She’s bold. She’s fiery. And she has no filter. She isn’t afraid of a little trash talk, and she LOVES McDonalds and her Crocs. She’s none other than Lilly King, the world’s top breaststroke swimmer.
Lilly conquers the 100 and 200 breaststroke, and has earned multiple Olympic gold medals and more than a dozen World Championship medals competing for the United States.
Today we’re breaking down Lilly King’s epic swimming career, so far. Let’s dive in!
Finding Love for the Water
Lilly was born and raised in Indiana. She started swimming when she was just 7 years old, and says swimming was the only thing that could calm her down! Swimming was her first love.
And it turns out, swimming runs in the family! Lilly’s mom swam collegiately, and so did her younger brother.
When her high school team’s practices weren’t challenging enough, Lilly started swimming with a local Masters group in the mornings and joined a competitive club — The Newburgh Sea Creatures.
Making that switch paid off! At just 16, she won the 100 breaststroke at Winter Junior Nationals in a 59.67. She also won 2 gold medals at the 2014 Junior Pan Pacs, plus silver and bronze medals at the 2015 World University Games. All before going to college!
NCAA Swimming Career
And college is where Lilly really came into the spotlight. She stayed close to home, swimming for the Indiana University Hoosiers.
During her time there, she proved herself to be one of the best short course yards breaststrokers in history.
As a freshman, Lilly won NCAA titles in the 100 and 200-yard breaststroke events in a 56.85 and 2:03.59, respectively. Those times set the American, NCAA, U.S. Open, and Big Ten records, plus a few others. Not too shabby!
She swept the 100 and 200 breaststroke at NCAAs the following 3 years, too, making her the second woman to win both events four years straight.
Related: How Lilly King Swims a 55.73 100-Yard Breaststroke
In 2018, she became the first woman to break 2:03 in the 200-yard breaststroke, setting a new world record with a 2:02.60. Her senior year, she broke the 100-yard breaststroke world record too, swimming a 55.73.
And with times like that, it’s safe to say that Lilly is an incredible swimmer. She knows it, and she’s not afraid to let others know it, too.
Speaking Her Mind
Lilly is known among her teammates for having no filter. She is unapologetically herself, and speaks her mind when other swimmers might “stay in their lane.”
Those personality traits were on full display during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. In the 100-meter breaststroke, Lilly was up against reigning world champion Yulia Yefimova of Russia, who had just finished a 16-month doping ban after testing positive for the steroid hormone DHEA.
Yulia had also tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug meldonium in 2016, but there wasn’t enough research to prove how long it stayed in the human body, so she wasn’t suspended.
While some swimmers may have chosen to steer clear of the controversy and focus on their individual races, Lilly spoke out. She said cheating is serious, and Yulia should have been banned from competing.
After winning her heat in the 100 breaststroke semifinals, Yulia wagged her finger victoriously at the camera as Lilly watched from the ready room. She started wagging her finger right back, with an expression of distaste. And, of course, she was caught on camera.
After winning the next semifinals heat and taking the top seed, Lilly threw up a number 1 and wagged her finger again!
In a post-race interview, she explained her reaction, saying, “You wave your finger number 1 and you’ve been caught drug cheating? I’m not a fan.”
Related: How Katie Ledecky Became the Greatest Distance Swimmer of All Time
The finger wag went viral, and when Lilly got back to the Olympic Village that night, she suddenly had more than 35,000 Instagram followers! This public response almost threw Lilly off her game, but with the help of her roommates, she got her mindset back on track. She was going to win.
In finals, Lilly’s competitiveness took over. While Yulia did everything in her power to ignore Lilly behind the blocks, Lilly looked right at her, staring her down and keeping herself cool and collected. She admitted she was so focused that she doesn’t remember much about the minutes leading up to the race.
After an all-out battle in the last 15 meters, Lilly out-touched Yulia by about half a second to win gold, saying in a post-race interview that it’s possible to compete clean and still do well at the Olympic Games. And she’s certainly proof of that!
After the Rio Olympics, Lilly kept the throne as breaststroke queen. At 2017 World Championships, she broke the world record in the 100-meter breaststroke, taking down Yulia Yefimova yet again with a blazing 1:04.13. She broke the world record in the 50 breaststroke too, winning gold in 29.60.
She finished out the meet with another world record in the women’s 400-meter medley relay, teaming up with USA teammates Kathleen Baker, Kelsi Dahlia and Simone Manuel. Team USA broke that world record again at 2019 worlds, with Lilly’s help.
She defended her world championship title in the 100 and 50-meter breaststroke in 2019, continuing to keep Yulia Yefimova at bay. She also won a few national titles, and brought home 1 gold and 3 silver medals from the 2018 Pan Pacs.
