KRAVITZ: No shrinking violet, IU’s Lilly King stands by her words and actions in Rio

Lilly King
Published:
Updated:
Bob Kravitz

BLOOMINGTON (WTHR) – If you thought that Lilly King, America’s Bad***, was going to back down or go underground after her eye-opening statements and performance in Rio, well, you don't know the first thing about the 19-year-old IU student and Evansville native. She may be slowly coming down from the cloud where she resided after her time in Rio, during which she became an international story for all the right reasons, but she's still ready and willing to stand up for drug-free sport.

"I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that I'm the poster child for clean sport now," King said recently. "If you're going to be the poster child for anything, I think that's a good thing. I guess I'm the poster child for playing it fair and not cheating, which is kind of sad that there even has to be something like that. But if people feel the need to come to me to get the final word on something doping related, I'm fine with that."

You go, girl.

King has returned to a somewhat normal existence – to the extent that's possible – since her return shortly before the Closing Ceremonies. She's been to her first class, Teaching Gymnastics and Stunts (she’s a PE major), and she's already surprised her friends by showing up unannounced to a Bloomington party. But she knows and everybody around her knows, life will never be quite the same. King isn't just an Olympian and owner of two gold medals. She's an Olympian with two gold medals who dominated the early days of the Olympics until Ryan Lochte and his boys decided to have some fun.

All it took was a short little post-preliminary-race interview with Michele Tafoya of NBC to propel King from a local swimmer with great Olympic promise into an international sporting icon – or an infamous one, if you happened to be Russian. She was inspired when Russian competitor Yulia Efimova wagged her finger in King's direction during an earlier preliminary, then waved back at Efimova in the ready room before their second race. Tafoya noticed this, and asked King what that was all about.

"You're shaking your finger 'No. 1' and you've been caught for drug cheating," King said. "I'm not a fan."

When talking with reporters a few minutes later, King didn't back down.

"That's kind of my personality," she said. "I'm not just this sweet little girl....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."

And all manner of madness broke loose.

Up in the stands, King's parents, Mark and Ginny King, were celebrating their daughter's race when suddenly, Mark's phone started binging, over and over and over again. Apparently, their daughter had said something. But what? He went onto social media and asked around, and found out what had happened: Lilly had called out the Russian as a cheater.

One day later, I spoke to Mark King outside the Olympic Park and he smiled.

"I was just surprised it took her that long to say anything," he said.

Maybe it's the blissful ignorance of youth, but King had no earthly clue she had shaken the Rio Games to their foundation, something that someone needed to do with several Russians competing after the country's doping program came to light.

"Yeah, I didn't really think I said anything that bad and I still don't think I said anything that bad," she said the other day. "Until I was getting on the bus [back to the Athletes Village] and it actually kind of exploded, I was actually being referred to as a savage; I think that was the term. Then I got back to the village, I was eating dinner and teammates were walking in and they were like, 'What did you do?' 'I don't know, I don't think I did anything.'

"...I had no intention of speaking out. They caught me quite candid in the ready room wagging my finger. That was just me being myself. Then I got out of my race and was asked again. Again, I didn't think I was saying anything horrible or speaking out."

Life, as you can imagine, is not quite the same. She came home to Evansville after the Games and did the media car-wash deal with several local stations. All throughout the city, there were artfully-made signs on businesses hailing King's accomplishments, notably the gold medals in the 100-meter breaststroke and the 4x100 medley relay. During a recent trip to a Target – Olympians shop at Target! – she said she was approached by four or five people she'd never met before and was hugged and congratulated.

"That was kind of odd," she said.

They know her in the United States, and Heaven knows they know her in Russia. She may be a sports hero in this country – for the most part, anyway – but several hundred, even several thousand Russians have shared their angry sentiments on Twitter and Instagram. A lot of them, she can’t read – "I don’t speak Russian," she said – but the ones in English, she understands those quite well.

She is as popular in Russia as I am in New England.

Now, King has a couple of new challenges: First, she's got to get motivated for those mundane college meets, which she acknowledged will be a bit of an issue. Second, she's got to navigate the Byzantine world of the NCAA rules, which deny athletes the opportunity to make money off their name and reputation, all in the archaic name of amateurism.

Think about it: How much cash could King be making now if she went pro, or if the NCAA allowed her to take advantage not only of her performance in Rio, but what she stood for in Rio? It would be substantial. Consider, Lochte got a new sponsor in Pine Brothers lozenges after his mishap in Rio. King can't have any sponsors. None.

Or think about Katie Ledecky, the swimmer who earned five gold medals and looks like the female Michael Phelps of the new age? She's heading to Stanford as a student-athlete. She is giving up – what? – millions in endorsements in order to get her education and remain eligible for college sports.

"I think over time, that’s going to change," said Indiana University Head Swim Coach Ray Looze, who was also with King in Rio as an assistant Olympic coach. "I do think that's going to happen over time. But we've got these rules now and we've got to follow them."

The rules being what they are, the IU administration has taken every step imaginable to work with the school's compliance office and with the NCAA to make sure King maintains her eligibility and doesn't run afoul of the NCAA's rules.

"Her career has changed forever," said Jeremy Gray of the IU Athletic Department. He has been deeply involved in guiding King's return to semi-normalcy. "We've had substantial Lilly King meetings since everybody got back on how to make her return to life as a student-athlete go as smoothly as possible."

One of those issues was to make King deeply aware that her actions away from the pool will be scrutinized much more closely. If you don't think that's going to be the case, just ask Michael Phelps, who was photographed using a bong.

"In the past, if she had done something outside of the pool that she wasn't supposed to do, she would get yelled at by her coach," Gray said. "Now, it's going to be on Deadspin."

Gray, Looze and the compliance folks have also had to figure out what she can and cannot do as she takes her victory lap.

"She's famous now, so she might go to a restaurant and someone might want to buy her dinner; well, that's a violation," Gray said. "Or some place might want to give her free T-shirts; she can't accept those. So she's got to be vigilant and well educated on her own. Then, special events, we have to go through compliance to figure out what's acceptable and what's not. She's throwing out the first pitch at the Evansville Otters game; there are several NCAA guidelines we have to follow. For example, the team can't put her image, name or likeness on the game tickets. She can't get any remuneration. There are several issues like that."

America's Bad*** is home now, going to classes, carrying around her medals in a plastic bag that she sometimes forgets to bring with her when she's asked to have them, and life, well, it will never be quite the same again.