BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In the pool, life is still pretty much normal for Lilly King.
Everywhere else, it’s varying degrees of different and sometimes downright weird. But swimming alongside her teammates, during Monday afternoon conditioning at IU’s Counsilman-Billingsley Aquatic Center, everything is as normal as it can ever be again.
“I’m still a little freshman in their minds, even though I’m not. They’ve been totally normal with me getting back,” King says, smiling. “They knew me, I guess, before I was me.”
King learned during a recent weekend at home in Evansville that even a trip to Target with a short shopping list now takes twice as long as usual. Fans want hugs; fans want selfies with her. In Bloomington, it’s more quiet. Occasional jokes from classmates and stares on the bus, wondering whether that’s the woman who wagged her finger and captured the world’s attention.
But in the pool, where King grew into an NCAA champion last season before taking Olympic gold, things aren’t terribly different.
It’s a refuge for a 19-year-old whose post-Olympics life will never quite be the same. The strangest part of all? Lilly King rarely seems fazed.
‘She just happened to be Russian’
Clad in Team USA-issue Nikes and a matching T-shirt, King waits Monday for the X Bus, which runs from the heart of campus directly to the Memorial Stadium parking lot. She’s just finished a class in the basement of IU’s School of Public Health.
A student walks by wearing Team USA gear.
“I don’t remember seeing him in Rio,” King deadpans.
It was in Rio that King’s bravado thrust her into the spotlight this summer. When Russian breaststroker Yulia Efimova, banned previously for doping violations, won her semifinal heat in the 100 breaststroke, cameras caught King in the ready room, wagging her finger at Efimova on a nearby TV screen.
She didn’t back down when asked about it later in an interview with NBC.
“You wave your finger No. 1, and you’ve been caught drug cheating?” King said then. “I’m not a fan.”
The comments touched off a U.S.-vs.-Russia subplot that captivated the world as Efimova and King prepared to square off in the 100 breaststroke final. Efimova later accused King of turning the race into a “war.” Whenever she’s asked about her comments, King says that they were never about nationality, just King’s own attitude toward doping.
“I really didn’t think I said anything that bad, and I still don’t think I said anything that bad,” says King, who garnered massive support at home and has had to shrug off social media anger from Russia for her comments. “I wasn’t really speaking out about Russia. She just happened to be Russian.”
King’s gold medal in the 100 breast, and a subsequent gold in the 400 medley relay, helped install her as one of the faces of the Rio Olympics, themselves headlined by America’s swimming dominance.
In rolled the attention — fan mail, requests for autographs and appearances.
The Evansville Otters, a Frontier League team in her hometown, had King throw out the first pitch at a game over the weekend. A cousin King had never met sent her a present: a belt he had received in Afghanistan, with the old Soviet hammer and sickle on the buckle. Afghans, her cousin explained, wore the belt upside down — a symbol of beating the Russians.
“Whatever the new normal is, I think she’s just trying to get used to that,” says her father, Mark. “I know she was eager to get back to Bloomington.”
Everything since Rio, including moving into the Bloomington apartment she shares with three friends, has happened quickly. King was originally scheduled to stay through the closing ceremonies in Rio but rebooked her flight once her fellow swimmers headed home.
She arrived just before classes started. Her first workout in the CBAC pool since leaving for Olympic training camp was Friday.
“What we’re trying to do is re-establish their routine,” says Ray Looze, King’s coach at IU. “We’re trying to just get back into normal life, while things aren’t really normal.”
A new normal in Evansville
Nowhere has “normal” changed so much as in Evansville. The city embraced King during the Olympics, bursting with pride over her success.
When she went home last weekend, she intended to keep the visit as low-key as possible. She brought laundry and three suitcases packed with Olympic gear, and she told just one friend she was coming back to visit, though she eventually caught up with several.
When her parents took her to dinner, King opted for a middle school T-shirt. Maybe it would keep her under the radar.
The disguise lasted until their server arrived.
“The server immediately recognized her,” Mark King says. “It didn’t become a rush or anything, but we had some people come up and congratulate her.”
