After winning gold in the 100m breaststroke and giving Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova the Dikembe Mutombo-style finger wag amid her doping scandal, Lilly King took the world by storm. But her father, Mark King, believes she’s just a normal college girl living an abnormal life.
“It’s just hard to imagine that a kid that lives in your house who never cleans her room [and] can’t fix her car is a gold medalist,” said King. “It’s just bizarre; I can’t describe it any other way.”
We hear about the stresses that Olympic athletes experience everyday, but it can be just as stressful for the parents watching from the grandstands. King says he tries to shut off the outside world when watching his daughter race against the competition.
“Usually when the meets start we shut our phones off because we just want to be in the moment,” said King. “We try not to worry about Facebook and Twitter because it kind of consumes people at this point.”
King is from Evansville, Indiana, and attends college at Indiana University, where she will be a sophomore this August.
From yard signs to people donating money at the local bars, her father has said their hometown has been outstanding in its support for the family.
“Evansville has gone crazy. They have just embraced my daughter,” said King. “They did a lot of fundraising to help make it affordable for us to come here. We’re extremely grateful for those people.”
Lilly has been swimming since she was 7, but her father said she wasn’t necessarily a born natural.
“If you run into someone who says, ‘When I was 8, I was kicking Lilly King’s butt,’ they’re probably telling you the truth,” said King.
While she struggled at an early age, she discovered the breaststroke when she turned 10 and quickly realized it was her specialty.
“There’s always a running joke about all the breaststroke swimmers, that they’re like the weird kids on the swim team,” said King. “She uses that to fire her up a little bit.”
Lilly played several sports in high school, including cross country, track and volleyball, but her father knew once she set a national record in the 100m breaststroke at age 16, there was something special there.
“We just kind of left her open to whatever she wanted to do, and we knew eventually she’d find her way back to swimming,” said King. “She would rather be in the water than anywhere else at any given point in the day.”
Her father was a track athlete at Indiana State University, and her mother, Ginny, was a swimmer for Eastern Kentucky University and Illinois State University. For them, to see their daughter compete alongside Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps for Team USA is a surreal experience.
“You think, ‘My God, my kid just won a gold medal — I can’t believe it!’” said King.
Mike Chapman, who has been Lilly’s coach since she was 11, says the confident collegiate swimmer you see today is the same one who was running the rec-league lanes in Evansville.
Chapman recalls a story from when King won her first championship at age 12.
“We showed up there and she qualified fifth, and she kept saying, ‘I’m gonna win; I’m gonna win,’ and I was just like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” said Chapman. “But she won. She told us all the way she was going to do it, and she did it.”
This competitive nature has always been a part of Lilly’s game, her father says. Whether it’s been high-school meets, club meets or collegiate meets, she’s always going for the gold.
“She just found her sport and stuck with it,” said King. “Whether it’s a practice relay or preliminary here at the Olympics, she just doesn’t like to lose.”
King became the first American to win the Women’s 100m breaststroke since Megan Quann in 2000 and also set an Olympic record with a time of 1:04:93, beating Leisel Jones’ record by 24 seconds.
While the finger wag may have brought a mix of negative and positive attention to his daughter, King says that the results have shown the good outweighs the bad.
“I don’t really think it affected her negatively at all,” said King. “I mean, she turned around Monday and won the whole thing.”
Prior to making Team USA, Lilly King had around 400 Twitter followers but now has jumped to nearly 24,000. While she’s been the constant focus of TV shows and sports broadcasts across the globe, to her father she’s still that same 19-year-old girl who doesn’t clean her messy room.
“She has to deal with the things that any college freshman who’s going into sophomore year goes through,” said King. “She’s just a real regular kid and a really fast breaststroker.”
Hendrix Magley is a Ball State University student and writer for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and facebook.com/bsuatthegames on Facebook.