KRAVITZ: IU’s Lilly King talks big, wins gold and emerges as America’s Bad***

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RIO DE JANEIRO (WTHR) – Oh, how Lilly King wanted this. Oh, how Lilly King, the 19-year-old pride of Evansville and IU, wanted a piece of convicted Russian doper and 100 breaststroke rival Yulia Efimova. Like Sugar Ray wanted Duran the second time around. Like Hagler wanted Hearns and vice versa. This wasn’t just a swim competition; this was an aquatic prizefight with all the attendant pre-fight mugging and finger-wagging, Good versus Evil, Clean versus Dirty, with a little bit of old school Cold War mess thrown in.

Did you see King’s face in the ready room? That was the face of America’s Bad***. She stood behind Efimova and gave her a dead-eyed stare, looking right through the back of her head. Then she smiled the self-satisfied smile of a young woman who knew the result before it ever started. She loosened up, stared Efimova down again, than smiled some more, a wry smile, almost smug, finally emerging from that ready room with both hands held high in the air as the crowd cheered wildly.

Efimova, a convicted user of performance-enhancing drugs? She was booed. Booed loudly, viciously, lustily.

It was a Rocky movie in Speedos.

And then America’s Bad***, the first unlikely star of these Rio Games, blew Efimova and her competitors out of the water, bringing the gold back home to Bloomington and Evansville by swimming an Olympic record time of 1:04.93.

But as interesting as the race was, the post-race histrionics were just as compelling. After King looked up and saw that she had won, she slapped and splashed the water in Efimova’s general direction – “inadvertent,’’ she insisted later – then turned her back to Efimova, the second-place finisher, and embraced American teammate and bronze medalist Katie Meili.

Asked about her failure to congratulate Efimova after the race, King smiled and said, “I didn’t think she wanted to be congratulated by me at that point.’’ Later, King apologized at a press conference for failing to congratulate Efimova, but noted that if she was in Efimova’s position, she wouldn’t have wanted any part of her harshest critic’s congratulations.

All of it got weirder and tenser later in a midnight press conference. There was King, sticking by her guns. There was Efimova, choking back tears, wondering why she’d been singled out as the bad actor in all of this. And there was bronze medalist, Meili, looking on like she’d come upon some terrible accident.

If you thought King was back down, you’re nuts.

“I stand by what I said,’’ King said a few hours after the race. “…A lot of pressure, obviously, just going into your first Olympic final, any Olympic final for that matter, the pressure’s going to be on, but especially standing up for what I believe is right, I felt that I needed to perform better tonight than I have in the past.

“…It’s my first Olympic swim (final) and (for the) first one to be gold, I’m just really proud to represent the USA…knowing that I’m competing clean and doing what I know is right.’’

Question after question came, a few about the race, most about the Cold War between King and Efimova, and King continued to stand her ground.

“Again, I have to respect (the IOC’s) decision (to reinstate Efimova) even if it’s not something I necessarily agree with. Do I think people who have been caught for doping should (compete)? No, they shouldn’t…It’s something that needs to be set in stone that this is what we’re going to do to settle this and that should be the end of it. There shouldn’t be any bouncing back and forth.’’

For her part, Efimova spent most of the press conference choking back tears when asked questions about the harsh response she got and the talk of doping. In fairness to her, Efimova’s English is quite limited, so here’s the essence of what she said:

“I have once when I made mistakes and I have been banned for 16 months,’’ she said. “For the second time (for the substance meldonium), it’s not my mistakes. I don’t know if I need to explain (to) everybody or not.’’

Back home in Evansville, King’s Reitz High School coach Dave Baumeyer watched at the Westside BW3’s and cheered with family and friends. “A supremely confident young lady,’’ Baumeyer called King two nights earlier after the whole King-Efimova passion play began. Then Monday, before the race, Baumeyer wrote me again: “She hates to lose more than anybody I’ve ever coached.’’