When her family planned that trip to Target, they intentionally went early in the morning, wanting to avoid a swarm. At the Otters game, people stopped her for photos. She spent an hour signing autographs. People asked for pictures with their babies.
The new normal.
And one that has presented new complications. An Olympic gold medalist will grab headlines. She’ll draw attention wherever she goes. A fan might want to pay for her meal, which would put her afoul of NCAA rules. And in the smartphone era, life is less private than ever for famous athletes.
As soon as she won gold, IU’s athletic department kicked into motion. Media relations, compliance, marketing and Looze himself gathered for a meeting before King even left Rio, figuring out how to help her and her family handle the newfound fame.
“We all met and discussed the message we needed to convey to Lilly and her family, one being that her life is now different,” says Jeremy Gray, associate athletic director for strategic communications and fan experience.
The Otters game threw up an immediate road block: The team wanted her to sign autographs, but IU wasn’t sure of the NCAA implications.
They checked. She was OK, as long as fans brought their own items; the Otters couldn’t provide merchandise. Sign away.
“She, I think, has been asking the right questions of the right people, about everything she’s attempting to do,” Gray says. “She seems to be genuinely unaffected by her new fame and success. She’s just happy to go back to class and get back to the pool and train.”
Back to school
Campus isn’t quite so intense.
King still gets stopped for photos — “it’s mostly the athletes recognizing me” — and there are still reminders.
Considering a career in teaching or coaching or both once swimming is done, King is a physical education major. She spends Monday morning in K-214, Basic Methods of Teaching Physical Education. Her professor asks students: “How do life experiences affect your teaching style?”
Is there a straightforward answer to that question, when you’ve done what King has done?
Still, things are altogether more laid-back here. The most noteworthy moment from an afternoon trip to Marsh is that the cashier double-bagged all of her groceries.
“Really, it hasn’t been too bad,” she says, “but it’s definitely a little bit different.”
In the pool, the past 12 months have been a steady stream of successes: Big Ten titles, NCAA championships, first in the 100 and 200 breaststroke at Olympic Trials, gold in Rio.
Now, King must face the sometimes difficult reality that awaits even athletes who have achieved at the highest possible level — a brand-new season.
“I’m looking toward the college season, which I think is good,” King says, “just being able to come back with the team.”
She has an eye on Tokyo in 2020, obviously, and would love to swim through 2024, if possible. But she and Looze have talked more about new goals for this season, about improving in the 200 breaststroke, about trying to set new standards for swimmers in her event.
“I think she wants to get back into a routine,” Mark King says. “The pool is her home. That’s where she finds her comfort.”
Back in the pool
King is back there Monday afternoon, swimming under the massive, looming gaze of IU legends who came before her. Mark Spitz, Cynthia Potter, Jim Montgomery, Mark Lenzi — all of their photographs are plastered on the south wall of the facility. King probably will join them one day.
Looze is out recruiting, but associate head coach Mike Westphal is running swimmers through conditioning drills.
It’s still early in the year. Competition won’t start until around Halloween, and like her teammates, King still needs to get back in shape. Until Friday, she hadn’t been in a pool since the gold-medal medley relay.
Against the loud hum of the water, as dozens of pairs of feet slap it in time, she sinks back into her comfort zone. She chats with Kennedy Goss, an Olympic medalist with Canada, and jokes that she thinks she “forgot how to swim.”
She’s not the only one struggling. One teammate stops mid-workout, heaving. It’s just that time of year.
“Even a week off, and you do kind of forget how to swim, because you get out of shape so fast,” she says. “It was OK today. It’ll get better throughout the week. .
“Practice has always been that thing I’ve always come back to, and it’s always been the same. That hasn’t been that weird.”
Clad in a Team USA swimsuit and an IU cap, she takes direction from Westphal — this many laps at breaststroke, this many dolphin kicks and so on. Back and forth. Back in the pool. Back where life is as normal as it’s ever been.
Hand on the wall, she sinks into the water and rockets away.
Source: The Indianapolis Star, http://indy.st/2bGxUE4
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
This is an Indiana Exchange story shared by The Indianapolis Star.