Hali (Flickinger), (Elizabeth) Beisel, and I knew Lia (Neal). So I walk into training camp at San Antonio, and of course Missy Franklin comes up, “How’s it going?” You know how she is, just so wonderful. I immediately felt like I belonged. Missy is so great at that.
10. You had seasoned veterans like Allison Schmitt and Elizabeth Beisel on that team, what did you learn from them and did you have memories of them growing up?
Lilly: Oh yes, definitely. I remember watching Allison and Beisel. I remember watching Beisel make the team in 2008 when she was 15 -- I was 11, and I specifically remember her making the team. Watching them all growing up, they were my heroes, who I wanted to be. Now it’s weird they are my friends -- that’s an odd transition. But of course you want to be good friends with your heroes because they are amazing as people.
11. Dana Vollmer is another one who defies age and so-called “rules” of time -- how inspiring was her effort and what did you learn from her?
Lilly: Dana’s awesome. It’s cliché to say it again but she was so motherly to all of us, especially the new kids. If you told me in 2012 I would be swimming with Dana for that relay in Rio, I would have said, “You are crazy!” The relay was mostly a new group, but having Dana on the relay -- to be that veteran -- was definitely something we needed and helped all of us.
12. The quiet dignity of Lia Neal, a repeat Olympian and the first-ever African-American woman to medal in two Olympics -- what was she like?
Lilly: I love Lia Neal! She is the bomb. She was my roommate all through training camp, so we actually got really close. We have all these odd similarities No one would ever guess. One is that we both whistle all the time -- we finally realized that in Atlanta. I’ve never met someone who whistles as much as I do. And we listen to the same music.
13. Your 100 breaststroke final -- how did you grade your race, because it seemed, especially in the moment, perfect?
Lilly: I wouldn’t say perfect. I have had races I felt perfect; that was not one of them. I haven’t really had a chance to think about it. There was so much going on, with it being a gold medal for me, and everything else (laughs) that was going on. The first 50 was great but felt a little rushed, to be honest. And then I started to die a little bit. I remember in the last 15 I picked it up and told myself, “I am going to win! Don’t lose!” After all that talking (laughs) I did, you’d better not lose.
14. With so much emotion, how did you manage it all so well?
Lilly: I have always been a lot better under more pressure than no pressure. For example when we have dual meets, I don’t swim fast, but I have never had trouble at a big meet.
15. For a teenager, you seemed to handle the media well by speaking your mind -- but not being flamboyant. You seemed like you were just being completely honest -- what was dealing with the media like?
Lilly: Thanks! I don’t know...it helps that I was just being myself. I wasn’t trying to put on a front. Once I had spoken out it was on the table and I could say what I wanted. But it wasn’t an attack against Russia or their federation, even though a lot of people thought it was. It was just a statement against the doping culture in sports. After that, I continued to speak what I believed to be the truth. That’s what I think made it a success, because I wasn’t running my mouth in anger or being dishonest.
16. The 200 breast was something you semifinaled in and took seventh in that heat, what did you think of your performance in the prelims and final in Rio in the 200?
Lilly: It wasn’t there. It never happened. It’s something we continue to work on. The only thing left for me in the 100 is the world record, but in the 200, I have so much room to grow. I have had good races in the 200 in yards, I am just waiting for it to translate. I have done the work.
17. The 4 x 100 medley relay, for the 1,000 U.S. Olympic gold medal, was beyond incredible for the women -- how do you look back on your relay teammates in that race?
Lilly: It’s so great, having (Kathleen) Baker on the front end, us newbies, who were like, “What’s going on! Oh yeah!” the whole Olympics. Simone’s technically a newbie but has been around a while and knew what she was doing. And having Dana to calm us down. We were all so wound up, “We’re going to win!” And we knew after that final we could take some time off. Then I realized, “Oh my gosh, this is our last race!” The last Olympic race for four years for some -- though none of us were thinking it would be the last for us personally! But it was kind of surreal once we stopped being so jittery and excited, and went after it. After we won, we realized it was time to go home. We had done our work, and that was it.
18. Michael Phelps as an Olympic teammate -- he’s sort of a no-frills, let’s-get-it-on fighter like you, what was it like to be teammates with the greatest of all time?
Lilly: Oh my gosh, it was so cool. I just remember when I was young at a Pro Swim Series, being giddy around all the Olympians. I would smile the whole time -- it was an uncontrollable thing. It’s so weird they had no idea who I was but I was trying to be cool. So we get to Olympic training camp, and Michael talks to me. I was like, “What? You talk to other people!” Michael has been an .Olympian since I was 3, so to me, he wasn’t human. But yes, he was. In San Antonio I was yapping, like I am now, talking about how I was going to do the NBC interview. And Michael was like, “Lilly, that one’s the big-time one.” And I was like, “Michael Phelps knows who I am -- that’s awesome!” He really turned out to be an incredible person and leader on the team. He was so involved in what everyone else was doing. He and Beisel especially would always check on me, and after the whole shebang went down (during the 100 breaststroke prelim), Michael and Beisel were always like, “You doing okay? You need anything?” I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m fine,” not realizing what I had done. They were so good at keeping us calm and focused.
19. Having your Indiana coach Ray Looze there as an Olympic assistant coach -- what did that mean, and how has this incredible man shaped you the last two years?
Lilly: Ray, okay, a lot of people think I say crazy things, but I don’t hold a candle to Ray! Nothing I say sounds remotely insane until you hear Ray (laughs) get going. But seriously, he believes in me, honestly. My coaches and teammates believe in me more than I do in myself, and that is saying something. Just having him there, that one normal thing for a month and a half where nothing is normal at all, is was so comforting. He knows how I race, knows how my head works -- so it would have been hard for me to be without a coach for that long. Along with (Indiana’s) Cody (Miller) and Blake (Pieroni), it was like my whole family was there.
20. What is something you learned about yourself in Rio that you didn’t know before?
Lilly: Geeze, I don’t know! I haven’t gotten that question before! Let’s see...what did I learn? I was pretty sure of myself. I think I learned that being honest is never a bad thing. Standing up for what’s right is something that we need to do. People don’t speak up because they are afraid. I am not afraid. That is what I learned -- that if something is wrong, it is all right to talk about it and start discussions we need to have.