OMAHA, Neb. – The Lilly King Show is headed to Tokyo.
No subject is off limits.
Drug cheats? Ban 'em from the pool.
The Aussies? They better be prepared to settle for a whole bunch of silvers.
In a sport where most athletes obediently stay in their lane, in and out of the pool, King is willing to speak her mind on pretty much any subject that comes her way.
For the American swimming star, this is nothing unusual. As long as she can remember, King has never been too concerned about rubbing others the wrong way.
“I was always just very myself, and just really genuinely didn't care what other people thought of me," King said with a smile.
“The people she's been around a lot, from her parents to her coaches, have never stifled her voice,” added coach Ray Looze. “Even when it wasn't the best voice or maybe the best opinion out there, I think we just let her be herself.”
As far back as middle school, the 24-year-old from Indiana recalled: “All the girls were getting on-brand clothes and shoes, right? And I would purposely get the off brand and my mom was like, ‘Oh, thank God.’"
At her first Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, King made it clear she didn't want to race anyone who had served a ban for doping — a stance that was aimed squarely at top rival Yulia Efimova.
King remains one of the most prominent faces in the clean-sport movement, but she stirred up another tempest at this year's U.S. Olympic trials by boldly predicting the American women could win every individual gold medal at the Tokyo Games.
Clearly, that didn't sit well with a stellar group of Australian female swimmers, who have broken one world record and posted dazzling times in several other events at their trials Down Under.
King scoffs at those who wish she would keep her mouth shut. She figures some good-natured trash talk can only stir up more interest in a staid, monotonous sport that fades from the spotlight in non-Olympic years.
“I feel like this has been blown up a little bit,” she said. “Pretty much all I said is that I believe in our team and that we have the possibility and the chance to win all the gold medals.
"They’re having a really fast trials and we’re having a really fast trials, so we’ll meet up in Tokyo and see what happens.”
With the retirement of Michael Phelps, the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, there's clearly the need for a charismatic figure to lead swimming into a new era in the United States.
Based on pure performance, Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel are likely to be the biggest U.S. stars in Tokyo. But neither seems all that interested in seizing the spotlight, a role that King is willing to fill.
“It's great being one of the leaders,” she said. “That's kind of a role I always wanted to be.”
She certainly leads by example, showing an envious knack for being at her best when the stakes are at their highest.
In Rio, King bluntly said Efimova should have not been allowed to swim at the Olympics after serving a 16-month doping ban and coming back with another positive test — particularly in light of the widespread cheating within the Russian sports program.
She even wagged a finger at Efimova in the ready room.
With all eyes on the brash American, she soundly defeated Efimova in the final of the 100-meter breaststroke, touching the wall more than a half-second ahead of the Russian star.
“The greater the stakes, the more the pressure, the happier she is,” Looze said. “If she gets to race somebody that's a threat, she gets super-excited and that's when you'll see the best come out of Lilly.”
Since her victory at Rio, King has basically been unbeatable in the 100 breast, adding two world championships to her medal haul.
She qualified for her second Olympics with a comfortable victory at the U.S. trials Tuesday night, sending her to Tokyo as the overwhelming favorite to repeat as the gold medalist and give the Americans a good shot at defending their title in the 400 medley relay.
King hopes to be more competitive in the 200 breast. She qualified for the event in Rio but failed to make it out of the semifinals.
While the shorter breaststroke event will always be her baby, King now feels much more capable of contending for a medal in the 200.
First up, she has to qualify at the trials. The event begins Thursday, with King going in as the No. 2 seed behind Annie Lazor.
“I was a child in Rio,” King said. “I'm feeling a much more confident and definitely have been focusing a lot more on the 200. I'm not saying my focus has shifted from the 100, but I'm feeling a lot more prepared and lot more confident going in this time around.”
At the news conference after her victory in the 100 breast, King shared the dais with the backstroke winner, 19-year-old Regan Smith.
Someone asked the Olympic rookie what she thought of Australia's Kaylee McKeown breaking her world record in the 100 back.
“I was honestly very happy for her. I mean, she’d been very close to it multiple times, and so it was cool to see her grab it,” Smith said. “We don’t know each other super well, but I always send her a congratulatory text.”
King mockingly scoffed at the gesture.
“Aren't you a nice kid?" she said, grinning.
Clearly, Smith's trash-talk game needs a lot of work.
Maybe she should tune in to The Lilly King Show.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and his work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
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