Our Golden Girl
To the rest of the world, she’s America’s outspoken Olympic swimmer who won her first two gold medals in Rio. But to those who really know her, she’s Lilly King — daughter, sister, friend, and small-town girl with a fun-loving spirit and heart of gold.
Lilly on Deck
EL: As you touched the wall to win your first gold at the Olympics, what was the first thing that popped in your head?
LK: I honestly was just really relieved, to tell you the truth. You know, after speaking out and then having this race that had been hyped up so much, it was really nice to come out on top like I was supposed to. I think that was the No. 1 feeling, the relief. But then obviously the excitement, too. I had just won an Olympic gold medal, which is kind of a big deal.
EL: How was Rio?
LK: It’s a beautiful city. It’s kind of hard to get around because the Olympic Village was about an hour from Copacabana with no traffic. But other than that, it was great. It was a really cool experience. Like I said, the city is absolutely gorgeous. Really, driving around, it looks like you’re in Jurassic Park. I was expecting a pterodactyl to come flying out of the mountains at any point. But it was really cool.
EL: Lots of people are saying your life is never going to be the same, and we’re sure you’re already experiencing some big changes. What do you think about all of the new things you’re experiencing right now?
LK: It’s weird, because my life is changing, but I still feel the same. I’m still the same old Lilly. But especially with the social media, the following has skyrocketed. I’m enjoying it right now. I think it’s going to die down in a couple months, hopefully. But it’s been fine so far.
EL: Have you been back in the pool yet?
LK: I got back in this morning (Friday, Aug. 26). This was my first morning back in. I actually lifted on Wednesday and feel like I can’t walk right now because I’m so sore. But I’m back in. I’m getting started on my full training schedule next week (starting Aug. 29). It was nice to have a little break.
EL: Do you see yourself being a multi-game Olympian?
LK: I hope! Right now I’m looking to swim through 2024. But still, that’s eight years down the line. Definitely looking forward to Tokyo in 2020. But we’ll see. If Los Angeles gets the bid for 2024, I would really like to keep swimming to that point. I would like my last games to be in the Unites States. That would be pretty neat.
EL: Do you still have a goal to teach swimming?
LK: Yeah, definitely. I’m majoring in physical education; right now I’m thinking either teaching or coaching or maybe both. That’s kind of where my mind is right now. I don’t know, though; I’m 19 years old. Everyone asks, “What are you going to do with your life?” and I’m just thinking, “I don’t know. I’m going to swim until I can’t swim anymore. I guess.”
EL: Would you like to coach back here in Evansville or just wherever you land?
LK: I don’t know. I think wherever I land. I’d like to stay in the Midwest, though. I’m not really a California girl; I learned that when I was looking at colleges.
EL: Can you give us the story on your tie-dye towel you had at the Olympics?
LK: I had a friend, she had special needs and she passed away right before my junior year in high school. Her mom sent me the towel at the beginning of my freshman year at IU. So I kind of bring it with me everywhere; it’s my special, lucky towel.
We caught up with Lilly King’s dad Mark after his return from Rio to learn what the Olympics really were like.
How was what the media portrayed at the Olympics different from reality?
NBC’s role is to document the events taking place, but they also attempt to create a narrative the viewing audience will find compelling and give them a reason to tune in. We did not see NBC’s portrayal until we returned home; we were only aware of it because of social media. NBC did not have broadcast rights in Brazil. When you’re at an Olympic venue, you are “in the moment” watching the races as you’ve watched them a thousand times before. The stadium is a little larger, the lights are a little brighter, and the stakes are certainly much higher. But at the core, it’s still a swim meet and the pool is 50 meters long, just like the pool every kid trains and competes in.
How often were you able to interact with Lilly in Rio?
We had very little interaction with her during the week. USA Swimming works to build a team culture between the kids, and one of the ways they accomplish this is to minimize outside distractions — parents and family are rightfully considered distractions. Folks who are outside this world may consider this unfair, but the cumulative effect of getting together, chatting, and dining together during a major competition can be draining on the athlete. On her way up, Lil took a number of overseas trips (Hawaii, Japan, and Singapore) and she took those trips without us. We did have a number of phone conversations when she returned to the Olympic Village each night. We sometimes talked about swimming, but often we just talked about who she met, what she had for lunch, and just everyday-type discussions you would have with your child.
What did Lilly do in her downtime, especially after swimming events were over?
USA Swimming made it possible for the kids to get out and see some of the city. She was able to visit the beaches and also to see Christ the Redeemer. We also had an athlete, staff, and parent social on Ipanema Beach after the competition ended. It gave us an opportunity to interact with all of the athletes (minus Michael Phelps). We were struck by how exhausted everyone (athletes, staff, and parents) seemed to be. Just to get to this point of the year is a real grind.
What was Rio like?