King put herself on the line, calling out Efimova as the convicted drug user that she is, put all the pressure in the world on her broad shoulders, positioned herself as America’s clean-and-honorable swimmer versus the dirty Russian.

And then, to the surprise of no one who knows this latter-day Amy Van Dyken (look her up), King backed up her brash but honest words.

Remember what she told NBC the other night after a semifinal victory?

“You’re shaking your finger `No. 1’ and you’ve been caught for drug cheating,’’ King said of Efimova, who served a 16-month ban and was only reinstated to the Olympics shortly before the Games began. “I’m not a fan.’’

Later, talking to reporters, King was unrepentant. “That’s kind of my personality,’’ she said. “I’m not just this sweet little girl…If I do need to stir it up to put a little fire under my butt or anybody else’s, then that’s what I’m going to do. It’s unfortunate that that’s going on in the sport right now, but that was her decision and (boos) are what’s going to happen.’’

As for the IOC’s ultimate decision to allow Efimova in the Olympics? “It was the IOC’s decision and I’m going to respect that decision even though it’s not something that I agree with,’’ King said.

Forget this America’s Sweetheart nonsense.

This, as Baumeyer said, is one brash, confident young woman.

How confident? After winning the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Trials in Omaha earlier this summer, she gave away her medals to two little girls who happened to be standing behind a barricade, cheering her on.

“A medal is just a medal; I’m not materialistic,’’ King said during a recent IU Olympic media availability. “There are bigger medals to come. I’m not too worried about it.’’

How confident? Even before the U.S. Olympic Trials, King and her parents were making hotel reservations in Rio de Janeiro. “We weren’t too worried about it,’’ she said.

Here was King talking down in Bloomington last month.

“I don’t know, it’s just one of those things, I’ve always had a lot of confidence,’’ King was saying that day. “I think sometimes it freaks out my competitors, because I’m so calm and relaxed and having a good time. I’m extremely mentally prepared when I race.’’

While all of this is going down quite well back in the States, where King’s star has risen overnight and she’s come to represent all that’s clean and pure about sports, International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams has not been quite as sanguine.

“People should be free to compete in tranquility and not be addressed by others,’’ he said in a published report. “We would encourage people to respect their fellow competitors.’’

Sure.

Then don’t invite convicted dopers to your little muscle-fest, OK?

It’s not just King who talked a little junk about Efimova. A more pointed criticism came from Irish swimmer Fiona Doyle, who said, “Cheaters are cheaters. She (Efimova) has tested positive five times and she’s gotten away with it again. It’s like FINA (the international governing body for swimming) keep going back on their word and the IOC keeps going back on their word. And FINA caved in to (Vladimir) Putin, and that’s just not fair to the rest of the athletes who are clean. Who are you supposed to trust now? They have signs all over the (Athletes Village) saying we are a clean sport, and it’s not. And I just don’t think that’s fair.’’

This hasn’t all been pointed at Efimova. Earlier in the competition, Aussie Mack Horton ripped into convicted Chinese drug cheat Sun Yang, setting off something of an international incident between the two countries.

“We have been noticing what has been said in the past two days by Horton, who launched a malicious personal attack (on Sun),’’ Chinese team manager Xu Qi said in a published report. “We think his inappropriate words greatly hurt the feelings between the Chinese and Australian swimmers. It is proof of a lack of good manners and upbringing. We strongly demand an apology from this swimmer.’’

Horton wasn’t interested in any apology. Not in the least.

King was loving it.

“Total props to him (Horton) for speaking out first,’’ she said. “I admired that. He said what everyone was thinking, and I also said what everyone was thinking. I do think it was a victory for clean sport, just to show you can do it while competing clean your whole life.’’

King talked some trash – well, it was a combo platter of finger wagging and trash talking – and then backed it up like Ali in his prime. She’s America’s Bad***. And she’s a Hoosier, through and through.