How double cheeseburgers and heated rivalries fueled Lilly King to become the fastest breaststroker in the world

American Olympic gold medalist Lilly King loves McDonald’s. King says her go-to meal at Mickey D’s is the double cheeseburger.

“It started when I was little,” King, 20, told Excelle Sports. “We ate McDonald’s all the time. But then I got to college and realized that normal people don’t do that.”

Along with her passion for the Golden Arches, King describes her swimming prowess as odd too. King is a breaststroker, which she acknowledges is the black sheep of the four strokes.

“Breaststroke is weird,” King said. “We’re the quirky stroke.”

While breaststroke might be the odd one of the group, King has made it her speciality at every level of swimming. From her first state championship victory at age 12 to setting a world record at this summer’s World Championships in Budapest, King has become the fastest breaststroker in the world. If she wasn’t a breaststroker, King says she would love to swim the 50-meter freestyle.

King’s mom was a collegiate swimmer, so her interest in the sport came from a natural spot. Born and raised in Evansville, Indiana, King swam for both her high school and for a club team. She burst onto the national scene at age 16 when she won her first junior national title in the 100-yard breaststroke. Her time was a new national age group record.

The following year, King earned her first call up to the national team. In her first meet for Team USA, King won gold and set a meet record in the 100-meter breaststroke at the 2014 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

King decided to continue swimming at the collegiate level at nearby Indiana University, and she wasted no time making her presence felt. At the NCAA Championships her freshman year, King took first and set American records in both the 100 and 200-yard breaststroke. She was also named Big Ten Swimmer of the Year and earned All-American honors. King’s next stop would be Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Olympics.

At the Olympics, King’s dominance in the breaststroke continued, as she captured her first gold medal and set an Olympic record time in the 100-meter breaststroke. She also captured gold as a member of the 400-meter medley relay.

According to King, the size difference between short course meets at the collegiate level and long course meets at the Olympic level are significant to her racing strategy.

“It’s very different how I approach the race,” King said. “You don’t have as many turns, walls, or pull outs in the race. It definitely impacts how I’m thinking about the race. But I try to remember that a meet is a meet.”

But what King became arguably most famous for after last summer’s games in Rio was the emergence of her breaststroke rivalry with Russia’s Yuliya Efimova, who King publicly expressed her disdain for due to Efimova’s doping ban. After exchanging a few finger wags over who was the best in the world, King came out on top over the former world champion in the 100-meter breaststroke.

“I’ve always had a rivalry with somebody,” King said. “I swim my best with a lot of pressure. I think Efimova brings the best out of me in the pool.”

After her successful Olympic debut, King repeated as NCAA champion in the 100 and 200-yard breaststroke during her sophomore season. King set a new meet record in the 100 and broke her own American record in the 200.

Heading into World Championships this summer in Budapest, King had yet to do one thing: set a world record. Not surprisingly, King set a new world record and captured gold once again in the 100-meter breaststroke, beating out her nemesis Efimova for a second straight year. King also took gold and set a world record in the 50-meter breaststroke.

[More from Excelle Sports: Lilly King sets world record in 100m breaststroke at FINA World Championships]

King admits that every new record she sets is a special moment.

“It’s pretty cool,” King said. “Every time I break a record, it’s a pretty awesome feeling.”

King also used ‘cool’ to describe her overall experience of swimming in the Olympics and World Championships.

“Walking into the arena puts a big smile on your face,” King said. “It’s a really cool feeling, but I try not to think too much once I get up to the block. I then just try to go as fast as I can and see what happens.”

Part of that Olympic and World Championship experience includes swimming with some of the best female swimmers in the world on Team USA. Highlighted by fellow Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel, King believes this young group of American female swimmers is changing the guard.

“I think the best has yet to come for us,” King said.

With three weeks off before her junior year begins at Indiana, King is enjoying having nothing to do for the first time in a while. But when she returns to Bloomington later this month, practices begin right away as the Hoosiers prepare for their meet schedule to commence in October.

However, King is not concerned or worried that her swimming fame will impact her life at college.

“I’ve definitely adjusted to it,” King said. “It really helps that my area of study is a small program and that all of my classmates already know me well.” A physical education major, King is interested in becoming a coach someday.

[More from Excelle Sports: Olympian Lilly King on her summer goals: ‘I want world records’]

When asked about what her pre-race meal is, King says that McDonald’s takes a back seat to some other foods.

“I’ll eat just about anything that the hotel has, but I prefer Mexican,” King said. “I’ll get some McDonald’s after the race.”

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