Rio is a real contrast. On one hand, it is a beautiful city (as shown on TV), but there also is poverty and suffering that is hard to describe. The weather was great, as it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere. The strangest thing, perhaps, was the fact that it got dark around 5 p.m. We enjoyed food from a small plaza that was directly across from Olympic Park. For some reason, it seemed we were the only visitors who discovered it. We found a variety of foods, such as pizza, pasta, and shish kebabs. Brazil’s currency is in a bit of a drop, so everything was quite affordable, too.
Several coaches in the Evansville area and beyond helped Lilly King toward her Olympic journey, creating a special bond with her:
DAVID ESTES: Estes was head coach of Greater Evansville Aquatics Team (GREAT) when King was 8 to 10 years old. He now lives in Owasso, Oklahoma, and coaches swimming in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“The first few months I was there, we would do a lot of drill work. Lilly was only 8, but she was energetic, happy, dancing around all the time. She never could be still, but she was paying attention at the same time. She was fearless as a little girl; every time you spoke to her, she made good eye contact.”
MIKE CHAPMAN: Chapman is a former head coach for GREAT and former head age group coach for Newburgh Sea Creatures. He currently is head swimming coach for Boonville High School and Boonville Aquatic Dolphins. He accompanied the King family to the Rio Olympics.
“One of the keys in Lilly’s development is that we never did too much too soon. I’ve seen many kids in the sport get burned out because they start doing two-a-day practices, lots of yardage, or weight training too early. We always were patient and let Lilly enjoy the process. She didn’t do doubles until her sophomore year of high school and didn’t lift weights until college. I think that’s why we saw her pop when she got into college.”
AARON OPELL: Opell took over as head coach of Newburgh Sea Creatures at the start of King’s junior year of high school.
“I was not surprised (that she won the individual gold medal). If you said three years ago she would win a gold medal, I would’ve been very surprised. But every single year, she made improvement by leaps and bounds. You will often see athletes rise and have success (like an S curve), exponentially improve, then some will level out. Lilly is still on the exponential rise, which is nuts because she just won an Olympic gold medal.”
DAVE BAUMEYER: Baumeyer is the transportation manager at Courier & Press, as well as assistant cross country coach and boys and girls head swim coach for Reitz High School. He coached Lilly during her four years of high school, from 2012 to 2015. He saw her swim as an eighth grader, went to some of her club meets, and watched her swim with GREAT.
“She wasn’t afraid to tell someone in her lane they needed to work harder. She took time out of her own practices to help some of the other kids.”
RAY LOOZE: Looze is the head swim coach at Indiana University, where King is a sophomore. Looze was in Rio with IU’s Olympic swimmers.
“There were a lot of factors (in King’s success her freshman year). She got into a great team environment; she had a lot of people to compete with every day. She joined a rich culture, got top-notch training and coaching. She never missed a practice session. We’ve got a great weight coach. Lilly’s body has really changed; her fitness level has gotten so much better.”
Katie Schnautz and Jessica Coleman — two of Lilly’s real-life friends since grade school — stopped by the offices of Evansville Living to tell us about the real Lilly King.
• To get ready for a race, she gets pumped up to music. Currently it’s Christina Aguilera; she also has loved No Doubt and Miley Cyrus. They call her music taste “diverse.”
• Lilly jokes that her tear ducts are broken. The only time she would ever cry was when watching Olympics. “We thought she would hear the National Anthem and lose it on the podium.” (Jessica)
• Lilly was most excited to meet Michael Phelps in Rio. She told the girls, “We’re friends now.” She also liked meeting Nathan Adrian and Missy Franklin.
• Lilly doesn’t get nervous before meets — she has more of an excited energy.
• Lilly maintained a 4.0 GPA in high school despite being out of school often for meets out of the state or country.
• Costumes, especially making them (loves trick-or-treating too). Low-down on the red costume seen in the swimming karaoke video: “She’s always wanted a fat suit. When she saw one for $15 in high school, she convinced her mom she needed it. She would bring it to swim practices to make us laugh.” (Katie) “It’s had its fair share of use.” (Jessica)
• Kentucky Derby: In 7th grade, Lilly threw a giant party where she had a craft station to make hats and also did a “horse race.” She froze horse-shaped toothpicks inside ice cubes and then had a race where kids blew the piece of ice across the table to determine a winner.
• Dogs, especially beagles. Lilly’s friends recall a trip to the mall in Bloomington where they spent two days, hours at a time, playing with the puppies at Anthony’s Pets.
• Cincinnati Reds • Lip sync battles • Target • Gilmore Girls and Friends • The Slice and El Charro in Evansville
No Vegetables, Please
Lilly loves food. From Twinkies to Donut Bank and McDonald’s, her diet is “anything but healthy,” say Lilly’s friends. Naturally, she considers Evansville’s annual West Side Nut Club Fall Festival her “favorite holiday.” Catch Lilly as the Grand Marshal of the Fall Festival Main Parade on Oct. 8.