In 2019, Lilly competed in the International Swimming League’s first season. Swimming for the Cali Condors, she won all 16 events she raced during the season. She also dominated the 2020 ISL season in Budapest, remaining undefeated in the 100 breaststroke and taking home more than $250,000 in prize money, second only to Caeleb Dressel.
By the time US Olympic Trials came around in 2021, the public was very familiar with Lilly and her fierce, competitive attitude. What many didn’t know, though, is that she’s also an incredible teammate.
Lilly was expected to make Team USA in the 100 and 200 breaststroke. Her teammate, Annie Lazor, was along for the ride in the 200 breaststroke.
Annie joined the Indiana team in 2017, and settled into place as Lilly’s training partner.
They push each other in the best way…Lilly challenges Annie in the 50 and 100 breaststroke, while Annie gives Lilly a run for her money in the 200.
And their relationship goes beyond the pool. After Annie unexpectedly lost her dad in 2020, Lilly promised Annie’s mother that she’d do whatever it took to get Annie on Team USA.
Before the start of the 200 breaststroke final at trials, Lilly said to Annie “I love you, let’s do this.”
And they did! Annie and Lilly finished 1-2 in the 200 breaststroke. They embraced, shouting “We did it!”
In an emotional post-race interview, Annie commended Lilly for being so supportive both in and out of the pool. How amazing is it to qualify for the Olympics with your training partner? They trudged through every single practice together. Every good day and every tough day. And they made it!
Beyond that emotional 200 breaststroke, Lilly also qualified for the 100 breaststroke and got ready for Tokyo.
Fast Swims in Tokyo
And Tokyo was certainly full of surprises!
In the semifinals of the 100-meter breaststroke, Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa out-touched Lilly to take top seed for finals. It was the first time Lilly had been beaten in the 100 breast since 2015.
And that wasn’t even the most exciting part! In the final, 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby pushed past Lilly and Tatjana to win gold! Lilly still made it on the podium, taking the bronze medal. And despite her fiercely competitive nature, Lilly celebrated Lydia’s win, congratulating her young teammate on an impressive swim!
After that all-out brawl in the 100 breast, Lilly shifted her focus to the 200. Tatjana Schoenmaker was a major contender yet again, as was Lilly’s teammate Annie Lazor. Lilly gave it her all in the final, but it wasn’t enough.
Tatjana won gold and broke the world record. Lilly took silver and Annie took bronze. The women were quick to congratulate Tatjana on her gold medal and new world record.
Lilly also earned a silver medal for her contribution to the women’s 4×100 medley relay.
True to her usual outspoken ways, Lilly had a few things to say about the Tokyo Games.
Just like she did in 2016, Lilly voiced her distaste for doping. She made comments alluding that the Russian team should not have been competing, and she wasn’t the only one. Ryan Murphy expressed frustration about the Russian team, too.
Lilly also said that the United States has a tendency to downplay medals that aren’t gold, when they should be celebrated. She worked hard and earned her silver and bronze medals with thousands of hours of work, day in and day out.
So what exactly does her training schedule look like anyway?
Lilly has continued training with a post-grad group at Indiana, alongside other elite swimmers including Cody Miller and Blake Pieroni.
She trains 4 to 5 hours a day, mixing swimming with CrossFit sessions in the gym to build strength and power. She shoots for 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night, plus a nap if she has time. When you train like an Olympian, you gotta recover like one, too!
Even when she’s training hard, though, she makes time to indulge in a McDonald’s Happy Meal every week.
Through the COVID-19 pandemic, Lilly stayed committed to her training. When all the pools were closed in her area, she and her teammates trained in a pond! They got dangerously close to some snapping turtles, but came out unscathed.
To put yourself through all that grueling training, year after year, you really have to love this sport. And boy, does Lilly love it. She lives for high-pressure racing.
According to her coach Ray Looze, that’s when the best comes out of her. And you can tell. She’s so comfortable behind the blocks. She’s focused and ready to give it her all.
Lilly has said that she has an alter ego in the ready room. She becomes “beast mode, evil Lilly,” staring people down, smirking at them and even laughing in their faces. She promises she’s not like that outside of competition!
And, it probably helps that she has the best pre-race ritual. She drinks a Coke! And, she’s always rocking a pair of Crocs. She has a pair for every occasion!
From her competitiveness and confidence to her sportsmanship and stylish footwear choices, we can all learn a lot from Lilly King. She represents what swimming is all about. It’s about enjoying the journey, helping your teammates be the best they can be, and leaving it all in the pool.
Which swimmer should we feature next? Share your thoughts in the comments!