Lilly King grounded by her students before resuming Russian rivalry
Lilly King amassed myriad titles in her four years in college: Olympic champion. World-record holder. Anti-doping advocate. The most recent is Miss King.
King, the world’s greatest and most outspoken breaststroker, spent the spring semester as a physical education teacher at Batchelor Middle School in Bloomington, Ind., near where she trains and studies as a PE major at Indiana University. King’s mom, Ginny, has taught for nearly 30 years after also swimming in college.
“I was pretty much completely in charge of a class, developed their lessons and tests and did their grades,” said King, who spent half-days at Batchelor for four periods in between her morning and afternoon swim practices. “Just like any other teacher would.”
It took two or three weeks for many of the early teens to learn that Miss King was not just another teacher.
“A lot of her kids were probably too young to remember the 2016 Olympics,” said fellow faculty member Sarah Dilts, who has seen King either teaching or observing at Batchelor since King was an Indiana freshman in 2015-16. “Then they realized on Instagram and Twitter that she was verified. They thought it was the coolest thing ever she had a blue check on Instagram.”
King competes an hour north of Batchelor at the FINA Champions Swim Series in Indianapolis on Friday on NBCSN and Saturday on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. Coverage airs 7-9 ET each night. NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app stream coverage for subscribers.
It will be King’s first head to head with Russian rival Yuliya Efimova since the 2017 World Championships and their first time in the same pool in the U.S.
“That’s what I’m preparing for,” King said, noting a unique meet format with just four swimmers per event. “Looking forward to it if she is there.”
The teaching -- including units on pickleball and soccer, as well as some sharbade -- is proof of King’s assertion that she is multi-faceted.
King’s supervisor at the IU School of Public Health contacted Dilts last fall for potential placement. Dilts swam for the Hoosiers in the early 2000s and could understand the demands of a student-athlete taking on teaching.
“On and off I’d stop in and see what she was doing with the kids,” Batchelor principal Eric Gilpin said. “If you didn’t know the name, you probably wouldn’t know she was an Olympic athlete because of the way she handled herself.”
Dilts and Gilpin noted in separate interviews that King attended one of the middle school’s swim meets, which was not a requirement. She developed daily lesson plans, even for the weeks she was out of town for the Big Ten and NCAA Championships when other teachers implemented them.
“It may be a few years before she decides to teach [full-time],” Dilts said, “but I think any school would be lucky to have her.”
First, King embarks on a professional swimming career after exhausting her NCAA eligibility this past season. She plans to have a swimwear sponsor before the U.S. team departs for July’s world championships in South Korea.
She followed that finger-wagging, breakthrough Olympic 100m breast title by sweeping the 50m and 100m breast at 2017 Worlds, breaking the world record in each event (the 50m breast is not on the Olympic program). King relegated Efimova to bronze in the 100m and silver in the 50m, but the bitter rivals in Rio embraced in Budapest and appeared to share a joke. Efimova won her trademark event, the 200m breast, with King coming in a respectable fourth in her toughest distance.
“Honestly, at the end of an eight-day meet, we’re all so exhausted we don’t really know what we feel about each other at that point,” King said Wednesday. “It’s kind of difficult being really mean and nasty to someone all the time. We have good races, and we have a good rivalry. I guess there’s no point being nasty if I win.”
King must have felt satisfaction two weeks ago, when she swam the fastest times in the world this year in the 50m and 100m breasts, supplanting Efimova at the top of both rankings. Efimova has the fastest 200m time in the world of swimmers who could race it at worlds. American Annie Lazor, who didn’t make the world team, has the top time by 1.75 seconds.
King hasn’t lost sight of the 200m, even though the 100m is her bread and butter. She remembered coming back to Bloomington in 2016, and while tearfully struggling with the new, overwhelming attention, setting new goals.
“I want to win all the gold medals I can, and I want to set all the world records I can,” she said. King has every Olympic and world championship gold medal and world record available in the 50m and 100m, but none in the 200m. “Pretty simple. Swim the best. Be the best.”
After worlds, King will return to Bloomington and a new challenge: even younger pupils in the fall to fulfill graduation requirements.
“Which is terrifying because elementary school students kind of scare me,” King said. “Kids, you never know what’s going to happen. I always know what’s going to happen with my races.”
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